Authors: Ian McEwan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist


Ian Russell McEwan (muhk-YEW-uhn) was born on June 21, 1948, in the military town of Aldershot (southern England), to Rose Lillian Violet (Moore) McEwan and David McEwan. His mother was a war widow with two children; his father, later to become a major, had joined the army in face of the bleak employment situation in Glasgow. As a soldier’s son, Ian spent a significant part of his early childhood at military outposts in Singapore and Libya. In an interview with Ian Hamilton, he remembered life in Africa with “very open air, a great deal of running free, swimming, exploring the coast and the desert.” At the age of eleven, McEwan was sent to a state-owned British boarding school, Woolverstone Hall in Suffolk, where he stayed until 1966. Shy and quiet, he was a mediocre student unnoticed by teachers. In his late teens, however, he became competitive and developed a serious interest in English literature and the popular culture of the 1960’s.{$I[A]McEwan, Ian[MacEwan, Ian]}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;McEwan, Ian[MacEwan, Ian]}{$I[tim]1948;McEwan, Ian[MacEwan, Ian]}

On completing his secondary education, McEwan went to London, where he read voraciously and worked as a garbage collector for Camden Council. He went on to study French and English literature at the University of Sussex, and received his honors B.A. in 1970. The following year he earned an M.A. in creative writing at the celebrated University of East Anglia, where he studied under novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson.

In 1972 McEwan’s short story “Homemade” was published in New American Review. Following his publication debut, the young author joined a somewhat disappointing hippie-trail trip to Afghanistan. Back in England, he spent time writing notes and teaching English as a second language. After successfully selling his short story “Disguises” to New American Review, McEwan was inspired to further work: “I wrote ‘Last Day of Summer’ and ‘Butterflies’ and ‘Solid Geometry’ on a wave of confidence,” he told Ian Hamilton.

McEwan settled in London in 1974. Two years later, he published his first collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites, which received the Somerset Maugham Award. The collection, based on his M.A. thesis, explores the themes of childhood and adolescence, focusing on the intimate workings of the protagonists’ minds. The year 1976 also marked McEwan’s television debut, with the airing of the play Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration on BBC-TV. McEwan’s second short-story collection, In Between the Sheets, was published in 1978. As in the case of First Love, Last Rites, critical response to the volume concentrated on the violently sexual content of the stories, neglecting the formal experimentation that had been the author’s primary concern. Thus, McEwan became labeled as the author of the morbid and the perverse, a classification that was to follow him throughout most of his career.

McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden, continued the mode of his short stories with its closely observed psychology, its fascination with childhood, and its macabre gothic mood. Following the success of The Cement Garden, the BBC accepted McEwan’s play Solid Geometry (adapted from his short story) but then rejected it shortly before the scheduled airing time, citing its “grotesque and bizarre sexual elements.” The following year, however, the BBC broadcasted McEwan’s successful drama The Imitation Game. A story of a young woman trying to find her way in the male world of World War II counterintelligence, The Imitation Game was a departure from McEwan’s earlier themes, a fact emphasized by critics who saw in the socially conscious play a turning point in McEwan’s literary career.

In 1981 McEwan’s second novel, The Comfort of Strangers, was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Inspired in part by McEwan’s 1978 summer trip to Venice with Penny Allen, and in part by the author’s enduring interest in the workings of the subconscious, the novel examines the power of sadomasochistic impulses in a Mediterranean setting. Because it suggests that individuals might desire humiliation and pain, the book angered many feminist readers who had previously praised McEwan for the more socially oriented Imitation Game. The Comfort of Strangers was adapted by Harold Pinter for a feature film, directed by Paul Schrader.

In 1982 McEwan married Penelope Ruth Allen, faith healer and meditation tutor. The couple had two sons, William, born in 1983, and Gregory, born in 1986. The year of William’s birth was a time of intense artistic development for McEwan. In February, the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus performed his oratory Or Shall We Die?, set to the music of Michael Berkeley. The London performance at Royal Festival Hall was followed by a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1985. Or Shall We Die? deals with the specter of nuclear apocalypse, opposing the “manly” values of domination and aggression with the “womanly” desire for peace. Continuing his campaign against nuclear arms, McEwan went to the Soviet Union in 1987, as a delegate of the European Nuclear Disarmament (END). The year of the Or Shall We Die? premiere also brought the success of Ploughman’s Lunch, a Richard Eyere film based on McEwan’s screenplay. The film, a picture of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Britain during the Falkland Islands crisis, received the Evening Standard awards for best screenplay, best film, and best director. To top off the personal and professional successes of 1983, McEwan was named as one of the twenty Best Young Novelists by Granta, alongside Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes. In recognition of his achievements, McEwan received the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984.

