December 2022 – January 2023


Ian McEwan’s ‘Lessons’

By Helen Elliott
Cover of ‘Lessons’
The English master novelist’s latest describes a boy’s sexual awakening with his piano teacher, and its lasting impact on his life

Can an 11 year old fall in love? Yes. It’s a normal, sunny, delightful thing to do. Normal, sunny, delightful will be how they look back on it, with laughter and pleasure across their lives. Roland, the narrator of Ian McEwan’s Lessons (Penguin) is 11 and taking private lessons from a 23-year-old piano teacher at his boarding school. “Round-faced, erect, perfumed, strict,” she sits close to him on the narrow stool. “Her perfume overwhelmed his senses and deafened him.” Her arm is “firm and warm” against his shoulder. Roland’s mother is far away in Tripoli. In 1959, lonely little boys are not supposed to cry.

Miss Cornell, the teacher, is Everything: fantasy but real, strict but warm, impersonal but intimate. So intimate that when he makes a mistake at the keys she puts her hand – the hand with the painted nails – at the hem of his shorts and pinches him on the inner thigh. They go on with the lesson. Nothing is said and Roland starts to doubt his memory of the incident, despite the tiny blue bruise that appears. But he accepts it: “What happened, whatever it was, must be his fault and disobedience was against his nature.” By the time Roland is 14, he and Miss Cornell are having sex at her house in the village.

Forty years later, Roland, considering bringing charges against her, tracks her down in London. She says: “You would never find anyone who understood you so deeply or who would care for you more devotedly. Neither of us would ever find greater sexual fulfillment.” Her words exhaust him. There is truth in them but there is the other truth: their encounter was corrupt. And who knows what damage was done to him as a child? While he was destined to become a great concert pianist, Roland never finished school. Her fault? Forty years on, he remembers she had given him joy. It crosses his mind that to blame her for the projection of his life might mean that he is “the stooge of current orthodoxies”.

Roland is absolutely the centre of Lessons, which McEwan describes as “a whole-life novel”. The story takes in forces acting within him but more so from without. Roland’s life is engineered by forces over which he has no control. In July 1956, President Nasser of Egypt nationalised the British-run Suez Canal. Roland’s family lives in Libya, where his father is an officer in the British army; anti-colonial feeling is running high, and the women and children are packed off to safer places. For six months, Roland has an idyllic time in England with his mother to himself. They return to an anxious, emotionally muffled life in Libya, with his father often away, before he is returned to England for boarding school in 1959. Soon, the Cuban Missile Crisis threatens nuclear war. Roland, afraid he will die before ever having sex, hops on his bike and visits Miss Cornell in her house. His obsession with her, with sex, means he fails his exams.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall falls and Roland is swept into other worlds. His first wife, a German-British woman called Alissa, is now the most eminent European writer. Single-minded, she had left Roland and their seven-month-old son, Lawrence, in a dingy London house to become exactly who she has become. Roland is now a piano player in a hotel; he reads, thinks, cleans the house, has affairs, remarries, but, above all, he is a father. The relationship between Roland and Lawrence is beautiful, and beautifully done, with McEwan at his wry, observant best. Roland, as British as possible, is the attractive, self-effacing figure in a family – the one usually called mother. Feminism’s gift to men has never looked sweeter.

This complex, generous novel reveals another McEwan, exactly reflected in the fractured elegance and concentration of the figure on the cover. I want to use the word tender. Lessons is a quiet joy to read because at its heart is an enquiry into how we might, one day, acquire self-perspective, and, with this, a fresh perspective on the lives of those we love or have loved, and those who love or have loved us.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

In This Issue

Still from ‘Tár’

Orchestral manoeuvres: ‘Tár’ and ‘White Noise’

Todd Field’s drama asks to what extent we can separate a work from its maker, while Noah Baumbach tackles DeLillo’s best-known novel

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The goddess of Moonee Ponds

In a temple in Melbourne, mystics, activists and feminists find common cause in goddess worship

Photograph of Oren Ambarchi

While my guitar gently bleeps: Oren Ambarchi’s ‘Shebang’

Another mesmerising album from the itinerant Australian, in collaboration with some of the biggest names in experimental music

Close-up of Uluru

Yukun’s return

The historic repatriation of the remains of an Aboriginal man murdered by a white policeman at Uluru in 1934

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality