Ian McEwan

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.

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Table of contents

    Ian McEwan: biography

    Ian McEwan's Biography
    Birth:21st June 1948
    Father:David McEwan
    Mother:Rose Lilian Violet Moore
    Spouse/Partners:Penny Allen (1982-1995), Annalena McAfee (1997 - present)
    Famous Works:
    Literary Period:Postmodernism

    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, image of Ian McEwan, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Ian McEwan is an English author known for his novels Enduring Love and Atonement

    Facts about Ian McEwan

    The following are some lesser-known facts about Ian McEwan:

    1. Before becoming a full-time writer, McEwan worked as a soldier in the British Army and a teacher in Africa.

    2. He has a degree in English from the University of Sussex and received his MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia.

    3. McEwan has been awarded numerous prestigious literary prizes, including the Booker Prize for his novel Amsterdam and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his novel Atonement.

    4. In addition to his novels, McEwan has also written several screenplays and adaptations of his own works for film and television.

    5. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was awarded a CBE in 2000 for his services to literature.

    6. McEwan is known for his interest in science and has written several works that explore the intersection of science and literature.

    7. McEwan is an avid reader and has cited authors such as Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf as major influences on his work.

    8. He is a strong advocate for free speech and has spoken out against censorship and government surveillance.

    9. McEwan is also a keen cyclist and has been known to participate in charity bike rides.

    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 among others.

    • Relationships: McEwan's novels often explore the intricacies of relationships, including romantic relationships, family relationships, and friendships. He delves into the complexities of human interactions and the ways in which they can be both fulfilling and destructive.
    • Morality and ethics: McEwan's works often explore ethical dilemmas and moral ambiguity. He examines the difficult choices that individuals must make in order to do what they believe is right, even when those choices have negative consequences.
    • Trauma: Many of McEwan's characters have experienced traumatic events, and he explores the ways in which those experiences can shape a person's psyche and relationships. His works often grapple with the long-term effects of trauma on individuals and society.
    • Memory and perception: McEwan frequently plays with the idea of memory and perception in his works, exploring how individuals remember and interpret events differently. He examines the ways in which memories can be unreliable and subjective, and how they can be manipulated or distorted.
    • Science and technology: McEwan is interested in the impact of science and technology on society and individuals. His works often explore the moral and ethical implications of scientific advancements, and how they can be used for both good and evil.
    • Art and creativity: McEwan's works often examine the role of art and creativity in society and in individuals' lives. He explores the power of art to heal, inspire, and transform, as well as its potential to be used for propaganda or manipulation.

    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 have 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.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Ian McEwan

    Who is 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.

    What is Ian McEwan known for?

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

    What is Ian McEwan's writing style?

    His prose has been described as restrained and realist.

    Which McEwan's novels won the Booker Prize?

    Amsterdam (1998).

    What is Ian McEwan's most famous work?

    Atonement (2001).

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What are some of Ian McEwan's novels?

    What movement does Ian McEwan belong to?

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


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