Encounter with the author as a young man: Spying and romance mingle in Ian McEwan’s understated ‘Sweet Tooth’

March 13, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 13, 2015

Sweet Tooth, the 2012 novel by British authorIan McEwan, is a tale of social upheaval, literature, betrayal and romance.

The novel’s first paragraph sets the stage in brisk fashion:

My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.

These sentences are somewhat misleading. (This is a spy novel, after all.) Frome never journeys anyplace more distant or exotic than Brighton, a coastal town about 50 miles south of London, the only foreigner she encounters is an American who’s invited to present a lecture at MI5’s offices, and she never meets anyone more hostile than a jealous co-worker. Even so, Frome finds herself in a certain kind of emotional peril when she becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue thanks to her past and present lovers.

Yesterday’s man was Tony Canning, a potbellied but worldly and charismatic 50-something instructor whom Serena met while studying at Cambridge. Although Canning grooms Frome for a career in intelligence, he abruptly breaks things off with her shortly before her job interview with the government.

Frome is hired in the fall of 1972, becoming a member of one of the earliest groups of female intelligence employees. She finds herself drawn to a fellow newcomer with the unlikely name Maximilian Greatorex, but he’s rather ambivalent about returning her interest.

Instead, Greatorex assigns Frome to work as MI5’s cut-out — a liaison whose ties to the intelligence community are disguised — in order to extend a grant to a young novelist named Thomas Haley. The stipend will free Haley to write a novel without the distractions of maintaining a teaching job. The offer is a component of Sweet Tooth, a secret operation intended to encourage voices that are sympathetic to democracy and capitalism.

The eponymous operation is fictitious, according to the Wikipedia entry for McEwan’s novel, but both American and British intelligence services did in fact covertly fund intellectuals whom they perceived to be friendly to views held by the Western establishment. When liaison and author become intimate, deception start to come into play: Frome, per her superiors’ orders, must conceal both her true employer and the real source of his stipend from Haley.

There had never been a right moment to tell him. Perhaps if I’d turned him down for Sweet Tooth and then had the affair, or started the affair and left the Service, or told him on first meeting … but no, none of it made sense. I couldn’t have known at the beginning where we were heading, and as soon as I did know, it became too precious to threaten. I could tell him and resign, or resign then tell him, but I would still risk losing him. All I could think of was never telling him. Could I live with myself? Well, I already was.

Last month, I wrote about two novels — The Lost Legends of New Jersey by Frederick Reiken and Next by James Hynes — that dealt with characters who are a little older than me. Sweet Tooth occurs nearly an entire generation before I became an adult, although I remember just enough of the 1970s — very dimly, the second OPEC oil embargo, which isn’t mentioned here; and more particularly, the grim sense that government bureaucracies were attempting to extend their reach in unacceptable ways, even as it was becoming increasingly clear that these institutions could not be trusted blindly — that Sweet Tooth sparked an unexpected sense of nostalgia.

A formative part of my reading experience was spent consuming — and often struggling to understand, let alone to enjoy — classic John Le Carre espionage novels that raised the issue of whether covert intelligence agencies deserved the public’s trust. McEwan’s Sweet Tooth emulates those books, which emphasized internal emotional crises and bureaucratic in-fighting almost as much as they did engaging the (typically Soviet or Communist) enemy.

At the very end of Sweet Tooth, it becomes apparent that McEwan has been toying with his readers to some extent. The final chapter resolves the narrative in a manner not dissimilar to how McEwan concluded his 2001 novel, Atonement. (I read and enjoyed that novel; I also was a fan of Joe Wright’s 2007 movie adaptation, which starred Keira Knightley, James McAvoy and Saoirse Ronan.)

There’s a certain element of vanity at work here, which McEwan acknowledged both in the text itself as well as in this interview with The Guardian’s Rachel Cooke:

[The author] and Tom Haley have so much in common. Haley teaches at Sussex University; he’s published by Tom Maschler, who first edited McEwan; he does a reading for his first novel with McEwan’s friend, Martin Amis; and two of his stories have been purloined on his behalf from his creator’s backlist. “Yes,” says McEwan. “Well spotted. The novel is a muted and distorted autobiography, though unfortunately a beautiful woman never came into my room and offered me a stipend.”

But I’ll give McEwan a pass for the mild self-aggrandizement and obvious wish-fulfillment that becomes evident at the conclusion of the novel. Sweet Tooth is engaging enough that I’m willing — eager, even — to forgive its relatively minor missteps.

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