Ian McEwan's 'Sweet Tooth' Pits Spy Vs. Scribe

Nov 10, 2012
Originally published on November 10, 2012 11:29 am

Author Ian McEwan's latest creation, Serena Frome, isn't much of a spy. She got recruited into MI5 by her Cambridge history tutor, whom she wanted to dazzle. But he dumps her, and she never sees it coming. She winds up on the clerical side of the operation, cross-filing schemes and plots to stop terrorists, until one day, in the middle of the Cold War, she's summoned to the fifth floor of the agency, where five wise men ask her to rank three British novelists according to their merit: Kingsley Amis, William Golding and David Storey.

She passes their test and is immediately handed her first secret mission: to cultivate and fund British intellectuals whose politics align with those of the government. Its code name is "Sweet Tooth," and that's also the title of McEwan's new book.

McEwan won the Booker Prize for the novel Amsterdam in 1998, and has been shortlisted for many other books, including Atonement and Saturday. He joins NPR's Scott Simon to discuss the history that inspired his new novel and why novelists and spies go so well together.


Interview Highlights

On Western intelligence agencies' real-life funding of cultural events and publications during the Cold War

"Back in the early days of the Cold War, the CIA in particular was pouring millions into the sort of culture that I imagine many of your listeners would enjoy seeing or hearing or reading. They even funded a festival of atonal music in Paris in 1950. A fascinating paradox, the heart of all this endeavor and money and art ... was that to promote the open society against the Soviet Union's totalitarian one, they resorted to total secrecy."

On Serena's desire to please the MI5 men who interview her for the mission

"She's a conventional girl; she lives in unconventional times. This is the early '70s. Her sister's a pot-smoking radical whose life is beginning to unravel, but Serena wants to get on, and I think she's one of those people — I think it's something that's deep in personality; some of us have it, some of us don't. She likes to please authority; she likes to be on the right side; she wants the approval of her seniors. And I don't think that's a particularly female thing any more than it is a male thing. There are people like that, and other people who can sail through life not caring a fig for what anyone says."

On what London was like in the '70s, and how that contributes to Serena joining the MI5

"London in the '70s was a pretty catastrophic dump, I can tell you. We had every kind of industrial trouble; we had severe energy problems; we were under constant terrorist attack from Irish terrorist groups who started a bombing campaign in English cities; politics were fantastically polarized between left and right. We really felt ourselves going down the tube. ...

"All around [Serena] there are people becoming hippies or, you know, that period may be just coming to an end but, you know, still going on. She wants order in all this chaos, she wants a career structure. And even though MI5 notoriously had separate career tracks for women — [they] wouldn't let them get beyond certain levels — she still wants to join. In those days, there was a fairly patrician culture that assumed that a woman couldn't keep a secret. So women weren't allowed to run agents, they weren't allowed to rise very high in the organization."

On the similarities between spies and novelists, and how those similarities play out between Serena and Tom Haley, the young writer she targets and eventually falls for

"You could say that all novels are spy novels and all novelists are spy masters. Novelists have to be adept at controlling the flow of information, and, most crucially, they have to be in charge of the narrative. So it is the case in this love story that, without wishing to give away too closely the end of this novel, [Tom] is spying on Serena as a novelist, even as she is spying on him as a spy. And it's interest[ing] too, I think, that, in Britain at least, our spy tradition draws from a generation of novelists who were all working in the intelligence services. So Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Somerset Maugham [and] Charles McCarry all did their time with mostly MI6, sometimes with MI5, sometimes both."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Serena Frome - that's how she pronounces it - isn't much of a spy. She's a cleric's daughter who gets recruited to MI-5 by her Cambridge history tutor. She wants to dazzle him in all ways but he dumps her, and she never sees it coming. She's not much of a spy. She winds up on the clerical edge of spy craft, cross-filing schemes and plots to stop terrorists until one day she's summoned to the fifth floor of MI-5. Serena Frome's secret mission: to cultivate British intellectuals with financial support during the Cold War. Kind of a stealthy Macarthur Genius grant with a hidden agenda. It's at the center of Ian McEwan's new novel "Sweet Tooth," which is the code name of her new mission. Ian McEwan, who won the Booker Prize for "Amsterdam" in 1998 and has been shortlisted for many other books, including "Atonement" and "Saturday," joins us from the BBC in Oxford. Thanks so much for being with us.

IAN MCEWAN: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: And is this pretty openly patterned on the CIA-MI-6 support for Encounter magazine?

