Critical Essays On Atonement

Minor resemblances between this novel by Ian McEwan and Henry James’s What Maisie Knew have already been noticed and are of some interest. James left a quite full record of the development of his story, which described modern divorce and adultery from the point of view of a young girl. It had its roots in Solomon’s offer to satisfy rival maternal claimants by cutting the disputed child in half, but it grew far more complicated in the years between the first notebook entry on this topic and the completion of the novel about ‘the partagé child’. First there was a plan for a 10,000-word story, which, in prospect, set delightful technical problems: about ‘the question of time’ – ‘the little secrets in regard to the expression of duration’ – and about the need to use the ‘scenic method’. In the notebooks James prays that he not be tempted to ‘slacken my deep observance of this strong and beneficent method – this intensely structural, intensely hinged and jointed preliminary frame’. Only when the frame was built was he ready to start what he called the ‘doing’.

Ian McEwan’s new novel, which strikes me as easily his finest, has a frame that is properly hinged and jointed and apt for the conduct of the ‘march of action’, which James described as ‘the only thing that really, for me at least, will produire L’OEUVRE’. Not quite how McEwan would put it, perhaps, but still the substance of his method, especially if one adds a keen technical interest in another Jamesian obsession, the point of view. His central character is a 13-year-old girl called Briony, already a maker of stories and plays, and so already a writer of fictions that have only their own kind of truth and are dependent on fantasies which readers are invited to share, with whatever measure of scepticism or credulity they can muster.

Briony is the daughter of an important civil servant who has a grand though ugly country house. The year is 1935 and, since a war is threatening, he has exhausting responsibilities in Whitehall. Along with other more genial preoccupations, his London duties keep him off the scene, even on the special occasion during which the story begins. On the hot summer’s day of this celebration, Briony, in one of those strange moments that chance or fate delivers into the hands of the novelist, or more specifically into Ian McEwan’s, happens to see her elder sister, Cecilia, just down from Girton, take off her outer clothes and jump into a fountain – this in the presence of Robbie Turner, the son of the family’s faithful cleaning lady, who has also been sent, at the expense of the girls’ father, to Cambridge. Robbie did well there, but has now decided to start again and qualify as a doctor – one who ‘would be alive to the monstrous patterns of fate, and to the vain and comic denial of the inevitable’: much as if he had decided to be a novelist. However, the monstrous patterns of fate begin to involve him now, at the fountain, before he can even start a medical career. The episode at the fountain changes his plan, as it changes everything.

McEwan’s readers will remember other random and decisive changes of this kind, violent or subtle interruptions of everyday time and behaviour, intrusions of dream-like horror, like the snatching of the three-year-old girl in The Child in Time or the rogue balloon in Enduring Love. The trick works less well, I think, in the more recent Amsterdam, with its slightly ostentatious symmetries, its carefully laid clues concerning euthanasia and crooked Dutch doctors – these give the book structure, but the ‘doing’ is less interesting. The failure of the composer’s final symphony, after we have heard so much about the process of composition, might uncharitably be seen as an allegory of the novel it occurs in. There is, however, a finely written scene in which the composer, hiking in the Lakes, declines to help a woman walker when she is violently assaulted; this nasty bit of reality is interfering with the musical thought he had come to work out, and he decides that the music comes first, as his story might to a novelist.

The fountain scene in this new book has as much force, and has also that touch of the grotesque which is one of this author’s special talents. Cecilia has been half-playfully disputing with Robbie the right to fill a valuable vase with water from the fountain. He wants to do it for her. Their little struggle proves more serious than it should have been; as they wrestle for the vase two triangular pieces break off its lip and fall into the fountain. (Triangles, by the way, form a minor leitmotif for readers to puzzle over.) Robbie prepares to plunge in and recover the pieces; but Cecilia gets her clothes off and plunges first. The wounded vase will later meet an even worse fate, and this premonitory damage echoes what happens to other fragile objects highly valued but easily ruined, such as Cecilia’s virginity, and indeed life itself.

A numerous company is preparing for dinner when Briony, happening to go into the library, finds Robbie and Cecilia violently engaged in the act of sex. Robbie had written Cecilia a harmless letter, but accidentally sent in its place a coarse little meditation on his lust for her, and specifically, the message insists, for her cunt. The letter had been delivered to Cecilia by the hand of Briony, who, being a writer, naturally had a look at it. It was this letter that turned Cecilia on and, when circulated, turned everybody else off.

Meanwhile some young cousins, derelict because of a divorce, were staying with the family, and at the awful dinner that evening the unhappy nine-year-old twin boy cousins, one with a triangular piece missing from his ear, ran away. During the search for them their sister, Lola, a bit older than Briony, is sexually assaulted, and despite the darkness Briony thinks she is able to identify the assailant as the lustful Robbie. Hence his imprisonment. He is released to the Army, and, in a deeply researched and imagined episode, takes part in the Dunkirk evacuation. A point of interest here is that Robbie and his associates, heading for the coast with a demoralised remnant of the BEF, are surprised to see brisk, disciplined Guards regiments going in the opposite direction, presumably to serve as a doomed rearguard. Here as elsewhere we are left to wonder who picked up this point and put it into the story. Did it, in fact, happen? Who will vouch for its truth? Has the author a patriotic weakness for the Guards? It’s a small point, but it raises the sort of question that comes up over and over again in this novel. By way of ambiguous answer the narrative, when it ends, is signed ‘B.T.’, Briony’s initials.

Briony’s play, The Trials of Arabella, written for the house party, but for various reasons not then performed, was the fantasy of a very young writer enchanted by the idea that she could in a few pages create a world complete with terrors and climaxes, and a necessary sort of knowingness. The entire novel is a grown-up version of this achievement, a conflict or coalescence of truth and fantasy, a novelist’s treatment of what is fantasised as fact. Briony is the novelist, living, as her mother is said to have perceived (or the author, or Briony, says she had perceived), in ‘an intact inner world of which the writing was no more than the visible surface’. We merely have to trust somebody to be telling something like the truth. In the scene where Robbie and Cecilia make love in a corner of the darkened library (a key scene, terribly difficult for anybody to write) Briony, entering, sees her sister’s ‘terrified eyes’ over Robbie’s shoulder. Who is saying she is terrified? Who is saying Cecilia ‘struggled free’ of her heavy partner? Surely she was carried away by lust and henceforth became Robbie’s devoted lover? We can only suppose that Briony, writing at the very end of the complex affair, is imagining what she would have made of the scene at 13. She must have read the scene wrongly, for we learn that the lovers were actually ‘in a state of tranquil joy’ as they ‘confronted the momentous change they had achieved’. At this moment Cecilia is overwhelmed by the beauty of a face she had taken for granted all her life. Can she also have had terrified eyes? Or could Briony have taken for terror an expression that meant something quite different?

For contrivances such as these the novelist could be forgiven a Jamesian note of self-congratulation and self-encouragement, usually, in the Master’s case, expressed in French: voyons, voyons, mon bon! Let us see what I, and later what they, can make of this treatment. When Briony comes to the rescue of her cousin Lola the explanation of what happened is not Lola’s but Briony’s: ‘It was her story, the one that was writing itself around her.’ Her positive identification of the rapist is not explicitly endorsed by Lola; we are even allowed to suspect that this flirtatious child knew perfectly well the attacker wasn’t Robbie, that it was really a friend of Briony’s brother, down there only for a visit but destined to play a heavy part in the sequel. But the less willing Lola was to admit the truth the greater Briony’s confidence in her own story, whose impact on reality was so disastrous to Robbie. Her version of the truth was reinforced by that letter and the terrible word it contained. And the girl persisted in it beyond the point where her testimony could be revoked.

To write about the virtuosities of the later pages – what happens to Lola and her assailant, whether Cecilia and Robbie get together, what became of the grand ugly house – would be to deprive readers of satisfactions to which they are entitled; but it leaves the reviewer in a quandary. To discuss the ‘doing’ properly it would be essential to allude to the whole book. It might reasonably be revealed that both Cecilia and Briony, now estranged because of the success of the younger girl’s evidence against Robbie, serve in the war as nurses (again the enviable specificities, the sometimes apparently absurd hospital discipline, the drawing on reserves of endurance, the hideous and hopeless wounds). The title of the book seems to suggest that Briony will do something by way of atonement, but nothing quite fitting that description seems to occur. The problem, we finally learn, and as might have been expected, was this: ‘how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. No atonement for God, or novelists . . .’

These words occur in the epilogue, as I call it, a final chapter dated ‘London, 1999’. Briony now, as again one might have expected, has behind her a successful career as a novelist. At 77 she is suffering from a succession of tiny strokes, and her memory, she is told, is likely to fail progressively. Like Ian McEwan, she has recently been working in the library of the Imperial War Museum. Her book is finished, like Ian McEwan’s, and it has apparently exactly the same story. There follow reports of a series of quite implausible encounters. ‘If I really cared so much about facts,’ she writes, ‘I should have written a different kind of book.’ And she wishes she could write a happy conclusion, all well and lovers alive and reunited – ‘it’s not impossible.’ In fact she has already written it and we have already read it and probably believed it.

