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Proletarian issue 50 (October 2012)
Book: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
The thinking woman’s Ruth Rendell.
Have you ever heard of a magazine called Encounter ... It’s a monthly, intellectual stuff, politics, literature, general cultural matters ... Five or six years ago it came out, in an obscure American magazine and then the New York Times ... that Encounter was funded by the CIA ... The CIA has been backing its own highbrow notion of culture since the end of the forties. They’ve generally worked at one remove through various foundations. The idea has been to try to lure left-of-centre European intellectuals from the Marxist perspective and make it intellectually respectable to speak up for the Free World. Our friends have sloshed a lot of cash around by way of various fronts.” (Peter Nutting, Sweet Tooth)


Ian McEwan is an English novelist and screenwriter, winner of all kinds of awards and prizes, from the Man Booker to a CBE. The Murdoch Times hailed McEwan as “One of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945”, and in 2011 he was given the ‘Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society’, an award which since its inception in 1963 has consistently been given either to the ‘liberal confused’ or outright enemies of socialism.

In prose style McEwan might be called ‘the thinking woman’s Ruth Rendell’. In content he is morally unhealthy and politically pernicious. McEwan’s latest offering, Sweet Tooth, is dedicated to that little, flabby bundle of evil known in life as Christopher Hitchens – which just in itself makes it clear that Ian McEwan is what used to be known as a Cold Warrior, but might be better described as just an enemy of the human race.

McEwan is probably best known to the Proletarian readership for his films rather than his books, The Cement Garden and Atonement being so commercially successful that most people have seen them, and after a good meal and a glass or two of wine, the political nature of their sheer nastiness might be overlooked.

Not so with Sweet Tooth. Its conceit is simple. Set in the early 1970s, the main female character, a Cambridge graduate (a third in Maths), is employed by MI5, initially, as young women were in those days, to do the typing, but after a bit she is given a more interesting task.

MI5 has decided it wants to find and encourage liberal writers (or even leftie writers like Christopher Hitchens, perhaps) to move away from sitting-on-the-fence liberalism to outright anti-communism. The plan initially is for a front organisation to offer a grant so the writer can take a year or two off from work to write and then by judicious wire-pulling make sure the chosen writers get the prestigious literary awards, pundit positions on high-end TV shows and all the glamour of celebrity.

In our heroine’s case, the plot does not go quite to plan, as she embarks on an affair-cum-relationship with her particular writer, and, unbeknownst to her, he is tipped off and decides to write a dystopian novel, which, while it is not remotely pro-socialist, suggests that capitalism might not be wonderful either. But not in a political way. It turns out that rather than being just another lost liberal, the writer-hero is more a Malthusian nihilist, who just likes having grim weekend sex with the heroine, getting drunk and eating too much.

He certainly shares her horror of the Soviet Union, and the one consistent position all the characters in Sweet Tooth take is that life is terrible under socialism. Still, the hero-writer is petulantly annoyed to find out he was given the mysterious grant not for his massive talent but because MI5 thought he would be a useful idiot, and he decides that his revenge will be to write a novel about it.

And that’s where the book ends, with the readers wondering whether Sweet Tooth is that very book and whether McEwan might be the very writer-hero. He may well be. His glorious career so full of honours (like that of Christopher Hitchens) is very suggestive of somebody on the payroll. However, it does not matter whether McEwan was actually on the payroll or not – he promoted and still promotes an anti-socialist, nihilist agenda.

In their very different ways, that is what most successful writers do. The detective writer Ruth Rendell, now a Labour peer, scorns and derides all her working-class characters, while most successful writers seen as portraying the reality of working class existence tend to focus disproportionately on the lumpen-proletariat and assorted sexual misfits.

This is no accident. It would no more suit the bourgeois agenda for the working class to have a positive image of itself than it would to present socialism in a positive light. Whether we are settling down to read the new Booker prize winner, going to the theatre or to see a film, or just curling up on the sofa to watch a TV play at the end of a hard day, it is only very exceptionally that there is any meal on the à-la-carte cultural menu that is, if not entirely made up of bourgeois propaganda, not at least liberally sprinkled with its sauce; and it never lets up.
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