giovedì 20 maggio 2010

Ways With Words 2010: Ian McEwan interview

Ian McEwan explains why his latest novel Solar was rejected by the American literary establishment.

By Lorna Bradbury

Ian McEwan 'Something is missing in our culture,” Ian McEwan proclaims. “We can’t quite celebrate the scientific literary tradition.” And then a little later: “We overvalue the arts in relation to the sciences.”

McEwan is taking questions at the end of a lecture he has given to the Royal Society of Literature on Darwin and Einstein and the ways in which notions of “originality” might relate to the sciences compared with the arts.

"I want to try and usefully blur the distinctions between the two realms,” McEwan tells me the next morning. “On the one hand there is a scientific tradition. Scientists do stand on the shoulders of giants, just as do writers. Conversely, in the arts we do make discoveries. We do refine our tools. So I am arguing with, or at least playing with, the idea that art never improves.”

McEwan is rare among his peers in taking an active interest in the sciences — and in welcoming scientific ideas into his fiction. “I’m not interested in a form of modern intellectual who has no interest in science,” he says. Since he wrote Black Dogs (1992), which used a failing marriage to dramatise the argument between rationalism and faith, rationalist ideas have won out, and have often been the driving force of his novels.

In Enduring Love (1997), a science writer was stalked by a delusional man. Saturday (2005) featured a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, who tried to protect his family from a violent intruder. And McEwan’s new novel, Solar, fashions a dark satire out of the most trumpeted scientific issue of the day: global warming. The novel is steeped in research, and uses a technology — artificial photosynthesis — that is not yet a reality but is within our grasp. But its brilliance stems from the fact that it does not preach.

McEwan might, like his “liberal arts, know-nothing friends”, as he puts it, feel gloomy about climate change, but he is as comfortable sending up the scientific optimists, in the form of the anti-hero, Michael Beard — a deeply flawed philanderer and professional chancer — as he is the politicians, or the industrialists, or the journalists caught up in the story.

“It should simply be an empirical matter whether the climate is changing or not and whether we’re responsible,” he says. “But the various sides of the debate have now become so tribal that it’s no longer a matter of changing our views as more information comes in.”

Solar received glowing reviews and was warmly received by scientists, too. McEwan tells me that Graham Farmelo, the biographer of the theoretical physicist Paul Dirac, wrote to him to express his admiration for the novel, “but there was a word or two he would change in the description of Dirac’s work. I ran it past a physicist friend who said it was a bit hairsplitting, but, yes, OK, change it,” he says, at once humble in the face of proper science and pleased with the scientific accuracy of his own formulations.

But the novel has suffered at the hands of the American literary establishment, with the influential critic Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times dismissing it as one of McEwan’s “lesser efforts”.

“It was horrible,” McEwan says. “They didn’t get it at all.” I ask whether their response has to do with the subject matter – maybe American critics felt unwilling to read a comedy dealing with such weighty matters? But McEwan says it has more to do with formal than political concerns, comparing his experience with the dismissal by Americans of late-period John Updike, who is quoted in the epigraph and whose Rabbit Angstrom is the inspiration for Michael Beard. “Americans don’t like an unattractive character who is not redeemed at the centre of a novel,” he says. “And maybe it’s a matter of British humour too. Our comic writers – Michael Frayn, for example, Evelyn Waugh initially, Malcolm Bradbury certainly – were never really warmly received in the States.”

As McEwan argued in his lecture, we might think of Einstein and Darwin battling to be the first to get their theories into print, but this notion isn’t at odds with literature either. It might not have been artistically important that Solar emerged as the first book in a no-doubt blossoming literature of climate change, but it can’t have done it any harm.

Nessun commento:

Posta un commento