McEwan, Not Fleming

All Novels Are Spy Novels: Ian McEwan Talks ‘Sweet Tooth’ and His Life

Ian McEwan’s new novel, Sweet Tooth, is full of references to his own life and the Britain of his youth. Maya Jaggi talks spies, finding happiness, and his dark early work with the acclaimed novelist.

Joel Ryan / AP

In a London taxicab en route to this interview, Ian McEwan watched a cyclist fall headlong from his bike, and as many as 30 people converge on the dazed young man with east Asian features. In any early story by the British writer formerly dubbed “Ian McAbre” for his dark mastery of dread and suspense, this scene could have ended in apocalypse. As the novelist reflects now, “passing strangers might have seized what he had, driven by hunger. When there’s social breakdown, the strong become warlords and the weak go to the wall.”

Instead, many hands helped the youth to his feet in a moment that touched a witness still basking in London’s Olympic afterglow. “I felt a ballooning sense of love for this city—any city,” McEwan tells me over a latte in the Renaissance hotel at St. Pancras station, its neo-gothic architecture an echo of his virtuoso early fiction. “I want to live in a place where strangers rush to help someone in distress. For it to work, for them not to be cynical, there has to be freedom for individuals and a social contract.”

Freedom, and the sometimes dubious means used to safeguard it, are at the heart of his 15th book of fiction, Sweet Tooth. Serena Frome (“rhymes with Plume”) is an Anglican bishop’s daughter and Cambridge student recruited as a British intelligence agent in the early 1970s by her older lover, a history professor. Code-named Sweet Tooth, her operation backs intellectuals who lean to the “right” side ideologically in the cultural Cold War. Yet she falls for Tom Haley, the young writer she covertly funds, in a playful spy novel about passion, duplicity and fiction’s myriad disguises.

Like Atonement (2001), the masterpiece that sold 4 million copies and became a 2007 film, this is a historical novel of the kind McEwan alternates with contemporary issues. Saturdaiy (2005) unfolded during Iraq war protests in London, while Solar (2010) was a morbid satire on climate change. Harking back to a time when croissants and cappuccino were novelties in English cafes, and the Booker prize (won by McEwan’s Amsterdam in 1998) was “newfangled”, Sweet Tooth also traces the geography of the author’s own life. Its locations include the rural Suffolk of his schoolboy years; Brighton, seaside setting for his first love at the plate-glass Sussex University (where he devoured Kafka and Thomas Mann, Philip Roth and Updike); and Norwich, where he became the first creative writing graduate of the University of East Anglia.

In the Pillars of Hercules pub, and other literati haunts in London (to which McEwan moved in his 20s and had “the time of my life, a spring in my step”), he made lifelong friends among the up-and-coming generation of Martin Amis (seen here in cameo), Julian Barnes, and Christopher Hitchens—the novel’s dedicatee. While he is often ranked as the most consistently accomplished British novelist of that generation, Sweet Tooth takes a deadpan swipe at such judgements: a roomful of bureaucratic spooks sets about “ranking” William Golding, Kingsley Amis and David Storey—even supplying a “correct” answer.

In his most teasingly autobiographical novel to date, McEwan, aged 64, revisits his youth through Tom, who is, he confides, “not me, but not completely not me.” Although McEwan claims never to have been offered a stipend by a blonde siren, he recalls his pride at having an early story published in Encounter. The English poet Stephen Spender had quit as editor in 1967 when the magazine was scandalously revealed to have covert funding from the CIA. From 1949, McEwan says, “the CIA poured tens of millions of dollars into often very good culture,” from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to Rothko exhibits. He found it an irresistible paradox that “to defend the open society, and persuade left-of-centre European intellectuals that the West, not Soviet communism, was the cultural engine-house of civilization, you backed worthy culture, but to do it in secret poisoned the well. Most recipients of this cash had no idea where it came from—it was done through fronts, like the Congress for Cultural Freedom.” Beneficiaries of admittedly less lavish British schemes were “jolly annoyed” to learn their publishers had received Foreign Office cash. “The fatal error was to do it through intelligence services, and in secret.”

Sweet Tooth, then, is rotten at its root. The novel quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel speech: “Woe to the nation whose literature is disturbed by the intervention of power.” If you want to promote the value of a free society, McEwan says, “you have to do it freely and openly.” An admirer of an “anti-totalitarian left” embodied by George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, he rails against a Cold War “binary system: if you’re not for us, you’re against us. If you spoke against Stalin’s terror, for some on the left that made you a stoodge of the CIA. It was terribly demeaning intellectually.”

Such binds persist today. When, in support of Amis, McEwan decried Islamist extremism, he was tarred in some quarters as an Islamophobe, when his rationalist antagonism towards religion is less targeted and all-encompassing. He lives with a “strong moral sense that is not derived from iron-age texts, thank God—they’re quite bloodthirsty. All the joys and transcendence you want can be had from loving other people; from landscape, literature, music.”

Today’s soft power is less potent, he believes, than during the Cold War: “Largely because of the internet, opinion is much harder for government to fund or control.” Yet after 9/11, “the Blair government backed so-called Islamic community leaders, and blundered, giving money to people calling for Salman Rushdie’s head.” After the 1989 fatwa, Rushdie found sanctuary for a time at his friend’s Cotswolds cottage, and in September I found McEwan partying late at the London launch of Rushdie’s memoir.

If secrecy is self-defeating, disgracing those it touches, the novel penetrates its smoke-filled corridors. McEwan, who sought John Le Carre’s[e acute] advice, says, “institutions grow and have their own logic, wanting more money and control.” Britain’s internal security service, MI5, appears more Oxbridge snobbery and creaking filing cabinets than 007. Brilliant women fester in a typing pool yet to be touched by feminism’s second wave. While women were rising in other civil service branches, “MI5 resisted because of an unspoken assumption that women couldn’t keep a secret. They seemed not to have noticed that [the “Cambridge Five” double agents] Burgess, Philby, Maclean, Cairncross and Blunt were all men.” The character of Millie Trimingham is part homage to Stella Rimington, the first female head of MI5 in the 1990s, and a “heroine who helped change the culture.”

As the lovers splurge covert government funds on oysters and champagne, the novel charts a Britain of labour strikes, power cuts, and IRA pub bombings. Just as McEwan “loathed Maoists” at university, and was “furious” at friends who were still Communist party members, he was incensed by the Irish Northern Aid Committee (NorAid), the IRA’s US fundraising arm. “Not until 9/11 did Americans wake up to the fact that it wasn’t much fun to be bombed in the city,” he says. “Suddenly they woke up to what terrorism was.”

Tom’s stories draw heavily on McEwan’s second collection, In Between the Sheets (1978)—a way back, for the author, into the “reckless pessimism” of his younger self. The dystopian novella that appals MI5 bosses in Sweet Tooth is actually an abandoned novel of McEwan’s own, that was published in the story collection as Two Fragments: Saturday and Sunday, March 199-. Rereading it “brought me up short. I realised how entirely of its time it was, experimenting with calamity as a moral opportunity. In your 20s, you have far less at stake in the world. I had an almost romantic sense that if the whole system broke down, something brilliant would be born out of the turmoil. It’s hard for me to think my way back into that.”

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His new novel shares the McEwanesque sense of values decaying in a time of plenty, and life overshadowed by heroes. Born in 1948, an “army brat”, he felt World War II as a shadow. “My father and his friends talked of nothing else. I grew up in a period of unprecedented opportunity, yet we didn’t have the call to courage that my parents’ generation had.” Both his parents were of “humble, working-class origins.” His Scottish father, David, had risen through army ranks (his experience of Dunkirk, where he was wounded, informs Atonement) to regimental sergeant major, then major. “The British army is, and was, a microcosm of the class system. My father’s friends were officers who’d risen through the ranks, although they worked alongside Sandhurst officers. Our little world was separate—peculiarly déclassé.” Today McEwan’s accent at times seems to emulate Martin Amis’s—its vowels less an expression of class than sonorously thespian.

Family silences may have stirred his imagination. Though his parents were “both very loving to me,” his mother, Rose, “sensitive and beautiful, but not very articulate,” was dominated by his father, a “man who frightened both of us.” In a moving autobiographical essay in 2001, Mother Tongue, he wrote: “At home, there was violence in the air.” Rose’s first husband had died in the war, in 1944, and Ian’s elder half-sister and half-brother were sent to live elsewhere. After spells in Singapore and Libya, Ian too was sent away to a state boarding school in 1959, which offered a “kind of public school education in the Suffolk countryside.” As he sees it now, “I just went quiet. Something closed down in me, then came to life again with a passion when I was 16. Maybe something of the violence and nightmarish quality of the early short stories had to do with that. When a shy person decides to be assertive, they go over the top. Some wire snapped.”

In 2002, McEwan discovered he had an older brother, conceived by his parents during an affair before they were married, and given up for adoption as an infant in 1942. “It made the past seem all the more painful. My father would tolerate no mention of my mother’s first husband, and I guess my mother was never allowed to speak of the child she gave away.” At a recent reunion with his siblings (including his brother Dave, who is a bricklayer), they surmised that, “we were all sent away, one way or another, largely because my father wanted my mother to himself.” An anguished longing for a family that might have been underpins his masterly tragedy of a disastrous wedding night, On Chesil Beach (2007).

A mellowing in his later fiction (to the lament of some admirers) may owe something to personal happiness. He and his wife, the novelist and journalist Annalena McAfee, recently sold their house in London’s Fitzrovia (the model for that of the brain-surgeon protagonist in Saturday), to move to the Cotswolds while keeping a “tiny flat” in Bloomsbury. Their wedding in 1997 followed a turbulent divorce two years earlier, when McEwan won custody of his two sons: Will, 29, a molecular biologist 29; and Greg, 26, who is in public relations. The long, contented marriage in Saturday “shocked people more than any of my stories. I could get away with child murder, incest …” he smiles and shrugs. “But it’s very hard to do happiness because of the danger of being smug.”

Rather as Serena falls for the stories then the man, McAfee met McEwan when she interviewed him for the Financial Times. The novel plays with the ambiguous distance that must be gauged between author and work, and how fiction is “cooked” from a mercurial mix of experience and invention. For McEwan, “all novels are spy novels. The crucial elements are withholding, or partially leaking, information; and who’s in charge—who controls the narrative.”

Whereas Serena is a naive realist in her reading tastes, who wants bridegrooms not double agents, Tom is a postmodernist who infiltrates his own pages. Their creator relishes both: “her wanting the contemporary world realised for her on the page” and “his playful, self-referential trickery.” Sweet Tooth, he hopes, is the novel they would both love.