McEwan sees funny side of climate change in novel reading
· Author gave surprise glimpse at Hay festival
· Main character is scientist who hopes to save planet
Monday June 2, 2008
After tackling in his recent novels the weighty topics of the Iraq war, family betrayal and sexual inadequacy, it is not surprising that Ian McEwan's next endeavour would address something of similar import - the pressing question of climate change.
What is perhaps more surprising is that he has approached it, at least partly, as a comedy. McEwan, one of Britain's most celebrated novelists, surprised audiences at the Hay festival yesterday with an unexpected reading from his latest work, an as-yet unnamed novel about a scientist who hopes to save the planet.
What surprised them even more was that it was funny. The author said he had wanted to tackle climate change, a subject "fraught with baggage" for several years, but had struggled to find a way to begin.
The impetus for this novel came in 2005 when he was part of an expedition of artists and scientists who spent several weeks aboard a ship near the north pole to discuss environmental concerns.
"While I was on board I soon realised that the boot room, where we all changed our clothing and left our shoes, had turned into a scene of social chaos," McEwan said, describing how the eminent scientists, who down the hall were gathering to talk earnestly about the future of the humankind, were also capable of stealing each others' footwear and regarding their colleagues with deep distrust. "I realised that it's all about human nature," he said. "The way to write about climate change is through writing about human nature."
The novel's protagonist Michael Beard has been awarded a Nobel prize for his pioneering work on physics, and has discovered that winning the coveted prize has interfered with his work.
McEwan described Beard's constant struggle against "the thing he really wanted, which he did not want to want ... in this case, food". Describing Beard's pleasure at eating a crisp, he wrote: "The trick was to set the fragment at the centre of the tongue and, after a moment's spreading sensation, push the potato up hard to shatter against the roof of the mouth."
But Beard's reverie is interrupted when another man starts eating the crisps, setting up an intense but never quite realised confrontation. It is only when he arrives at the station that Beard realises that his crisps are still in his pocket, and that those he ate belonged to the man on the train.
McEwan said he overheard a version of this anecdote and decided to use it, only to be told by a member of the Hay audience that a similar incident, involving chocolate biscuits, appears in Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.
McEwan denied that the novel, which is not due to be published for at least two years, was a comedy, saying instead that it had extended comic stretches: "I hate comic novels; it's like being wrestled to the ground and being tickled, being forced to laugh." Certainly, there is also a sombre element to a story about a man hoping to solve a problem largely caused by human greed, yet unable to quieten his own appetites. Does it suggest McEwan is pessimistic about human efforts to address climate change? "Not at all," he said. "I'm not a fatalist."