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Ian McEwan in Jerusalem February 23, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Literature.
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Ian McEwan attended the Jerusalem International Book Fair this week, where he accepted the Jerusalem Prize for “Freedom of the Individual in Society.” (Previous recipients include Bertrand Russell, Jorge Luis Borges, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller…) I attended a public talk between McEwan and Israeli writer Meir Shalev.

While discussing how they came to be writers by first being readers, Shalev recalled being given David Copperfield by his father around the age of twelve, but being unable to get past the part where young David is beaten by his stepfather. McEwan then told of reading Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Benjamin Bunny to his young son. When they reached the part where Benjamin’s father beats him with a switch (for going back into Mr. McGregor’s garden with his cousin Peter Rabbit), McEwan’s son was shocked, saying: “How could he hit him? He’s his father!” McEwan admitted that this reaction caused him to blush with pride.

The subject of human morality and cooperation kept reappearing throughout the talk. McEwan said that the work of Isaiah Berlin (another recipient of the Jerusalem Prize) taught him to be wary of utopian thinking: those who believe they will bring about the perfect human society often think that 20 million deaths along the way is a small price to pay. (Omelets and eggs, as they say.) In his writing, McEwan often examines the moral dilemmas, large and small, that are thrust upon us. In Enduring Love, inspired by a true incident, several strangers find themselves holding on to a runaway hot air balloon with a child inside. If they all stand fast, they can keep it down; but if some let go, the balloon will get away — and you don’t want to be the last one still hanging on. McEwan observed that being moral is easy when everyone is doing it; but when others behave immorally, looking out for yourself begins to seem more and more rational.

There is a strong undercurrent of chance in McEwan’s writing as well. Shalev asked him if he sees religion or God playing a part in human stories. “I have no God,” said McEwan. “But maybe God has you?” suggested Shalev. “Only the God I invented,” replied McEwan: “God is man-made.” In Atonement, Briony must come to terms with the fact that there is no one greater than herself who can forgive her for the injury she caused.

McEwan sees the novel as an inherently secular medium, where “coincidence or human machinations, not God, order destinies.” We are all, to a great degree, products of randomness: we would not even exist if our parents had not happened to meet. McEwan recalled that whenever he drives by a car accident, he recognizes that if he would have left home a mere 90 seconds earlier, he might have been involved in the disaster himself; and yet, he doesn’t think the world is all about him — that someone meant for him to be saved while others died. It’s just chance.

Both writers acknowledged how ideas come to them in random times and places, which is why they always carry a notebook and pen. Shalev recounted how a pickpocket in Italy once stole a notebook containing ideas for the novel he was working on (while leaving his wallet). Shalev was devastated. Then he thought: What would an Italian pickpocket do with a notebook full of Hebrew? He’ll surely throw it away. After wandering the streets for half a day, Shalev finally found his ideas in a garbage bin. At first he was insulted, but then he felt a surge of happiness and relief — like finding a lost child.

McEwan then told the story of how, when jet-lagged in a foreign country, he once left his notebook beside his cup of coffee on a restaurant table while he went to the bathroom. When he returned, only the coffee remained. He was convinced that the notebook had been full of great writing that he would never be able to reconstruct. Eighteen months later, the notebook was shoved through his letter box inside a plain brown envelope. McEwan flung the door open, but there was no one in the street. He opened his long lost notebook and reread what he had written — only to discover that it was full of banalities.