Writers & Company: Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth

First aired on Writers & Company (30/09/12)

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Ian McEwan is one of England's leading novelists. He has now published 15 books, including A Child in Time, Black Dogs, Enduring Love and Amsterdam, which won the Man Booker Prize in 1998. His breakthrough novel came just over a decade ago with Atonement, which was a huge hit -- it sold more than four million copies -- and was made into a film starring Keira Knightley.

His latest book, Sweet Tooth, is set in the early 1970s, against the backdrop of the cultural Cold War.  Sweet Tooth has the consciousness of a writer at its centre, much as Atonement did. But this time around, the writer resembles McEwan himself: they go to the same university and write the same stories. Sweet Tooth is a tale of literary espionage: it's about literature and its relationship to life, politics and the imagination.

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Speaking from the BBC Studios in Oxford, England, McEwan told Eleanor Wachtel he was drawn to the world of intelligence agencies because of a longstanding interest "in the old, dusty scandal of the literary/political magazine Encounter." In the late '60s, it came to light that the magazine "was indirectly funded by the CIA, and this was all part of what we call now the cultural Cold War." The British secret service agencies MI5 and MI6 were also involved. "The general purpose was to demonstrate to the world, particularly European left-of-centre intellectuals, that the cultural freedoms of the West were more desirable than those offered by the Soviet Union."

Although that may seem obvious now, McEwan pointed out that there was sympathy for the Soviet Union and distrust of the U.S. in some intellectual circles at the time.

It intrigued McEwan that this campaign was carried out secretly. He called it "an extraordinary paradox that the vast apparatus of organized secrecy, the CIA and so on, was set upon a program of funding things, in secret, to defend the open society. And I found that contradiction so interesting and delicious it aroused my curiosity and I started reading in and around the subject."

He set Sweet Tooth in the early 1970s in part because it was a period in which Britain was "in near perpetual crisis" on a number of fronts. "There was a great crisis of identity, in that we weren't yet really clear of our memories of the Second World War, when we were good, when we had a moral purpose, a mission. We had rather lost our way," he said. McEwan was 22 in 1970, and he was aware of those problems, but he was also "having the time of my life" living in London and having just embarked on his writing career.

Sweet Tooth reflects that complex reality. McEwan describes it as "a love affair, apart from anything else, set against the background of all this, and contrasting the bliss and anxieties of a love affair with the urgency of a near collapse, political and economic."

The heroine (and narrator) is Serena, who ends up working for the intelligence service MI5. "She then gets drawn into -- and here I depart from history into invention -- Operation Sweet Tooth, which is a plan to back nine or 10 academics, journalists, and one novelist, because they broadly promote the kinds of freedoms that MI5 approve of," McEwan said. Serena is assigned to approach the novelist.

McEwan said he enjoyed working within the conventions of the spy novel. "Because it's not only your central character who often doesn't know what the truth is, but you've got to lead the reader by the nose and you become something of an intelligence agency yourself," he explained. "You can either think of the reader as the enemy or the public. Either way, they're not to know everything all at once or maybe they never know everything at all. So withholding information, planting wrong information, giving the wrong impression, devising blind alleys becomes a very important element of all this. And I think this is part of the attraction, the sheer writerly fun, that one can have with this form."

The espionage angle is only part of the story. McEwan also wanted to "talk about books, particularly novels, and the reading of them." As part of her duties, Serena, who is "a passionate reader of novels," begins to read the short stories of the writer that she's sent to target. "And then we have to face this interesting question. Reading a book is rather like reading a person," McEwan said, adding that "when we read the writing of a person we know, it is a different reading experience. Trying to measure the gap between the narrator of a story and the author is something that, although it's very vulgar, we all find irresistible."

Serena goes to Brighton, where her target, Tom Haley, is. "She has to fall in love with his fiction and then fall in love with the man, and then gauge the difference between Tom the writer and Tom the person," McEwan said. But she also carries the secret of her motive in meeting him, and she can't reveal it, because it would threaten the affair.

The two lovers have very different literary tastes: Tom enjoys self-conscious, postmodern writing; Serena likes realism, and being able to identify with characters and places in fiction. "I want the warmth of the kind of writing that Serena likes," McEwan said. "But I also want those tricks, those games that keep Tom Haley amused."

As McEwan see it, his latest novel manages to bridge the gap between the two. "Sweet Tooth is the novel that I think both Tom and Serena could love. It is a novel in which they both flourish, and they both will find exactly what they need."

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