MCEWAN: Well, that's certainly one of the roots of this. I mean, back in the early days of the Cold War, the CIA in particular was pouring millions into the sort of culture that I imagine many of your listeners would enjoy seeing or hearing or reading. A fascinating paradox at the heart of all this endeavor and money and art, which was that to promote the open society against the Soviet Union's totalitarian one, they resorted to total secrecy.

SIMON: Let me get you to read an excerpt, if we could. This is when Serena is summoned to the fifth floor and confronts, if I may, a rather English-looking panel of older men.

MCEWAN: Yes. Serena is being interviewed to see if she knows her way around the literary scene and whether she is just the kind of girl they need to send down to the south of England to interview this potential target, Tom Haley.

(Reading) And so we went on. I was being interviewed but I had no idea to what end. Automatically, I strove to please, more so whenever I sensed that I was not succeeding. I assumed that the whole business was being conducted for the benefit of the silver-haired man. Apart from that single look of displeasure, he communicated nothing. His hands remained in their praying position with the tips of his forefingers just touching his nose. It was a conscious effort not to look at him. I was annoyed with myself for wanting his approval. Whatever he had in mind for me, I wanted it too. I wanted him to want me. I couldn't look at him, but when my gaze moved across the room to meet the eye of another speaker, I caught just a glimpse and learned nothing.

SIMON: In the section you just read us, you may use an old actor's question: what's serving as motivation? Why does she want to please the people in front of her?

MCEWAN: She's a conventional girl; she lives in unconventional times. This is the early '70s. Her sister's a kind of pot-smoking radical whose life is beginning to unravel, but Serena wants to get on. And she is one of those people - and I think it's something that's deep in personality. Some of us have it, some of us don't. She likes to please authority; she likes to be on the right side; she wants the approval of her seniors. And I don't think that's a particularly female thing any more than it is a male thing. There are people like that, and other people who can sail through life not caring a fig for what anyone says.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the London you portray in this book, because we Americans have images of London as defiant in the '40s, swinging in the '60s. What's the London you're capturing here in the '70s?

MCEWAN: The London in the '70s was a pretty catastrophic dump, I can tell you. We had every kind of industrial trouble; we had severe energy problems; we were under constant terrorist attack from Irish terrorist groups who had started a bombing campaign in English cities; politics were fantastically polarized between left and right. We really felt ourselves going down the tube.

SIMON: And did this make Serena Frome, in a way, did this impel her to become part of something larger?

MCEWAN: Yes. I mean, I guess all around her there are people becoming hippies or, you know, that period may be just coming to an end. But she wants order in all this chaos. She wants a career structure. And even though MI-5 notoriously had separate career tracks for women - wouldn't let them get beyond certain levels - she still wants to join. In those days, there was a fairly patrician culture that assumed that a woman couldn't keep a secret. So, women weren't allowed to run agents, they weren't allowed to rise very high in the organization. And this, despite the fact that all our major spies - Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, Cairncross - all happened to be men.

SIMON: At the heart of this novel, I guess, is the idea that there are some similarities perhaps between being a novelist and being a spy. And not all of them necessarily flatter each other. Tom Haley at one point writes about Operation Mincemeat and says that the best intelligence plots that we know about at any rate, have probably been hatched by novelists or aspiring novelists. Are they, at the same time, also sometimes the first people who want to believe in those stories?

MCEWAN: Well, quite possible. You could say that all novels are spy novels and all novelists are spy masters. Novelists have to be adept at controlling the flow of information, and, most crucially, they have to be in charge of the narrative. So, it is the case in this love story that, without wishing to give away too closely the end of this novel, Tom is spying on Serena as a novelist, even as she is spying on him as a spy. And it's interesting too, I think, that, in Britain at least, our spy tradition draws from a generation of novelists who were all working in the intelligence services. So, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Somerset Maugham, John le Carre all did their time with mostly MI-6, sometimes with MI-5, sometimes both.

SIMON: I mean, it just occurred to me, as you said that, arguably, more great novelists have come out of British intelligence than the Iowa Writers Workshop.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEWAN: It's a very expensive workshop, and it doesn't just let anyone in, that's for sure.

SIMON: Ian McEwan. His new novel, "Sweet Tooth." Mr. McEwan, thanks so much for being with us.

MCEWAN: My pleasure.

SIMON: And you can read an excerpt of "Sweet Tooth" at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.