Ian McEwan: By the Book

Published: December 6, 2012 - New York Times

The author of “Atonement” and, most recently, “Sweet Tooth,” believes the greatest reading pleasure has “an element of self-annihilation.”

Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?

Stephen Sedley’s “Ashes and Sparks.” Sedley was a senior judge in our court of appeal until last year and in this collection of essays he writes on a range of issues that concern the individual and the state. He belongs, as one commentator noted, to the English tradition of radical nonconformism — the title is taken from a 17th-century Leveller pamphlet. But you could have no interest in the law and read his book for pure intellectual delight, for the exquisite, finely balanced prose, the prickly humor, the knack of artful quotation and an astonishing historical grasp. A novelist could be jealous.

And what was the last truly great book you read?
Epithet inflation has diminished “great” somewhat so we have to be careful. Last year I reread “Hamlet.” I believe the play really did represent a world historical moment — when there leapt into being a sustained depiction of a fully realized and doubting human being whose inner life is turned outward for our consideration. Even then, I blasphemously wondered whether the last two acts were as great as the first three. Is some vital tension lost when Hamlet returns from England? Another recent encounter has been Joyce’s “The Dead,” which I’ve read many times. It needs to be considered as a novella, the perfect novella, entirely separate from the rest of “Dubliners.” An annual winter party; afterwards, a scene of marital misunderstanding and revelation in a hotel room; a closing reflection on mortality as sleep closes in and snow begins to fall — I’d swap the last dozen pages of “The Dead” for any dozen in “Ulysses.” As a form, the novel sprawls and can never be perfect. It doesn’t need to be, it doesn’t want to be. A poem can achieve perfection — not a word you’d want to change — and in rare instances a novella can too.

Do you have a favorite literary genre?
The novella. See above.

Do you read poetry?
We have many shelves of poetry at home, but still, it takes an effort to step out of the daily narrative of existence, draw that neglected cloak of stillness around you — and concentrate, if only for three or four minutes. Perhaps the greatest reading pleasure has an element of self-annihilation. To be so engrossed that you barely know you exist. I last felt that in relation to a poem while in the sitting room of Elizabeth Bishop’s old home in rural Brazil. I stood in a corner, apart from the general conversation, and read “Under the Window: Ouro Preto.” The street outside was once an obscure thoroughfare for donkeys and peasants. Bishop reports overheard lines as people pass by her window, including the beautifully noted “When my mother combs my hair it hurts.” That same street now is filled with thunderous traffic — it fairly shakes the house. When I finished the poem I found that my friends and our hosts had left the room. What is it precisely, that feeling of “returning” from a poem? Something is lighter, softer, larger — then it fades, but never completely.