McEwan’s next endeavor was a book for children, Rose Blanche, rewritten from a translation by Roberto Innocenti, author of the Italian original. A children’s book coming from the author of Cement Garden was greeted with wariness, but the volume proved perfectly appropriate for its young audience. McEwan followed Rose Blanche with his third novel, The Child in Time, which won the Whitbread Prize for fiction. Set futuristically in the mid-1990’s, the work combines McEwan’s interest in the human mind with broader social concerns. In 1988 McEwan turned once more to screenplay writing, adapting Timothy Mo’s novel Sour Sweet (1982) for a feature directed by Mike Newell. The following year, McEwan was awarded a honorary doctorate from the University of Sussex.

In 1989 McEwan went to Berlin to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall. German themes appear in his two following novels: a spy thriller, The Innocent, and Black Dogs. The latter work was short-listed for the 1992 Booker Prize. Following the Booker nomination (second in his career), McEwan saw the American feature screening debut of The Good Son, based on his (Hollywood-edited) screenplay. Before returning to adult fiction, McEwan wrote his second book for children, The Daydreamer.

In 1994 McEwan divorced Allen, following a year-long separation. In 1997 he married journalist Annalena McAfee, after which he chose to settle in Oxford, while his wife chose to live in London. McEwan’s sixth novel, Enduring Love, was published in 1997, followed by the playful, Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam in 1998. Following the prestigious Booker Prize, McEwan received the Shakespeare Prize and was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). In 2001 McEwan made the Booker shortlist once more with Atonement, whose historical and emotional scope caused critics to proclaim it his most ambitious work.

Ian McEwan is one of the most important authors to emerge from the “plate-glass university” generation that made its literary debut in the 1970’s. Like his peers, he shows an acute awareness of the dark side of contemporary life, combining it with a close examination of the mind, rendered in a sparse, lucid style. He is a writer unafraid of change and experimentation whose works are awaited and greeted with excitement.

BibliographyBroughton, Lynda, “Portrait of the Subject as a Young Man: The Construction of Masculinity Ironized in ‘Male’ Fiction.” Subjectivity and Literature from the Romantics to the Present Day. New York: Pinter, 1991. After a general discussion of “feminist critical practice,” Broughton presents an intellectually powerful and provocative discussion of the male narrator in “Homemade” as an exemplar of contemporary masculine concerns.Byrnes, Christina. “Ian McEwan: Pornographer or Prophet?” Contemporary Review 266, no. 1553 (June, 1995): 320-323. Succinct appraisal of McEwan’s work up to The Daydreamer, with particular emphasis on countering the stereotype of the author’s immorality.Cochran, Angus R. B. “Ian McEwan.” In British Writers: Supplement IV, edited by George Stade. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1996. Brief summary of the writer’s life followed by a discussion of his works up to The Daydreamer. Noted scholar Cochran emphasizes the recurring themes in McEwan’s work and places the author in the broader context of British and European twentieth century fiction. Discussion enhanced by quotations from interviews and nonfictional writings by McEwan.Hanson, Claire. Short Stories and Short Fictions, 1880-1980. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Examines several of McEwan’s short stories in terms of their explorations of the creative process, especially McEwan’s innovative uses of form and structure.Ricks, Christopher. “Adolesence and After: An Interview with Ian McEwan,” Listener (April 12, 1979): 527. A characteristically candid and revealing conversation, with McEwan touching on many important aspects of his short fiction.Ryan, Kiernan. Ian McEwan. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1994. Discussion of McEwan’s works up to Black Dogs. Ryan counters the stereotypical portrayal of McEwan’s evolution from the introspective master of the perverse to the socially responsible male feminist, emphasizing instead McEwan’s consistent preoccupation with unsettling certainties.Slay, Jack. Ian McEwan. New York: Twayne, 1996. An excellent overview of McEwan’s writing life, with detailed, incisive discussions of the short fiction.Vannatta, Dennis. The English Short Story, 1945-1980: A Critical History. New York: Twayne, 1985. Identifies and explains the aesthetic strategies underlying McEwan’s use of unconventional situations, which Vannatta claims are ultimately connected to concerns that are “determinedly traditional, unrelentingly moral,” focusing on “Homemade,” “Butterflies,” “Disguises,” “Dead as They Come,” and “In Between the Sheets.”
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