Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 22

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Wk 11 - Thurs (16/10), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB2

Ian McEwan: Atonement (2001) -


Let’s go back, for the discussion of this crucial last novel, to our nine muses of the novel:

Each one has dominated the discussion of one of our novels:

  1. Setting for Cather, My Ántonia (1918)
  2. Point-of-view for Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
  3. Plot for Forster, A Passage to India (1924)
  4. Detail for Barth, The Floating Opera (1957)
  5. Character for Barth, The End of the Road (1958)
  6. Theme for Greene, The Comedians (1966)
  7. Time for Atwood, Cat's Eye (1988)
  8. Structure for Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)
  9. Style for Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001)

So let’s continue the discussion by attempting to apply these diverse categories to Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001):

I'm going to begin with:

• Style (or Tone of Voice)

which in this case is closely bound up with:

• Narration (or Point-of-View)

Briony Tallis is an author. We are presented with three pieces of her work, each with inbuilt authorial commentary:
  • early: The Trials of Arabella (1935)

  • middle: Two Figures by a Fountain (1940)

  • late: Atonement (1999) itself.

Could [Ian McEwan's] Briony Tallis, then, be seen as analogous to [Willa Cather's] Jim Burden? Which one should we discuss when discussing the style of this particular author?

It actually makes an immense difference. NcEwan may know, or mean to imply, things which are quite opaque to Briony. Since we think we are listening to him when actually we are listening to him pretending to be her, it's difficult to be sure what level of complication evidence lies on in this tissue of part-truths and evasions.

• Plot (or Story)

Take, for example, the theme of incest in the novel. Why does Briony's father support Robbie through Cambridge, and then propose to pay for his medical degree? Is he his (illegitimate) son. Is that the reason why the father is so strangely absent from the novel? Does Briony choose to make him so?

Is that why both parents are so happy to have Robbie taken away as soon as his interest in Cecilia becomes apparent? They really make very little effort to find out the truth about Lola's rape / forced seduction. Is it his half-sister whom he's in love with?

The book doesn't say. It's left a tantalising possibility, but no more than that. We're left with a single voice, whom we have to trust to give us information as there isn't any alternative.

• Character (or Psychological portraiture)

Let's talk some more about that voice, then [all quotes from Ian McEwan, Atonement. 2001 (London: Vintage, 2007)]:

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. (40)

Briony has grown out of the infantile morality play of The Trials of Arabella and her earlier fiction, and is entering the new world of Modernism. Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner. But that isn't the whole story by any means. McEwan [Briony] goes on:

Six decades later [i.e. in 1995] she would describe how at the age of thirteen she had written her way through a whole history of literature, beginning with stories derived from the European tradition of folk tales, through drama with simple moral intent, to arrive at an impartial psychological realism which she had discovered for herself, one special morning during a heat wave in 1935.

And now the crucial part:

She would be well aware of the extent of her self-mythologising [my emphasis], and she gave her account a self-mocking, or mock-heroic tone. Her fiction was known for its amorality, and like all authors pressed by a repeated question, she felt obliged to produce a story line, a plot of her development that contained the moment when she became recognizably herself. She knew ... that it was not the long-ago morning she was recalling so much as her subsequent accounts of it. (41)

But this really is a crucial morning. The incident with the vase has just occurred, which will be the pretext for a series of acts on her part which she repents for the rest of her life -- a morality tale, then, rather than a piece of "amoral" observation? What seems certain to the 13-yr-old and the older nurse is by no means clear to the older woman.

And what sort of writer did she become? I can't read you the whole of the fascinating letter which McEwan has put into the mouth of Cyril Connolly, co-editor of Horizon, but I will quote a few salient extracts:

There are some good images ... and you both capture a flow of thought, and represent it with subtle differences in order to make attempts at characterisation. Something unique and unexplained is caught [my emphasis]. However, we wondered whether it owed a little too much to the techniques of Mrs. Woolf. The crystalline present moment is of course a worthy subject in itself, especially for poetry ... However, such writing can become precious when there is no sense of forward movement. Put the other way round, our attention would have been held even more effectively has there been an underlying pull of simple narrative. (312)

It's worth noting that this seems to be precisely the kind of writing foreseen in Briony's vision from the window (and, parenthetically, I'd not the resemblances between Margaret Atwood's 25-year struggle to write Cat's Eye, and Briony Tallis's 60-year travail over Atonement - there seems to be a little of Atwood in her tart, self-mocking commentary on her own efforts above, too).

Connolly goes on:

If this girl has so fully misunderstood or been so wholly baffled by the strange little scene that has unfolded before her, how might it affect the lives of the two adults? Might she come between them in some disastrous fashion? Or bring them closer, either by accident or design? Might she innocently expose them somehow, to the young woman's parents perhaps? They surely would not approve of a liaison between their eldest daughter and their charlady's son. Might the young couple come to use her as a messenger? (313)

McEwan is being a bit clever here. He's intimating a plot development somewhat along the lines of L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between (1953 - filmed 1971), which begins with the immortal lines: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." It's rather unpleasantly coincidental that he himself had to fight off charges of plagiarism when it came to the plot of this, his most famous novel. More or less the same thing has occurred with his most recent one, On Chesil Beach (2007), as it did with The Cement Garden (1978), back at the beginning of his career.

The obvious way to read this passage, then, is an example of Connolly's intuition. He can see the lines of the "true" story behind the elaborate subterfuge of psychological niceties put up by the adolescent Briony. After all, we know that McEwan invented the whole kit and caboodle, Connolly leter and all.

But he also invented Briony, and she is a mmost unreliable person. She lies about Robbie (albeit out of the best of motives, to save her own sister form his beastly attenionis -- later, though, after the pond incident, we come to realise that it's because she's in love with him herself (232)). She lies in putting together this essentially innocuous version of the vase-and-fountain incident. And she lies later when she creates the final scene of reconciliation and hope between Robbie and Cecilia.

Lying is, in fact, equated with virtue by Briony to a surprising extent. Even in teh scne with the wounded French solider (307-9) she sees her duty as lying to him and impersonating another person.

Is any of the story true, then? Did anything come of the fountain incident? If we doubt that, we doubt the whole book, but aren't we right to do so? Take the bizarre final sequence of the novel, after the completion of the ms. she has "vascular dementia," she's told -- "not as bad as Alzheimer's" (354) (which afflicted the novelist Iris Murdoch) but still pretty bad. Can we trust her memory, then? She is a novelist = professional liar, after all.

When I am dead, and the Marshalls are dead, and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions. ... 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.

"And they all lived happily ever after." Of course they did, because the storyteller saw it as her duty to make it so. She'd punished them (and herself) and now she chose to forgive them. But:

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. 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 atheist. It as always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all. (371)

It's a terribly bleak picture: one that applies even more strongly to Ian McEwan, the "onlie begetter" of all these fictional characters, than to Briony, their supposed (though dodgy) chronicler.

Henry James said that the whole duty of the novelist was to "dramatise, dramatise, dramatise." Somewhat like Briony's [and McEwan's] remark that "like all authors pressed by a repeated question, she felt obliged to produce a story line, a plot of her development that contained the moment when she became recognizably herself." (41) Is that "story line" the novel Atonement?

James went on to say that (so far as he was concerned) the three rules of human conduct could be summed up as: "Be kind; be kind; be kind." Somewhat like Briony's final reflection that "it isn't weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end." (372)

Next week: more on the novel's setting, structure, and incidental felicities.

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