Ahead of the publication of his latest book this autumn, Ian McEwan offers his take on the role of virtue and fortune in literature.
His novels teem with questions of religion, ethics and fate, so there’s perhaps no author more apt to talk about ‘Virtue and Fortune in Literature’ than Ian McEwan. His talk at Leggendo Metropolitano literature festival touches on whether literature can be seen as a social good, how authorial destiny decides the drawing of characters, and the way random ideas become a fully realised work.
McEwan doesn’t see the writing of literature as ‘virtuous’ work and disputes whether art makes us better people. He cites the familiar example of those listening to Schubert’s compositions and then becoming accomplices of the Holocaust – how could a country as highly cultured as Germany allow such an atrocity to take place? Instead, he sees literature as a great instrument of investigation, striking up a curiosity about others and the life of the mind.
He recalls the reaction to his novel Saturday (2005), which follows a neuroscientist across an eventful day. People were surprised that McEwan knew so much about neuroscience, but he says that it’s actually “all illusion.” Describing himself as a “conjurer,” he sees his strength as a writer in his inquisitiveness and believes that curiosity, rather than knowledge, powers his work. Speaking to experts and doing a mass of reading allows him to give the impression of clever characters. For McEwan, “the moment you stop wondering about the world, you’re witnessing the mental death.”
He describes a “chip of ice that must be in the novelist’s heart” when authors are creating characters, and is a little worried by the disputed reports that Gustave Flaubert cried at the tragic death in Madame Bovary. McEwan’s novels usually begin with small details, like the gestures of a character, and as this is built on the characters have to surprise him. His characters don’t come fully formed or plotted.
The talk concludes with McEwan offering an opinion on the then upcoming EU referendum vote. Imploring that “we should be big,” he sees the answer to difficult issues like the refugee crisis “in something communal,” and is upset by the very idea that Britain might choose to leave the European project. He says, “For my country to turn its back on the EU is something of shame.”
Ian McEwan spoke at Leggendo Metropolitano on Sunday 5 June 2016