Sunday, April 13, 2008

Atonement (2001)

Ian McEwan
Atonement (2001)


As she stood in the nursery waiting for her cousins' return, she sensed she could write a scene like the one by the fountain and she could include a hidden observer like herself. She could imagine herself hurrying down now to her bedroom, to a clean block of lined paper and her marbled, Bakelite fountain pen. She could see the simple sentences, the accumulating telepathic symbols, unfurling at the nib's end. She could write the scene three times over, from three points of view; her excitement was in the prospect of freedom, of being delivered from the cumbrous struggle between good and bad, heroes and villains. None of these three was bad, nor were they particularly good. She need not judge. There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.

– Ian McEwan, Atonement, chapter 3

Critical Responses:

"We're each of us, McEwan suggests, composing our lives." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor.

"The careful structuring of the work calls attention to its artifice and reminds us of two alternate assertions about what art does: Keats's Romantic assurance that artistic beauty is truth and Auden's disclaimer that poetry makes nothing happen. This novel shows how such seemingly contradictory statements can both be true at once." - Edward T. Wheeler, Commonweal.

"Refracting an upper-class nightmare through a war story, McEwan fulfills the conventions he's playing with, and that very play - in contrast to so much fashionable pomo cleverness - leads to genuine heartbreak." - Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly.

"If Atonement tells an engrossing story, supremely well, it also meditates, from start to end, on story-telling and its pitfalls. … McEwan has never written into, and out of, literary history so brazenly before." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent.

"Suffice to say, any initial hesitancy about style -- any fear that, for once, McEwan may not be not in control of his material -- all play their part in his larger purpose. On the one hand, McEwan seems to be retrospectively inserting his name into the pantheon of British novelists of the 1930s and 1940s. But he is also, of course, doing more than this" - Geoff Dyer, The Guardian.

"All this is at the same time an allegory of art and its moral contradictions. … It is not hard to read this novel as McEwan's own atonement for a lucrative lifetime of magnificent professional lying." - Terry Eagleton, The Lancet.

"McEwan's skill has here developed to the point where it gives disquiet as well as pleasure. … 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." - Frank Kermode, London Review of Books.

"Atonement is both a criticism of fiction and a defense of fiction; a criticism of its shaping and exclusive torque, and a defense of its ideal democratic generosity to all. A criticism of fiction's misuse; and a defense of an ideal." - James Wood, The New Republic.

"On one level, it is manifestly high-calibre stuff: cool, perceptive, serious and vibrant with surprises. (…) So it is probably silly to waste time pointing out that the most glaring aspects of the book are its weaknesses and omissions. As usual, McEwan has contrived a good story; but he seems weirdly reluctant to tell it." - Robert Winder, New Statesman.

"This book, McEwan's grandest and most ambitious yet, is much more than the story of a single act of atonement. ... Briony Tallis may need to atone, but Ian McEwan has nothing to apologize for." - Daniel Mendelsohn, New York.

"Ian McEwan's latest novel is a dark, sleek trap of a book. … Lying is, after all, what Atonement is about as much as it is about guilt, penitence or, for that matter, art." - Laura Miller, Salon.

"Whether Briony’s conscience can ever be clear, and, more important, whether McEwan’s purpose can be adequately served by such a device, is open to question. That these are troubling matters is certainly well established. The ending, however, is too lenient. (…) Here his suave attempts to establish morbid feelings as inspiration for a life’s work - and for that work to be crowned with success - are unconvincing." - Anita Brookner, The Spectator.

"McEwan is crafty. Even as he shows us the damages of story-telling, he demonstrates its beguilements on every page." - Richard Lacayo, Time.

"My only regret is that because he uses rapid editing and time shifts, too many of the dilemmas and tensions that are established in the first half of the book are left unresolved. (…) Still, the first part of the book is magically readable and never has McEwan shown himself to be more in sympathy with the vulnerability of the human heart." - Jason Cowley, The Times.

"Probably the most impressive aspect to Atonement ... is the precision with which it examines its own novelistic mechanisms." - Robert McFarland , Times Literary Supplement.

