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Ian McEwan

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English Literature

Ian McEwan is a British author and playwright, famous for his award-winning novels, which have been nominated for six Booker prizes. Often deliberately provocative in his early career, he has matured into one of Britain's most critically acclaimed authors. Part of a literary circle that included Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens, McEwan is now a well-studied author despite controversies.

Ian McEwan: biography

Born in Aldershot, Hampshire on 21st June 1948, McEwan spent his early childhood in East Asia, Germany and North Africa. His father, David McEwan, was a Scotsman who worked his way up in the Army, retiring as a Major. Rose Lilian Violet McEwan, his mother, was married and had two children when she met David. They started an affair which then turned into a surprise pregnancy and then marriage. The child was given up for adoption and Rose McEwan no longer had much contact with the two children from her first marriage. McEwan only later discovered his brother, who had been given up for adoption.

When Ian McEwan was 12 and he was sent to Woolverstone Hall School in Suffolk. He described himself as:

“Quiet, pale, dreamy and average in class" 1

It was at the University of Sussex, where he studied English Literature, that he began to write creatively. Completing his degree in 1970, he enrolled for a Masters in English at the University of East Anglia.

While still a student he began publishing his work, starting with a short story in the Transatlantic Review. An early mentor was the editor Ted Solotaroff of the New American Review, who began publishing young McEwan’s work in 1972, putting it alongside work by Susan Sontag and Philip Roth.

McEwan published his first book of short stories, First Love, Last Rites in 1975. It won the Somerset Maugham Award. After publishing his first novel, The Cement Garden in 1978, he earned the nickname “Ian MacAbre” for his gothic tone and controversial subject matter. He has admitted to deliberately attempting to shock readers with his early work.

His more widely famous mid-career works, such as Enduring Love (1997), Amsterdam (1998) and Atonement (2001) are generally considered to be more sophisticated and nuanced.

Outside his novels, he is also a playwright and children’s book author. His list of awards includes a Booker Prize and a WH Smith Award. Unusually, McEwan is a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts. He is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was awarded a CBE in 2000.

His first wife was Penny Allen with whom he had two sons, Gregory and William. He currently lives in London and is married to his second wife, Annaleena McAffee, founder and past editor of the Guardian Review.

Ian McEwan, Author, StudySmarter

Ian McEwan, British author. Image: Wikicommons

Ian McEwan’s novels

Known for mainstream success, controversial content, and restrained prose, McEwan's novels have earned him global acclaim. Two of his most popular and well-studied works are Enduring Love and Atonement.

Enduring Love (1997)

After witnessing a freak hot air balloon accident while on a picnic with his partner, Clarissa, protagonist Joe makes the mistake of making eye contact with a fellow observer, Jed. This leads into a storyline that traces the journey of Jed’s obsessive, stalker love and its impact on Joe and Clarissa.

Considered a psychological thriller, Enduring Love portrays the tension between science and faith, as well as rationality and madness. McEwan achieves this effect with the use of techniques such as paratexts, intertextuality, and juxtaposing scientific and literary discourses.

The novel has since been made into a 2004 multi-award-winning film starring Daniel Craig and Samantha Morton.

Paratext is literary theorist Gérard Genette's term for the surrounding devices such as blurbs that publishers and authors use to create a context for a work.

Intertextuality is the deliberate linking of outside texts to create additional layers of meaning and alternative readings.

Do you think that science and faith are mutually exclusive? What about science and literature? If so, why?

Atonement (2001)

Widely considered to be McEwan’s best work, Atonement is set in three different time frames across England and France. The novel follows the story of the protagonist, Briony Tallis, who is introduced as a young girl of 13. After a series of misinterpretations, she falsely accuses Robbie, her sister Cecilia’s lover, of raping her cousin Lola.

The novel is actually a novel within a novel, essentially documenting Briony's attempt at atonement. Multiple intertextual references include Virginia Woolf'sThe Waves (1931) and various Shakespearean plays from Hamlet (1603) to The Tempest (1611). These attributes make it an example of a Postmodern novel.

Atonement won the WS Smith award, as well as being nominated for a Booker. It was also made into an award-winning film directed by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.

Postmodernism is a movement that reacts against rationality, objectivity, and universal truth that were key attributes of modernism. It is characterised by its use of metafiction, intertextuality and self-reflection. Famous postmodern authors include Thomas Pynchon and Zadie Smith.

Ian McEwan's writing style

Daniel Zalewski of the New Yorker speaks of:

McEwan's art of unease". 2

It can be said that McEwan often creates a sense of unease through the combination of his use of controversial subject matter and his restrained stylistic approach.

His impartial, detached narration style is in direct contrast to the often unusual events of his novels. This juxtaposition creates a tension between the heightened emotions that are generated by out of the ordinary circumstances colliding with the everyday and McEwan’s relatively dispassionate delivery.

Multiple viewpoints are created in most of his novels, which creates more rounded characters and different interpretations of events. With no clean-cut black or white, good or bad dictations, McEwan allows the reader to become involved in creating both meaning and discourse from a variety of viewpoints.

His prose is considered to be realist, restrained and refined, again unlike the subject matter or even many of his characters.

At a sentence level, he makes use of short, snappy sentences that use simple noun phrases. This once more creates a contrast with his more complex use of intertextuality and multiple viewpoints.

Hallmarks of McEwan's style is the creation of an uneasy tension or paradox between the simple and complex, the emotional and the restrained, and the everyday and the unusual.

Ian McEwan's themes

Throughout his career, McEwan has explored a variety of themes. His early work tended to highlight the more macabre and perverse elements of human nature. He has said that the human capacity for cruelty and violence has disturbed him enough to find its way into his fiction. He has also said that he set out to shock with his earlier work, so these motivating factors are possibly both relevant.

His later works continue in some ways to explore these original themes, but also expand to include childhood, politics, crisis, and transformation.

Ian McEwan's contribution to contemporary literature

As a multi-award-winning author whose works often handle subject matters usually left undiscussed, McEwan can be credited with opening up the traditional world of British literature.

His postmodernist approach and widely acknowledged gift for controlled prose has resulted in many fans, despite his often repellant subject matter. Whatever the views on his early subject matter are, he is able to address themes that are relevant to modern times. These include broad themes such as transformation and crisis to subjects from gender relations to politics, nationalism and history.3

Ian McEwan - Key takeaways

  • Ian McEwan is a multi-award-winning British author whose works have been turned into several films.
  • His first book of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975) won the Somerset Maugham award and created much controversy due to its subject matter.
  • McEwan’s mid-career works are his most well known, widely adapted and studied. These include Amsterdam (1998), Enduring Love (1997) and Atonement (2001).
  • Amsterdam won the Booker Prize in 1998.
  • He is considered a postmodern author and is widely regarded as one of the most prolific modern British authors.

1. Adam Begley, 'Ian McEwan, The Art of Fiction No. 173', The Paris Review, 2002.

2. Daniel Zalewski, 'The Background Hum', The New Yorker, 2009.

3. Peter Childs, Nicolas Tredell, The Fiction of Ian McEwan, Macmillan Education UK, 2005.

Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is a famous British author and playwright, known for his award-winning novels, some of which have been turned into films.

He is widely famous for mid-career works such as Enduring Love (1997), Amsterdam (1998) and Atonement (2001).

His prose has been described as restrained and realist.

Amsterdam (1998).

Atonement (2001).

Final Ian McEwan Quiz

Question

What is Ian McEwan's most famous novel?

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Answer

Atonement (2001) is his most studied and famous novel. It has been made into an award winning film too.

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Why is Ian McEwan considered controversial?

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Answer

Ian McEwan, especially in his early work, handles subjects that are considered taboo or macabre. 



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Which Ian McEwan book won a Booker Prize?

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Answer

Amsterdam (1998) won the Booker Prize.

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What are some of Ian McEwan's novels?

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Answer

Atonement (2001)

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Which university did Ian McEwan study his Masters at?

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He studied for a Masters at the University of East Anglia.

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What movement does Ian McEwan belong to?

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Answer

Postmodernism

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What is paratext?

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Answer

Paratext is literary theorist Gérard Genette's term for the surrounding copy or devices such as blurbs that publishers and authors use for context.

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Question

Which Ian McEwan novel has been made into a film starring Daniel Craig?

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Answer

The novel, Enduring Love (1997) has been made into a film starring Daniel Craig and Samantha Morton.

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What are some a key characteristics of Ian McEwan's novels?

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Paradox

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What are some of the elements that are often contrasted in Ian McEwan's novels?

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Answer

McEwan often creates an uneasy tension between the simple and complex, the emotional and the restrained, and the everyday and the unusual.

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When was Atonement published?

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2001

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What literary genre does Atonement fit under?

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Bildungsroman

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What are two key themes in Atonement?

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Answer

Perspective and class

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Why is Robbie assumed guilty of the assault and Paul Marshall is not even considered a suspect?

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Because Robbie is of a lower class and Paul is a wealthy upper class man.

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Which part of Atonement is revealed to have been fictionalised by Briony?

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Answer

The reunion and happy ending of Cecilia and Robbie

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Why is the title of Atonement so relevant?

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Because Briony spends her life trying to atone for her mistake in accusing Robbie of assault

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What are three traits that could be used to describe Cecilia Tallis?

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Loyal, passionate, and independent.

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What must readers reevaluate after discovering that Briony is the author of Atonement?

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They must reevaluate the events that have taken place as they were all really from Briony's perspective.

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What really happened to Cecilia and Robbie?

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Answer

They both lost their lives in the war. Robbie in France and Cecilia in the Blitz in London.

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Which character faces no consequences for his cruel actions?

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Answer

Paul Marshall

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What genres does Atonement fit under?

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Answer

Bildungsroman, psychological fiction, and postmodernist fiction.

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What are two key themes in Atonement?

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Answer

Guilt and maturing.

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Can you remember two important symbols in Atonement?

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Answer

The Trials of Arabella and the vase.

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What does the vase symbolise in Atonement?

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The vase symbolises that Cecilia and Robbie's relationship will too soon be broken. It also symbolises that Robbie will soon go to war like Clem did.

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What are two elements of historical context important to remember for Atonement?

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The Second World War and societal prejudices in 1930s Britain.

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Can you remember what two things combine to result in Briony accusing Robbie of assault?

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Her naivety and her prejudices about gender.

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Why is Paul Marshall never suspected of Lola's assault?

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Because of his wealth and high social status.

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Can you remember why postmodernism began?

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Answer

It began as a reaction to modernism.

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Why does this novel have the title Atonement?

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Because Briony spends the rest of her life trying to atone for her actions as a child.

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If Atonement is not about the Second World War, why is it still important to the novel?

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Answer

Because the Second World War was inescapable and relevant for all that lived through it.

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