Writers at Warwick: Ian McEwan reads from Solar

Ian McEwan is not an easy man to embarrass. His writings frequently revolve around awkward episodes which other, more reserved authors would look to avoid and brush over. In one of his earliest catalogues of short stories, In Between the Sheets, he recounts tales of a businessman’s relationship with a mannequin; in another story in the same collection, Reflections of a Kept Ape, the plot seems to revolve around a bestial relationship between a writer and her pet primate.

McEwan’s newest work, Solar, is no exception to the author’s tendency to focus on the awkward. In this latest work McEwan not only explores the grittily personal – in the sexual misgivings of the protagonist Michael Beard – but expands his attention to expansive issues in addressing the issue of climate change. McEwan seemingly continues to feel unsatisfied creating his literature on anything but the most troublesome and difficult topical grounds.

In his reading at the Arts Centre on the 29th April, McEwan admitted that he did not centre his new novel lightly on the subject:

“I hesitated about plunging in to climate change.

“The idea first came about when I had been invited, some years ago, to a conference at Potsdam in Germany.

“(Michael) Beard sprang into life the moment there that I met 14 Nobel Prize Winners as there was a kind of pathos about many of them who had undertaken much of their Nobel- winning work in their youth.”

McEwan’s own character in Solar is also described as ‘having his best work behind him’ and seems stagnant and uncaring towards the research that won him early favour. Michael Beard is not just a figure moulded on real-life characters though and was also apparently shaped by a rich history of literary parallels:

“If you’re going to live with a scoundrel for 100,000 words, then you’re going to have to also live with his predecessors.

“Kingsley Amis, for instance, but also Falstaff – though I’m not Shakespeare so I’m not sure if I can make people like him.”

Despite the importance of his environmental subject, McEwan was eager to ensure that Solar stopped short of didacticism in its message however:

“I don’t think I want to instruct people what to do. I want to use the novel as a mode of investigation into ourselves, into what goes on.

“The novels that I take most pleasure in are the ones that are a plausible re-enactment of what we are and find the small-print about ourselves.

“This is why I think the novel has failed to die as there is still not a general idea of this concept.”

Solar tells of the searching of an author who, in looking at the human race’s interaction with its environment, finds at the end of his desperate considerations that there is a shred of hope in the new discoveries and findings which constantly colour the human experience:

“Fossil fuels have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty but they are still a daily disaster.

“Nuclear power is so much superior – I retain a slender optimism and I think that it’s a rare opportunity that necessity and this optimism will collide.”

McEwan’s stern but energetically hopeful voice is readily identifiable in the explorations of his latest offering, which reminds us at once of our own humanity, the problems that plague us, and the means by which we carry on.

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