Date of birth : 1948-06-21
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Aldershot, England
Nationality : British
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2011-09-20
Ian McEwan, winner of Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for Amsterdam in 1998, is a writer with a well-established and, at times, even somewhat infamous literary reputation before his novels began to gain a North American readership. For many years he was known primarily for a literary style that delivered horrifically visceral passages but remained compellingly eloquent throughout. In his middle age McEwan began toning down the explicit with horrors that were far more accessible: the loss of a child, the betrayal of a friend, the disintegration of a family. His 2001 novel, Atonement, spent seven months on the best-seller lists in Britain. "McEwan forces his readers to turn the pages with greater dread and anticipation than does perhaps any other 'literary' writer working in English today," declared Atlantic Monthly critic Claire Messud.
McEwan was born in 1948 and spent part of his youth in Singapore and North Africa, where his father was stationed as a British Army officer. He finished his education at a boarding school in England, and went on to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of Sussex in 1970. Enrolling at the University of East Anglia in its graduate literature program, McEwan was part of the university's first-ever creative writing class, led by young British writer Malcolm Bradbury. The course reading list was heavily skewed to the postwar American canon, with selections from Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Barth, and others, and McEwan began submitting short fiction pieces along with his coursework to Bradbury. The latter influenced the former, he reflected later in a Guardian article he penned in 2000. "The ambition, the social range, the expressive freedom of American writing made English fiction seem poky and grey," McEwan explained. "To find bold and violent colors became my imperative."
The first story McEwan wrote and handed in to Bradbury was "Conversation With a Cupboardman," a morbid tale about a man who lived in a closet. It was followed by several others of a macabre nature-rife with themes of incest, assault, and even necrophilia-that appeared in First Love, Last Rites, published in 1975. McEwan attributed a crisis of confidence in himself for stoking such unusual creative fires. "I had been invisible to myself in my teens," he told journalist Phil Daoust in an interview that appeared in London's Guardian newspaper some years later. "A lot of my terror of things was in those stories-my terror of not making full or rich emotional relationships."
Other short stories followed, which were collected into a second volume, In Between the Sheets, in 1978. Soon afterward, McEwan was commissioned to write a play for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and based it on a short story that appeared in his debut collection. But Solid Geometry was halted by the BBC mid-production, after executives deemed it "untransmittable" due to its subject matter: the plot concerned a man who keeps a sexual organ, purchased by an ancestor in 1875, pickled in a jar on his desk. The incident caused a minor stir in Britain, with many siding with McEwan, but others asserting that with Britain on the eve of electing its first-ever female prime minister, the story was beyond the realm of being politically insensitive and in just plain bad taste.
McEwan's first novel, The Cement Garden, was published in 1978, and served to further bolster his reputation as a literary maverick. The story concerned four orphaned siblings and was filled with some shocking scenes, including incest and the burial of their deceased mother inside a cement box in the house. In 1981, his second novel, The Comfort of Strangers appeared. Its plot concerned a couple vacationing in Venice who become involved with a mysterious expatriate, who leads them into a dangerous sadomasochistic game. Ten years later, the novel was adapted for film by the playwright Harold Pinter, with Paul Schrader directing a cast that included Rupert Everett, Christopher Walken, and Helen Mirren.
McEwan's fiction changed course in the mid-1980s when he became a parent. The violence in his work began to subside, and the protagonists became less openly deviant. In the The Child in Time, his 1987 novel, children's book author Stephen Lewis mourns the loss of his three-year-old daughter Kate, who simply disappeared one day in a grocery store and was never seen again. Time critic R. Z. Sheppard hailed it as "a death-defying story, inventive, eventful, and affirmative without being sentimental."
In his fourth novel, The Innocent, McEwan presents the unusual dilemma of English telephone technician Leonard Marnham, who is co-opted into a Cold War spy plot in 1955 Berlin involving a secret tunnel beneath the divided but not yet walled city. Leonard begins an affair with a German woman, but the plot turns truly sinister when they murder her husband. Leonard carves the victim up in what literary critics called a perfect example of McEwan's talent for writing famously gruesome passages. "He should not have been going through bone," the novel reads, as quoted in the Guardian. "His idea was to get between the joint. His idea of it was vague, derived from roast chicken Sunday lunches." The scene endures for some six pages, and Leonard then carries the cumbersome suitcases containing the parts around the city, looking for an appropriate place to leave them-a section "told with all McEwan's frigid skill," noted a Time review from Martha Duffy, who also compared him to author Evelyn Waugh for "sheer, mirthful heartlessness."
McEwan's 1992 novel, Black Dogs, took a more prosaic setting, with its protagonist simply attempting to write the memoir of his wife's aging, but still spirited parents. The title is drawn from the couple's 1946 walk in Provence, when the wife sees a terrifying apparition that comes to symbolize to her the darkest part of the human soul. "McEwan's meticulous prose, his shaping of his material to create suspense, and his adept use of specific settings produce a haunting fable," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor.
Around this same time, McEwan had his first experience with the Hollywood film industry. A short story he wrote, "The Good Child," was optioned for a film that eventually starred Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood. Wood plays a boy sent to live with relatives after his mother dies, and finds that his cousin Henry (Culkin) is a far more sinister force than he can handle by himself. The film was directed by Joseph Ruben, and Entertainment Weekly reviewer Ty Burr felt that both director and writer "tap into something we rarely admit about childhood: Where most kids learn to temper any innate sadism with ethics, some just don't." But McEwan was released from his contract by order of Culkin's famously influence-wielding father, and the experience soured him. He once described Hollywood screenwriting as "an opportunity to fly first-class, be treated like a celebrity, sit around the pool, and be betrayed," the Guardian profile by Daoust quoted him as saying.
McEwan's 1998 novel, Enduring Love, followed the travails of science writer Joe Rose who, on an idyllic picnic day with his beloved wife, spies a hot-air balloon in the sky that is failing; he and several others nearby grab its ropes, but then the wind kicks up again, with the rescuers left hanging-and so the "crew enacted morality's ancient, irresolvable dilemma: us, or me," the novel reads, and Rose and the others let go. A religious zealot is among the group, and then begins to stalk him. The coolly rational Rose diagnoses the man with a form of erotomania, named after a long-dead French psychiatrist, but the man's actions prove the undoing of Rose's ostensibly happy marriage. "McEwan does a superb job of making us believe what seems so unlikely, and that is the book's great power," noted Independent Sunday 's Jan Dalley.
Only with McEwan's next novel, Amsterdam, did his work begin to gain a wider appreciation outside of Britain. Published in the United States in 1998, the story involves two longtime friends who make a pact after the London funeral of their former lover, Molly. She died a painful death, and Vernon Halliday and Clive Linley vow to one another that should the same fate befall them, they would help one another get to the Netherlands, where physician-assisted suicide is legal. McEwan's premise behind the plot is the possibility that euthanasia might be misused, a story that gets underway when Halliday, the newspaper editor, plans to publish incriminating photos of a British politician they both know that were found among Molly's possessions; Linley, the composer, objects strenuously on moral grounds. The novel finally won McEwan the Booker Prize for contemporary fiction, given to the best work of the year by a writer from Britain or its Commonwealth nations. Two of his previous works had also made it onto the estimable Booker list of finalists: The Comfort of Strangers in 1981 and Black Dogs in 1992.
Atonement, McEwan's eighth novel, was also short-listed for the Booker in 2001, and hailed as a tour-de-force on both sides of the Atlantic. It took "the British novel into the twenty-first century," declared Geoff Dyer in the Guardian in 2001. The story begins on a summer day in 1935 at a Surrey country estate at which the members of the Tallis family have gathered. There is Leon, the eldest son and a young London banker, who arrives with his wealthy friend; Cecilia, the older Tallis daughter, comes from Cambridge University, as does Robbie, whose mother is the longtime housekeeper at the Tallis estate. There are also cousins Lola, 15 years old, and her homesick twin brothers. Robbie wrestles with his growing attraction to Cecilia. He writes a letter that concludes with a salacious line, but decides to rewrite it; he accidentally sends the first one via her 13-year-old sister Briony, who reads it, and then when Lola is assaulted later on that evening, claims that Robbie is the culprit. Lola colludes in the accusation, and Robbie is convicted and imprisoned.
The next section of the book shifts ahead five years later to World War II, with Robbie freed from jail but now serving in the military as the Battle of Dunkirk rages-passages which McEwan based on his own father's stories-and Briony a nurse in London. Atonement progresses with a series of fateful pairings and consequences, but in the final section some of this is revealed to be merely the fiction of Briony, who became an acclaimed writer but is haunted by her guilt over that 1935 incident. When she was a young nurse taking the bandages from her patients' battle-ravaged faces, she realized "that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended," the novel reads, according to Atlantic Monthly 's Messud.
Atonement earned overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews. Boyd Tonkin, writing in London's Independent, termed it "a magnificent novel, shaped and paced with awesome confidence and eloquence; as searching an account of error, shame, and reparation as any in modern fiction." New Yorker fiction critic John Updike reflected that McEwan's previous "novels have tended to be short, smart, and saturnine," and called Atonement "a beautiful and majestic fictional panorama."
McEwan has never failed to tout his first and only writing teacher as the source of his confidence as a writer. He recalled a magical incident in which he became separated from his publicity handlers in the heady Booker Prize announcement ceremony and round of press interviews, and found himself in a deserted hall that led to another corridor. "Coming towards me, from some distance away, were Malcolm and his wife, Elizabeth," McEwan wrote in the Guardian. "We approached each other as in dream, and I remember thinking, half seriously, that this was what it might be like to be dead. In the warmth of his embrace was concentrated all the generosity of this gifted teacher and writer."
First Love, Last Rites (short stories), Random House (New York City), 1975.
In Between the Sheets, and Other Stories, Simon & Schuster (New York City), 1978.
The Cement Garden (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York City), 1978.
The Comfort of Strangers (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York City), 1981.
The Ploughman's Lunch (screenplay), Methuen (London), 1985.
Rose Blanche (children's book), J. Cape (London), 1985.
The Child in Time (novel), Houghton (Boston), 1987.
The Innocent (novel), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1990.
Black Dogs (novel), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1992.
The Innocent (screenplay), Lakeheart/Miramax/Sievernich, 1993.
The Good Son (screenplay), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1993.
The Daydreamer (children's book), illustrated by Anthony Browne, HarperCollins (New York City), 1994.
The Short Stories, J. Cape (London), 1995.
Enduring Love (novel), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1998.
Amsterdam (novel), J. Cape, 1997, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1998.
Atonement (novel), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 2002.
Somerset Maugham Award for First Love, Last Rites, 1976; Evening Standard award for best screenplay for The Ploughman's Lunch, 1983; Whitbread Award for The Child in Time, 1987; Man Booker Prize for Amsterdam, 1998; W.H. Smith Literary Award for Atonement, 2002; National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for Atonement, 2003; Los Angeles Times Book Award for Atonement, 2003.
View the full website biography of Ian McEwan.