McEwan’s skill has here developed to the point where it gives disquiet as well as pleasure. Perhaps to be disquieting has always been his ambition; the first stories were in various ways startling. By now he is such a virtuoso that one is tempted to imagine that the best readers of this book might be Henry James and Ford Madox Ford. It is, in perhaps the only possible way, a philosophical novel, pitting the imagination against what it has to imagine if we are to be given the false assurance that there is a match between our fictions and the specifications of reality. The pleasure it gives depends as much on our suspending belief as on our suspending disbelief.

For example, we are told that Briony, while still a wartime nurse, sent a novella called Two Figures by a Fountain to Horizon. It was not accepted, but the editor, Cyril Connolly (or anyway someone who signs himself simply as ‘C.C.’), wrote her a letter running to over a thousand words, with favourable comment on sentences we have already admired. The implication is that the present novel is an expansion of that early work. We can even spot changes from novella to novel (for example, Cecilia goes ‘fully dressed’ into the fountain) and might attribute the improvements to C.C.’s kindly advice. He wonders if the young author ‘doesn’t owe a little too much to the techniques of Mrs Woolf’. The novella, he claims, lacks the interest of forward movement, ‘an underlying pull of simple narrative’. He thinks the vase should not have been Ming (too expensive to take out of doors; perhaps Sèvres or Nymphenburg?) The Bernini fountain she mentions is not in the Piazza Navona but in the Piazza Barberini (the error is corrected in the novel). He complains that Briony’s story ends with the damp patch left beside the fountain when Robbie and Cecilia have gone. (It is still there in the longer version but it is there only a beginning.) Elizabeth Bowen, it seems, read the novella with interest, but thought it cloying, except when it echoed Dusty Answer. The author is invited to drop by at the office for a glass of wine whenever she has the time. Had she, by the way, a sister at Girton six or seven years ago? Given her hospital address, is she a doctor or an invalid?

In the first place parody, this brilliant invention does quite a lot of what James called structural work. It is funny because although it sounds rather like him, Connolly would never have written such a letter; it lives, like the book as a whole, on that borderline between fantasy and fact that is indeed the territory of fiction. McEwan has examined this territory with intelligent and creative attention, and it could probably be said that no contemporary of his has shown such passionate dedication to the art of the novel.

Realism, Convention, and Ian McEwan's Atonement

(Cross-posted at The Valve)

I've been sitting on a link to this article on realism in the novel by James Wood for awhile (thanks Shehla A.). Recently it came to mind while I was teaching Ian McEwan's masterful novel Atonement in my contemporary British fiction seminar. I was also thinking about what defines something as realism in painting when I visited the Andrew Wyeth exhibit that just opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Below I'll comment on all three, and argue that they all share certain concerns.

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Let's start with James Wood, who begins his essay with a pair of attacks on realist fiction, from Rick Moody and Patrick Giles, and then moves on to carefully defend a somewhat updated version of realist fiction, uncoupling it from any presumed ideological orientation or strong philosophical grounding. If some people might find realism to be a dead genre, or worse, a quiet ally of 'phallogocentrism,' Wood argues that it need not be so. First he gives three sentences from Moody:

"It's quaint to say so, but the realistic novel still needs a kick in the ass. The genre, with its epiphanies, its rising action, its predictable movement, its conventional humanisms, can still entertain and move us on occasion, but for me it's politically and philosophically dubious and often dull."

And then the response to them:

Moody's three sentences efficiently compact the reigning assumptions. Realism is assumed to be a "genre" (rather than, say, a central impulse in fiction); it is taken to be mere dead convention, and to be related to a certain kind of traditional plot, with predictable beginnings and endings; it deals in characters, but softly and piously ("conventional humanisms"); it assumes that the world can be described with a naively stable link between word and referent ("philosophically dubious"); and all this will tend toward a conservative or even oppressive politics ("politically and philosophically dubious"). This might plausibly describe a contemporary novel by Anne Tyler or Kent Haruf, but it is almost an exact inversion of the 19th-century realist novel, which was often politically and philosophically radical. Often, and most notably in Flaubert, it overwhelmed the world with words, with elaborations of style, even as it claimed exactly to match word with referent; and often it dealt savagely and pessimistically with its fictional characters.

So the response to the claim that realism is a dead genre is to say that it isn't a genre but a set of conventions. It also need not be understood as adhering to predictability in plot or description -- especially if one invokes someone like Flaubert (or McEwan, about whom more below). And certainly one shouldn't assume anything about a writer's politics either positively or negatively from their style of writing: it's not true that postmodernists are necessarily politically progressive, while realism (socialist realism) was once the province of political radicals and can still be so.

