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He Triumphed Outside of the Mainstream

Authors: Novelist Ian McEwan, last year's winner of Britain's prestigious Booker Prize, has raised eyebrows with his grisly stories, but it's his precision that tells the tale.

May 17, 1999|AMBROSE CLANCY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OXFORD, England — Ian McEwan, winner of last year's Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award, for his novel "Amsterdam" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1998), has lived in this small university town for 15 years. But there are other places he wouldn't mind calling home, he said recently, standing in his workroom, a high-ceilinged space looking out on a narrow street and a long oval park, garden colors gleaming in the wet, gray afternoon.

"I could live in France. I could easily spend a year or two in Manhattan. And L.A., I like it there. I like the architecture, actually."

Admiration of Los Angeles architecture from a man who lives in an 1852 limestone townhouse in a city renowned for its classic buildings, streets and parks? Is this proof of the popular image of the novelist's perversity? (Perverse being one of the kinder press descriptions. For years he was "Ian Macabre." When his work took a new turn in the '90s with the novels "Black Dogs" [Doubleday, 1992] and "Enduring Love" [Doubleday, 1998], Fleet Street renamed him "Ian Makesyouqueasy.")

But he's serious about his admiration for the look of Los Angeles.

"There's a wonderful book on L.A. by, oh, what's-his-name? He taught me to see the city in terms other than a tottering Hollywood sign on a scrubby hillside."

McEwan reveals himself as not a perverse but a precise man, as he moves to the shelves for the second time in 10 minutes to find a book to illustrate a point.

There is no denying he has gone against the mainstream from the beginning, when his early work consisted at times of incest, child murder, sexual games ending in ritual killing, detailed descriptions of dismembering a body, subjects that astonished readers and made his reputation. But it is precision, not the labels of grisliness or prurience, that has allowed him to make a successful career as a novelist. The quality is apparent in everything he does and surrounds himself with, from the beautiful prose and flawless plots of his 10 books, to his highly polished Giorgio Armani glasses, and the neatness and elegance of his home.

He runs the house by himself, living with his two teenage sons from his first marriage, with visits from his second wife, Annalena McAfee, a journalist who lives in London.

"It's tricky," he said. "I have to be here because of the children, their school, their world. I don't really want to remove them from that. My wife's hours make commuting difficult; we sort of patch it together. We've invented a name for it--telegamy. Sexual relations at a distance."

Slight, wiry, at 51 he has an athlete's quick grace and sureness of movement, kept fit by serious hiking, tennis and skiing. His eyes are bright, amused and surprisingly kind. In contrast to his quirky reputation, McEwan is a welcoming host, at ease in a long sweater and khakis, explaining the art in his workroom. He speaks in a light, cultured voice, and his conversation is thoughtful, expert on a hundred topics, often outrageous and funny. He picks a small ivory ram off the top of his computer screen.

"A gift from a hiking friend. He was impressed by my goat-like tendencies." Here, every morning at 8:30, after he's sent the boys to school, McEwan works in longhand, sometimes switching to the word processor, not breaking until 1 o'clock.

"A daily routine of waiting, watching, moving slowly. Patient. If I can get those four, five, six, eight hundred words down before lunch, I don't really mind what happens the rest of the day."

Started Out With

Tales of Violence

His first collection of stories, "First Loves, Last Rites" (Random House, 1975), published when he was 24, were diamond-hard tales of violence, sexuality, adolescence as a theater of cruelty, and here and there a psychopathic narrator.

"I was astonished at the fuss," he says. "I'd been reading 'Lolita,' 'Naked Lunch,' 'Celine,' 'Portnoy's Complaint.' Part of the premise of serious literature is that anything can be expressed."

"Amsterdam" is something of a departure, a short novel about two friends--a journalist and a composer--who make a pact to help the other die if they ever come to suffer a debilitating illness. It is a devastating comedy of manners.

" 'Amsterdam' is an Evelyn Waugh tribute novel," McEwan says.

And, like the best of Waugh, "Amsterdam" is a pitiless dissection of a generation, McEwan's own. At one point, the author skewers his contemporaries with a righteous and yet sly riff: "To come of age in full employment, new universities, bright paperback books, the Augustan age of rock 'n' roll, affordable ideals, they consolidated and settled down to forming this or that--taste, opinion, fortunes."

Is there anger in this indictment?

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