LONDON (Reuters) - Ian McEwan wants a little privacy. It sounds like an odd wish for a man promoting his new novel “On Chesil Beach”, but the award-winning 58-year-old has had a torrid six months in the public gaze.
In November, he was forced to deny suggestions he plagiarised someone else’s work, and two months later it was revealed that he had a long-lost brother who was abandoned as an infant by his mother after being born out of wedlock.
“I feel a period of obscurity would be very good for me,” McEwan told Reuters in an interview.
The author of acclaimed works “Atonement” and “Amsterdam” said he felt uncomfortable in the media limelight.
“It certainly isn’t pleasant. The world sort of shrinks, but it doesn’t last for long. It’s that restlessness of the press which on the one hand can be bewildering, but is also the thing that saves you because the monster needs to be fed.
“It will spew you out having chomped on you a bit.”
In 2002, McEwan discovered that his brother, whose adopted name was David Sharp, was given away in 1942 when only a few weeks old. Sharp revealed his secret to the press in January.
McEwan’s mother Rose fell pregnant during an affair with David McEwan while her husband was at war and decided to give the baby away. After her husband was killed in the war, she went on to marry McEwan. In 1948 the couple had Ian.
“I don’t think it affects my opinion (of my parents), but I certainly have regrets that they went to their graves feeling they couldn’t discuss these things,” said McEwan.
“They couldn’t talk about it even when it was long in the past, which suggests to me it must have still bothered them.”
He said he was glad Sharp finally came forward, although by 2002 it was too late for reconciliation. His father had died and his mother was suffering from dementia and did not recognise him when she saw her long lost son.
“I don’t feel harshly judgmental,” McEwan said. “One has to have lived through a war and be immersed in the social attitudes of the time to understand.”
McEwan rejects suggestions that he plagiarised the work of Lucilla Andrews when he wrote “Atonement”, but conceded that he used her accounts of a hospital during World War Two.
“When you’ve got medical procedures that are 60 years old, and especially when you are talking about soldiers damaged by war, you’ve got to get first person accounts,” he said. “It’s tough, though, because you are being accused of dishonesty.”
For now, at least, McEwan is basking in critical praise for “On Chesil Beach”, a novel about a young couple in 1962 who struggle to break the shackles of social convention as they negotiate the awkwardness of their wedding night.
He wanted to explore the early 1960s, a period under-represented in literature just before social and sexual revolution changed the way young people thought and behaved.
“They lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible,” the author says of his characters in the opening sentence.
He added in the interview: “Six years later they would be rolling a joint, exulting in a sense of youth as blessed state.”
McEwan is currently working on an opera libretto about sexual obsession, and has the germ of an idea for his next novel, but not one he is willing to discuss just yet.
“On Chesil Beach” cements McEwan’s reputation as one of the world’s top writers. The Sunday Times recently called him “the leading British novelist of his generation”, a tag he rejects.
“I very much like the work of my contemporaries. I also know that the light’s on me for a moment. Next week it’ll be Graham Swift’s turn or (Kazuo) Ishiguro’s turn or Martin Amis’s turn and I will read similar things about them.
“I think all writers, just as they have to protect themselves against damning reviews, ... so I think you need to be equally inured to the superlatives.”