"The author decides what 'really happened'. That's always the case. That is what fiction is. And here, for once, the author has presented his decision in a near-perfect manner - in particular because he shows so well how this particular reality (or un-reality) came about (and leaves the inevitable lingering questions of what can be believed, of what is truth and what is wishful thinking and what pure invention). Questions remain - but McEwan makes a convincing case for their needing to remain, and for readers needing to confront them. Trust us: neat endings, tied up with a bow, aren't nearly as satisfying as what McEwan has to offer.

Fiction doesn't offer certainty, or absolute answers. It is nothing like factual, literal truth. But McEwan here shows why this fiction-truth is better, and what amazing power fiction has.

It hardly plays a major role until near the end, but Atonement is a convincing example of why authors write novels - indeed, of how (and why) we all create our own realities (be they in book form, or merely mind-games that allow us to bear the enormity that is life itself). Both Briony-as-author and, much more significantly, McEwan-as-author make a very impressive case for the continued role and need for the novel." - Anon, The Complete Review.

"... There are a number of feminist issues here, initially about gendering in issues of blame and guilt in domestic situations, and then their connection with the public arena of war. The roles of both men and women have to be considered in any paradigm of resolution or atonement. Firstly, Lola is obviously the object of sexualised constructions of femininity. Then what ensues (when Robbie is accused, charged, found guilty and imprisioned, all on Briony’s testimony) is Briony’s fault. Both cases, that is, come close to blaming the victim, Lola for her na├»vety and Briony for her inflamed imagination. Now Briony is trying to “come back” and atone for the lie she told, knowingly or not, and the damage it caused.

That is, the plot depends upon events of male violence, yet seems to ask or expect of Briony implicitly and overtly some kind of atonement, just as she does herself, initially for the rape accusation she made because it was against the wrong man. In part three, however, Briony may be felt to be carrying not only this responsibility but somehow the burdens of war as well, in terms of the reader’s experience. Almost, she is suffering because of or even for war itself, including the nationally shameful retreat and horrendous evacuation at Dunkirk.

Yet Robbie, and to some degree Cecelia, is presented textually as the real victim and lamb-to-be-sacrificed on account of wrong-doing. (In the movie, they’re both glimpsed at different times flung into a cruciform posture, Robbie at Bray Dunes and Cecelia after the bombing of the Balham underground station.) That is, it’s Robbie’s suffering, as the blameless victim in Judaeo-Christian terms, which feels as if that is what will achieve atonement, if anything does, both for the rape and for the war – rather than anything Briony might do. In this way, and with this effect, the narrative of Briony’s inner being in part one is structurally replaced by the events and suffering of men in war in parts two and three.

The last twenty pages suggest that atonement might be sought by writing. Both the book and the movie again interrogate the function of the writer, when it turns out that the whole narrative we have read or seen is itself the storyline of a novel-within-a novel, a novel which Briony, aged 77, has finally completed (or in the movie, just published). Now a famous writer, and having reworked this particular narrative for nearly sixty years, she has written her last and, she says, only fully autobiographical novel. Yet as we turn back to Briony’s endless guilt she is seen, in having written the ending of this, her own story, to have rewritten the events it portrays.

That is, as a writer, she will atone for the tragic domestic events she set underway (in “real life”) by bringing about some kind of fictional happy ending. But surely, we think, it’s rather pathetic, and even to be seen as another form of indulgent female self-deception, for a woman writer (Briony, aka “BT 1999” on p. 349) to believe she can atone for the sins of the world by writing a happy ending for her lovers? Isn’t she simply creating another instance of Romantic fiction with all its burdens, and thus aren’t we all – us too, as readers – implicated in its problems? At the same time, isn’t Briony herself the victim of the genre she was born and educated into? Aren’t we all? But how else, as Briony says aged 77 – and it’s an important question – can we begin to envision happiness or the triumph of love? How else except through creative writing and reading do we “reclothe us in our rightful mind”?

Behind all this is the actual (or “implied”) author Ian McEwan. What of his own moral responsibility as a writer? The comment on pp. 314-5 that “artists are politically impotent” (in a letter from the younger Briony’s would-be publishers) is clearly to be taken as unacceptable. McEwan explores concerns about specifically societal – beyond simply personal – questions of guilt, atonement and forgiveness a number of times in other books, as The Concrete Garden, The Child in Time, Enduring Love and (especially) Saturday indicate. In Atonement, is it perhaps exploitative and patronising to create a (woman) character to try to do this work – to take up this social, moral and literary challenge – and then to criticise her for it?

