Ian McEwan at Harvard

Ian McEwan delivering his lecture on April 17, 2012 in Paine Hall, Harvard. (Photo: Grace L. Chen)

I knew there would be a rush for the Ian McEwan talk ‘The Lever: Where Novelists Stand to Move the World’ on April 17 and so got my (free) ticket a week earlier  – on the first day – from the Harvard Box Office. The talk, organized by the Mahindra Humanities Center (MCH) and the Rita Hauser Forum, was at 3.30 pm in Paine Hall, next to the Science Center.

The ushers were telling people to sit anywhere except the front row. The MCH is very active and organises very many events (yesterday I went to another MCH event, a talk by the MIT economist Esther Duflo, where one of respondents was an elderly but still charming Amartya Sen). Homi Bhabha is the director of the MCH, a position that requires him to play master of ceremonies and thus gives him a good deal of visibility on the campus. Bhabha (in a dark grey linen suit minus tie) was talking to someone in one of the front seats. Then he came over to talk to the critic (and Professor of the Practice of Criticism) James Wood, who was in the row before me. They went out to escort McEwan.

The talk began five minutes late. Homi Bhabha introduced himself (‘I’m Homi Bhabha, Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, you have heard that often enough’), regretted the absence of Rita Hauser who was committed to a family function (‘Rita is all about presence. Absence does not suit her’), then gave us his take (in English, not Bhabahaese) on Ian McEwan’s novels.

McEwan thanked Bhabha (‘Thanks, Homi, that was thrilling. I can’t deny the narcissistic pleasure of hearing oneself quoted’) and launched into what must have been one of the most urbane and entertaining talks heard at Harvard.  Referring to Archimedes’ famous line ‘give me a place to stand and I will move the universe’, McEwan remarked it was both factual and a leap of the imagination (because you can’t actually have a place outside the universe). McEwan’s lecture seemed to be a series of very entertaining anecdotes about the mistakes – small ones really, he didn’t mention any serious ones – he had made in his novels; in retrospect, I realise he engaged with the announced topic with a deceptive lightness.

McEwan described himself a realist – unlike Garcia Marquez, Angela Carter or Salman Rushdie, he doesn’t give his characters wings. The realist tradition and the modernist tradition, he said, were gifts to writers – you can use them to make new things, a commonsensical approach I like. For a realist writer facts are especially important – McEwan  likened it to pointillist painting which depends on tiny points to make the whole picture (he quoted Henry James’s ‘solidity of specificity’). He noted that despite the modernist claim that a text is an independent world, Joyce was obsessed with getting details about Dublin right and kept writing to his friends from (self-imposed) exile for tidal charts and train schedules.

In McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers (1981), a character gazes at the constellation Orion from a location in Venice. An amateur astronomer wrote to McEwan pointing out his error: ‘If you want to see Orion in the summer you must go to New Zealand.’ (‘I never knew I was turning the heavens round’). In Saturday (2005) he described a Mercedes Benz S500 with a manual gear. This prompted an email from a motoring journalist who informed him that the Mercedes S500 had only automatic transmission. After an exchange of emails with the journalist McEwan bought a new car ‘fully on his recommendation’ to replace his seventeen year old one. McEwan has this nice, droll way of telling his stories.

An anecdote worth remembering concerns Lord of the Flies (1954). Piggy is short-sighted and his glasses therefore cannot be used to start a fire (being short-sighted Piggy would be wearing divergent lenses; only a converging lens will focus light from the sun to start a fire). The mistake Golding made about Piggy’s glasses became ‘the burden of his life’. Every year letters would arrive at Faber from ernest school boys pointing out this error. Charles Monteith (Golding’s editor) always answered very politely to these letters. Eventually Golding was rescued by a literary critic who discovered that Piggy was both long-sighted and short-sighted. (The condition is known as anisometropia, I believe). Golding asked Monteith if the essay could be sent to all schools in Britain.

Though McEwan seemed to be making fun of the readers whose emails and letters he quoted he concluded by saying they were readers who wanted to give completeness to the novel/projects he had started. They were helping ‘me move the world by means of the high artifice of realism.’