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Atoning for past sins
By John Mullan

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in a scene from Atonement
Atonement, starring Keira Knightley, is about to open in cinemas
Ian McEwan writes literary novels that sell by the truckload. Atonement, the film adapted from his novel, will only further this reputation. What's behind his way with words?

The film Atonement is about to open in Britain with a star cast and more of the fanfare of publicity that it received at the Venice Film Festival.

It is further testimony to Ian McEwan's status as the leading literary novelist in Britain - and certainly the best-selling. Like many of McEwan's novels, Atonement is both a suspenseful narrative and a wonderfully clever fictional construction. It is the story of a girl who loves making up stories - and of the terrible consequences of a lie that she tells.

McEwan's work has been garlanded with awards. In 1998 he won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam. His most recent book, On Chesil Beach, is the only one by an established author to have made the long list for the Man Booker award. His novels are more often studied at A-level than those of any other living British author.

Productive yet willing to experiment, exacting in his attention to every formal detail of his writing, he might seem the consummate literary professional.

Ian McEwan
It has excitement but it also has a lot of drudgery attached to it
Ian McEwan on fiction writing

But Martin Amis remembers the young McEwan rather differently.

"I was a bit of a hippy in those days, but I was a more flowered shirt and velvet jacket kind of hippy. Ian was more serious and more spiritual about it. Then the friendship developed and we played a lot of squash together - and as everyone did in those days, you sat around for hours and hours smoking joints and drinking a lot of instant coffee.

"We talked a lot about writing but it didn't feel like a pressing ambition. He had an Arts Council grant and I rather envied him the fact that he didn't have a day job as I did."

Book after book

McEwan's apprenticeship is part of literary folklore. The short stories in his first book, First Love Last Rites, were substantially written while studying creative writing at the University of East Anglia in the early 1970s. The course was pioneered by Malcolm Bradbury, and McEwan was its first ever student.

In his study in 1979
From enfant terrible...
"What was important to me was nothing he told me about how to write," McEwan says. "He didn't presume to do that, he simply expected another story. And because I was of that generation that if you're set a piece of work, it's absolute that you hand it in on time, and I would oblige.

"It was a fantastic year. No contemporaries sitting around tables saying 'well I have a problem with your main character' which is how it goes now - and could be very destructive if you're not the right kind of person."

Alex Clark of the Observer says this stood him in good stead for what is demanded of 21st Century novelists by publishers.

"His books come with great regularity and with consistency. I think that Amsterdam was a terrible novel but, by and large, McEwan has amazing consistency. That is something that publishers and booksellers prize above anything else."

Long and winding road

McEwan himself compares fiction writing to embarking on a journey. "It has excitement but it also has a lot of drudgery attached to it, but crucially it has that element of exploration that you don't know quite what you want. Unless you can surprise yourself, you've failed."

His early work - his short stories and then his 1978 novel The Cement Garden - certainly took readers into disconcerting territory. With an icy stylistic calm, McEwan told tales featuring incest, sexual abuse and infanticide.

Reading from Saturday, set on the day of the anti-war protests of 14 Feb 2003
... to grandee of British fiction
"I sometimes wonder if what people get out of reading McEwan is a kind of a real kick of something naughty, taboo, forbidden, transgressive," says Clark.

McEwan himself acknowledges that, in his early work, he was interested in the ways in which fiction might shock the reader. Did he shock himself?

"No, not at all. But I had been a very quiet boy and more or less obedient to all the demands of O-levels and A-levels and getting a degree. I'd been sort of depressed, I see in retrospect, through my teenage years at boarding school, separated from my parents who were 2,000 miles away in north Africa. When I started writing I was bold and maybe a little too violently so."

McEwan may no longer trade in the narrative shocks that were once his trademark, but he still anatomises human passions with a dispassionate exactitude.

On Chesil Beach is really all about the damage that can be done by being polite, by being reticent, by being so considerate that you don't say things
Peter Kemp
The former enfant terrible of British fiction has evolved into a novelist who can surprise readers with his changes of direction. After a six-year break in the 80s, when he and his then wife had two children, he published The Child in Time, a novel about paternal feeling with a central character who loses a child - but also a subplot about the childishness of a man with political ambitions.

"That was when I wanted to make history and place and politics to some extent - or the way that politics fades into moral questions - part of the fiction so it was a real shift," he says.

More recently, in his 2005 novel Saturday, he has grappled with issues of the day - in this case the invasion of Iraq. Those who know him say he had always had a interest in politics. In the late 80s he contributed to the drafting of Charter 88, a manifesto for constitutional reform.

Anthony Barnett was one of its originators. "He's interested in detail to push things to the edge, to test their reality. So his sense of detail is quite a profoundly radical one. What he liked about the Charter 88 was that it took a new overview. This was at the very zenith of Thatcherism and it said let's have a politics that has got passion in it, but which has also got reason and which articulates the way we want to be governed."

Stiff upper lip

His fiction has remained memorable for its brilliantly described episodes of horror or violence, but these usually shatter a carefully imagined surface calm. For McEwan is a peculiarly English writer, interested in reticence and propriety.

Winning the Booker Prize for Amsterdam
A recurring book awards presence
"A lack of communication is something that he thinks can cause damage," says Peter Kemp, of the Sunday Times.

"In Saturday there are very poignant scenes with people who for one reason or another have got damaged brains or their minds have been warped by religious fundamentalism - and communication has become snarled up because of this.

"His latest book, On Chesil Beach, is really all about the damage that can be done by being polite, by being reticent, by being so considerate that you don't say things. Key moments in his books are when people start speaking directly to each other and things improve after that."

Atonement, probably his most perfectly achieved and widely admired novel, is largely set in the 30s and 40s, partly because McEwan is fascinated by circumstances in which people cannot say what they want.

"No one ever said anything in my household like 'I love you', although the 50s was not a decade for saying that kind of thing. Although there are attempts to write off the 60s these days, they did warm up private relationships and warm up the home in ways that we've benefited from ever since."

If his novels do survive the test of time, it will probably be because of the formal precision and beauty of their architecture, rather than the big themes they take on, says Amis.

"His novels are incredibly well put together, they are like a watch - everything fits and everything balances. He's always had that up to a point but it's really disciplined now."

John Mullan is Professor of English at University College London. Profile is on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 1 September at 1900 BST, repeated on Sundays at 1740.

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