Or is it something that’s inevitable, a socio-literary project whose goal is always already lost?
[H]ow can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?… There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are aetheists. It was always an impossible task. And that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.(p.371)

And that, I think, is a marvellous manifesto for any artist."

- Judith Dale, Women's Studies Newsletter, 28 (2) (November, 2007): 25-26.

Atonement (2007)
directed by Joe Wright
screenplay by Christopher Hampton
starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy & Vanessa Redgrave


Briony - 18 years old: I am very, very sorry for the terrible distress that I have caused you. I am very, very sorry...

Briony Tallis, aged 13: Lola, can I tell you something? Something really terrible?
Lola Quincey: Yes please.
Briony Tallis, aged 13: What's the worst word you can possibly imagine?

Paul Marshall: Bite it... You've got to bite it...

Robbie Turner: [about the letter he sent her] It was a mistake.
Cecilia Tallis: Briony read it.
Robbie Turner: I'm so sorry, it was the wrong version.
Cecilia Tallis: Yes.
Robbie Turner: It was never meant to be read.
Cecilia Tallis: No.
[walks away, Robbie follows her]
Cecilia Tallis: What was in the version I was meant to read?
Robbie Turner: Don't know... it was more formal, and less...
Cecilia Tallis: Anatomical?
Robbie Turner: Yes.

Cecilia Tallis: My brother and I found the two of them down by the lake.
Police Inspector: You didn't see anyone else?
Cecilia Tallis: I wouldn't necessarily believe everything Briony tells you. She's rather fanciful.

Briony Tallis, aged 13: How can you hate plays?

[last lines]
Older Briony: So, my sister and Robbie were never able to have the time together they both so longed for... and deserved. Which ever since I've... ever since I've always felt I prevented. But what sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending like that? So in the book, I wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia what they lost out on in life. I'd like to think this isn't weakness or... evasion... but a final act of kindness. I gave them their happiness.

Tommy Nettle: No one speaks the fucking lingo out here. You can't say 'pass the biscuit' or 'where's me hand grenade?', they just shrug. Cause they hate us too. I mean, that's the point. We fight in France and the French fucking hate us. Make me Home Secretary and I'll sort this out in a fucking minute. We got India and Africa, right? Jerry can have France and Belgium and whatever else they want. Who's fucking ever been to Poland? It's all about room, Empire. They want more empire, give 'em this shithole, we keep ours and it's Bob's your uncle and Fanny's your fucking aunt! Think about it.

Briony Tallis, aged 13: The princess was well aware of his remorseless wickedness. But that made it no easier to overcome the voluminous love she felt in her heart for Sir Romulus. The princess knew instinctively that the one with red hair was not to be trusted. As his young ward dived again and again into the depths of the lake, in search of the enchanted chalice, Sir Romulus twirled his luxuriant mustache. Sir Romulus rode with his two companions, northwards, drawing ever closer to an effulgent sea. So heroic in manner, he appeared so valiant in word... And no could ever guess at the darkness lurking in the black heart of Sir Romulus Turnbull. He was the most dangerous man in the world.

Critical Responses:
"Despite my constant dislike to Keira Knightly, I was unable to disapprove of her acting in this film. She has improved massively since the first pirates film. The film itself has an intriguing plot line which keeps you hooked throughout. The film includes humour at the start and fascination by the end. I loved watching this film and I enjoyed the smartness of the story." - Internet Movie Database.

"This is a modern masterpiece and will become an instant classic ..." - Internet Movie Database.

"There is more than a little similarity between Atonement and The Go-Between. Both tell of love between different classes, and an intruding message carrier between the two. Furthermore, Sarah Greenwood's sensuous set design (in the first act) and accurate war holes (in the second), along with the sound design, which features buzzing bees, works cleverly on a subconscious level to add to the tension.." - Internet Movie Database.

"I had the privilege of being an extra in the Redcar, Dunkirk scene and once seen in its full glory and effect on the big screen I was simply in awe and glad to have been a part of it. Walking along Redcar beach from now on will never quite be the same again. I am quite sure that the movie will win a number of awards within the next 12 months, but that is not what really matters. Movies are there to entertain, tell a story and affect you emotionally and by God this did it in spades! If you have not seen it yet, you must!" - Internet Movie Database.

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