Hay 2012: Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth

Narrative sadism is one of my things, Ian McEwan tells the audience at Hay. But, as he says, this is perhaps more evident in his early work than in recent offerings: ‘I used to be devoted to upsetting the reader…I used to really go at it.’ Not so much now, though. The fact that McEwan’s desire to put the reader through the wringer has waned might explain why his recent novels – with their ‘jokes’, middle-class topics and polish – are so much less interesting than, for example, the dark The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs.

McEwan is at Hay promoting his MI5 novel Sweet Tooth, due for Autumn release. He acknowledges the oddness of being interviewed about a book no-one from the audience has read, so, instead of going into detail about the novel, he concentrates on its theme.

‘All novels are spy novels’, McEwan says, ‘as all writers are spies’.  But, with Sweet Tooth, he has moved very explicitly into Le Carre territory – always a dubious idea for any writer, McEwan admits. Whatever trepidation he may have had about following the great man, it seems McEwan was unable to resist the allure of this very en-vogue subject.

The book is described by its publishers thus: ‘Cambridge student Serena Frome is the ideal recruit for MI5. The year is 1972. The Cold War is far from over. England’s legendary intelligence agency is determined to manipulate the cultural conversation by funding writers whose politics align with those of the government. The operation is code named Sweet Tooth. Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is the perfect candidate to infiltrate the literary circle of a promising young writer named Tom Healy.’

At Hay, we’re told that one of Tom’s pieces in the book is a reworking of a short story from McEwan’s own 1978 work In Between the Sheets – a nice tip for lazy reviewers, we’re advised. Thank you.

The use of historical fact in works of fiction has been a theme at Hay this year, with McEwan, Laurent Binet, Simon Mawer and Mario Vargas Llosa just a few of those discussing the use of real people and real events in their novels.

McEwan is famed for his research, and Sweet Tooth will surely be full of technical detail about the workings of the British secret service in the 1970s.

But McEwan cheerfully tells us that most of this will have been made up. Le Carre was there, he wasn’t, he says. If the odd detail about MI5 is wrong, so be it, it seems – the reader’s lack of knowledge about the intricacies of spy work meaning falsities will likely remain unexposed anyway.

McEwan is a thoughtful and engaging speaker. He provides entertainment and food-for-thought for fans of his work and for those that are not. We will be seeing a lot more of him shortly as Sweet Tooth will undoubtedly create a mighty big stir when it’s released later this year.

Let’s hope the book showcases the return of McEwan’s sadistic streak.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis