In Lessons, Roland Baines regards an abusive relationship from when he was 11 years old as the source of his many desires and failures. A piano teacher at his private boarding school pinches his inner thigh, hard, after he repeatedly makes a mistake during their music drills. He has fantasies about her, and she invites him to her home for lunch. Months later, Roland shows up at the cottage, and the two have intercourse. Memories of the strange teacher haunt him years later in this novel about parenting, abuse, ambition and lost potential.
From the start, the novel analyzes how memories repeatedly shape our choices, serving as lessons in guiding one's life.
As an adult, Roland determines that nobody escapes making their own self-made hell “at least one, in a lifetime.” She controls him: “He never had a choice. He didn’t want a choice.”
Roland’s grades suffer and he leaves school early, avoiding the piano teacher and her attempts to trap him in marriage. That decision frees him in a way while also eliminating his chance to attend college. He decides he can be self-taught while earning an income by writing, teaching tennis and playing in piano bars. Roland travels and dates freely, and his twenties slip by. “He assured himself that he had his freedom and he was having fun. He could control his occasional anxieties about the aimlessness of his existence. But they swelled and finally broke through and could no longer be resisted. He was twenty-eight and not living a useful life…. Many people wasted their twenties or their whole lives in offices, on factory floors and in pubs…. So it had been worthwhile to be carefree, live hand to mouth and not be like everyone else. The very point of being young. Whenever he caught himself thinking or saying things like that, he knew it was himself he needed to convince.”
In West Germany, he studies German and befriends a family in East Berlin. The mother explains to him how children bind them to the communist system: “A bad step by the parents, a moment of unguarded criticism and the children might find the path to university or a decent career barred.”
Over the course of his life, friendships form and break over politics, whether Nazi cruelties or Brexit falsehoods and foolishness.
A few years later Roland runs into his German teacher, Alissa, who yearns to be a writer, and they marry impulsively: “They decided they must have fallen in love from the start without recognizing the fact.”
Both Roland and Alissa have jagged relations with their own parents. Her mother, Jane, traveled to Germany just after World War II, keeping a journal to write about the White Rose resistance. Her article is never published after Jane marries Heinrich, who had only a peripheral role in the movement. The general attitude about German citizens during that period – “Unless they took action no one could be exonerated, because every man is ‘guilty, guilty, guilty.’” Roland thinks of Heinrich having a good heart. “So when Heinrich spoke of national redemption by way of constructing a history of anti-Nazi sabotage, his prospective son-in-law did not say what he thought, nothing, not a score of White Rose movements, a million saboteurs… could redeem the industrialized savagery of the Third Reich and the tens of millions of citizens who knew and looked away.”
Later, Alissa comments, “It’s so easy to forgive other people’s parents.” Of course, that is because troubling childhood memories do not intrude.
Roland confides in Alissa about the abusive piano teacher: “How driven he was, obsessed, and how it seemed an entire lifetime to him then. It took almost an hour to describe the affair, if that was what it was, and the school, the cottage, the two rivers. How strangely it ended. How it never crossed his mind that her behavior was depraved, despicable. Even for years afterwards. He had nothing to judge her by, no scale of values.”
The couple has a son, Lawrence. His wife, Alissa, abruptly leaves Roland and her son, writing “I’ve been living the wrong life.” Roland is angry at first, investigated by the police for murder, but his emotions later transform into grieving and admiration. “Goethe, Schiller, Aristotle, Lao-Tzu. She understood how a close acquaintance with writers like these could extend and enrich a love of freedom.”
Roland, listless and somewhat narcissistic, remains determined to give his child a secure home. He holds and comforts Lawrence after Alissa leaves while confronting their future: “Their pulses fell in and out of phase, but one day they would be always out. They would never be this close. He would know him less well, then even less. Others would know Lawrence better than he did, where he was, what he was doing and saying, growing closer to this friend, then this lover…. From his father, occasional visits, a sincere hug, catch up on work, family, some politics, then goodbye…. The long letting go could be the essence of parenthood and from here was impossible to conceive.”
Recognizing the power of childhood memories, Roland ponders the mysteries passing through the mind of the seven-month-old and experiences that may shape the rest of his life: “A shaded emptiness, a grey winter sky against which impressions – sounds, sights, touch – burst like fireworks in arcs and cones of primary colour, instantly forgotten, instantly replaced and forgotten again. Or a deep pool into which everything fell and disappeared but remained, irretrievably present, dark shapes in deep water, exercising their gravitational pull even eighty years later, on deathbeds, in last confessions, in final cries for lost love.”
After a few years, Alissa publishes her first novel to great acclaim and Roland “saw the beauty of it. On a windy sunlit midweek morning she cleanly transformed her existence as she packed a small suitcase, and leaving her keys behind, walked out the front door, consumed by an ambition for which she was ready to suffer and make others suffer too.” Despite success or maybe because of it, Alissa refuses to connect with her son.
Meanwhile Roland drifts through what he calls “an unchosen life, in a succession of reactions to events. He had never made an important decision. Except to leave school. No, that too was a reaction.” He makes friends easily and views the world as “agreeably diffuse” while anticipating that “in the new millennium, only eleven years away, humankind would have reached a new level of maturity and happiness.” Of course, that period of mature happiness is brief because the world does not heed history.
Father and son live comfortably with Roland’s best friend and her children for many years, and the end is bittersweet as Roland determines that life – or the ability to create enduring and influential memories – was “pouring away from him. Events of three weeks ago were already receding or lost completely in a haze. He had to make himself catch some of it, just a little, or it would have been hardly worth living through.” He keeps journals, one for each passing year, and sorts through his many photos, selecting 100 that represent his life: “there was that essence everyone forgets when a love recedes into the past – how it was, how it felt and tasted to be together through the seconds, minutes, and days, before everything that was taken for granted was discarded then overwritten by the tale of how it all ended, and then by the shaming inadequacies of memory. Paradise or the inferno, no one remembers anything much. Affairs and marriages ended long ago come to resemble postcards from the past. … First to go… was the elusive self, precisely how you were yourself, how you appeared to others.”
Consider the patterns of memories. How do memories of the well-adjusted, secure person balance one’s self versus others?
Lawrence follows some of father’s drifting patterns, also marrying a German woman, albeit enjoying a happier relationship that include grandchildren for Roland. The older man flounders yet does not resent his famous wife, counted among Germany’s greatest living writers. If anything, he pities her. “She had no one, no family, no close friends. Time had degraded him too but by all conventional measures, he was the happier. No books though, no paintings, nothing invented that would survive him. Would he swap his family for her yard of books? He gazed at her now familiar face and shook his head for an answer.”
Publishers Weekly quotes McEwan's agent Georges Borschadt as saying, "Acts of creation are the only things that matter."
But no, that is not the lesson of this novel. Everyday life, family, love, joys and experiences are all that matter, and old memories need not dictate our future, and new relationships can over-ride the pain. As McEwan concludes, “A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson.”
Intrusive memories can be tamed.