Wood's essay gains something from the fact that he knows the major figures in American postmodernism quite well. He also knows his Barthes, and spends quite a bit of time responding to some of Barthes' major arguments about the "reality effect" -- the idea that any attempt to represent the world realistically is always bound by a set of narrative conventions that can be decoded or unmasked. But unmasking the conventions doesn't necessarily undo their hold over the imagination, nor is it clear that readers can do without them:

There is, I would argue, not just a "grammar" of narrative convention, but a grammar of life—those elements without which human activity no longer looks recognisable, and without which fiction no longer seems human. WJ Harvey, following Kant, long ago proposed the notion of a "constitutive category," something which "though not in itself often the object of experience, is inherent in everything we do actually experience… without it life would be random and chaotic." The four elements of this category are, he suggests, time, identity, causality and freedom. I would add mind, or consciousness. Any fiction that lacked all five elements would probably have little power to move us. The defence of this idea of mimesis should not harden into a narrow aesthetic, for it ought to be large enough to connect Shakespeare's dramatic mimesis, say, with, Dickens's novelistic mimesis, or Dostoevsky's melodramatic mimesis with Muriel Spark's satiric mimesis, or Pushkin's poetic mimesis with Platonov's lyrical mimesis.

To some extent Wood's critique of Barthes rhymes with some Valve-ish critiques of constructivism in cultural studies: just knowing that something is culturally constructed doesn't take us anywhere. And while I can't speak to Muriel Spark or Platonov, I agree with Wood's idea that there are a few basic elements that are to be found in all fiction, though I'm a bit concerned that we can't pin down which four or five elements we think of as absolutely essential.

Critics of Wood might find this to be a suitable starting point: if we don't agree as to which elements are essential, why do we think that anything at all is essential?

* * * * *

(spoiler alert) This brings me to McEwan's Atonement, which is as much a manifesto of a kind of contemporary realist fiction-writing as it is a successful example of it. An imaginative, writerly thirteen year old girl named Briony Tallis, who accuses her older sister's boyfriend, Robbie Turner, of raping another family member. The young man was the son of a servant, who had been sponsored by the family, and educated at their expense. When he's accused of rape, however, the family abandons him and he is jailed. He's released just as the Second World War is beginning, and is drawn into the army.

Having grown up some years later, the accuser attempts to atone for her false accusation, which was in some sense the product of a novelistic imagination that had gotten carried away with itself. In a sense, "atonement" can be read as realism itself: the insistence on fidelity to describing what has occurred as a matter of basic responsibility. But the frame narrative that appears at the end suggests that even that might not really be the case: Briony reveals that even in her careful account of her own crime of accusation, her version of her sister and Robbie Turner's romance has been helped somewhat, happy-ending-ized. But sometimes realism demands too much. She couldn't bear to describe what actually happened to Robbie Turner at Dunkirk, or her sister Cecilia in the Blitz:

How could that constitute an ending? What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism? I couldn't do it to them. I'm too old, too frightened, too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining. I face an incoming tide of forgetting, and then oblivion. I no longer possess the courage of my pessimism. . . . No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel. I know there's always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish.

This might seem to be a slightly different issue from the one James Wood raises in his essay, the question of narrative fidelity rather than realism vs. postmodernism. But in fact they are versions of the same question. Briony insists on her right to imagine a happy ending to the lovers' story because it's the only kind of ending that could, in its imagining, actually enable her to atone for her earlier crime. The only way to correct an errant act of the imagination is more imagination, not a turn to a narrow kind of realism.

Broad realism. While the self-reflexive element frames the central narrative in McEwan's novel, it doesn't necessarily displace it or take away from its power. Moreoever, the psychological emphasis -- shifting perspectives, and the use of free indirect discourse -- are merely an expression of what must be understood as a species of realism, psychological realism.

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Finally, a brief note on Andrew Wyeth, whose exhibit I walked into yesterday without any expectations. This American realist painter disregarded virtually all of the ideas of 20th century art in favor of a continued emphasis on traditional realistic painting, and an obsessive and careful attention to nature.

But two things struck me when looking at some of Wyeth's better paintings (like "Groundhog Day"). First, in the obsessive attention to natural textures and details one sees in some of the landscapes in the 1940s and 50s are shades of what might be thought of as an abstract sensibility after all. The subject isn't the beauty of nature, it's a big slab of granite. Secondly, many of Wyeth's paintings figure absence -- clothes hanging on a peg, doors that are forbiddingly shut, window frames on sad little houses. In many of these paintings, there is a level of attention to framing and composition -- exactly as one sees in McEwan's novel -- that is of a piece with realism but also goes beyond it in some ways. Especially with the emphasis on framing what isn't or can't be contained in the image itself, Wyeth reminds me of Wallace Stevens: full to the brim with nothingness.

Two Wyeth paintings that do what I'm talking about: here, and here.

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