Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 23

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Wk 12 - Mon (20/10), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB1

Ian McEwan: Atonement (2001) -

The 30s & the 40s

In the first lecture on Ian McEwan's Atonement, we talked about the cultural fallout of Thatcherism, probably the most significant social convulsion in Britain since the Second World War, a set of ideas and attitudes whose shockwaves are still reverberating now, despite more than a decade of "New Labour."

In the second lecture I examined the complex narrative frame of the novel - the doubt thrown on any and every level of "truth" within it.

This has perhaps had the effect of leaving you a bit in the dark, both in in terms of what I'm driving at overall, and (possibly) in your mood. Last week's lecture did finish up rather bleakly.

Bear with me, though. Today I'm going to try and knit up the loose ends and finish off my reading of the novel as a whole. Mostly I'll be concentrating on the idea of "Atonement" and all its various reverberations and overtones, but I think the best way to start is with a more considered treatment of the novel's setting.

Atonement ends with the words: "But now I must sleep" (370). I don't know if I'm right to hear in those words an echo of Wilfred Owen's "Strange Meeting" (1918):

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then ,as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, -
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now...'

But, in any case, whether a specific reference is meant or not, I think it offers us a good alternative way into the novel: its recreation not only of the incidents in Briony Tallis's imagined past, but also of the atmosphere of those past eras. You could call it, I suppose, pastiche -- but like any attempt to parody a style or set of attitudes, it carries with it an implicit critique of the omissions as well as the successes in past ways of seeing. That's the best defence for the (so-called) historical novel, I guess. It's never about the past so much as it's about the present and our inheritance from that past.

Basically those settings come down to two: a country-house summer in the thirties and the "miracle of Dunkirk" in the first summer of the Second World War.

• Setting (or mise-en-scène)

  • Country House detective story

    [Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers etc. -- but also Forster's Howards End (1910) and Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945)]

    What is the significance of the country house in British fiction? Obviously it's a good vehicle for examining themes of class, of course (peasants, servants, guests, and Aristocrats / Middle-Class Social climbers at home). It pits nostalgia and conservatism against the encroachments of modernity -- and that's as true in detective fiction as it is in more considered "state-of-England" novels such as Howards End or Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1989).

    In chapter six of Atonement Briony's mother Emily Tallis's migraine provides a pretext for an almost Fall-of-the-House-of-Usher like self-identification with the fabric of her own estate. She is forced to conclude, though, that:

    She could send her tendrils into every room of the house, but she could not send them into the future. She also knew that, ultimately, it was her own peace of mind she strove for; self-interest and kindness were best not separated. (71)

    The country-house is, finally - from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey to Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited - a symbol for well-meaning selfishness. Lady Marchmain, General Tilney and Emily Tallis are birds of a feather. "Self-interest and kindness were best not separated" - an oxymoron if ever I heard one.

  • Dunkirk as the human condition

    [the 1940s -- Dylan Thomas (The Edge of Love (2008)), Edith Sitwell, the new Apocalypse]

    What is the significance of Dunkirk in British history? A glorious defeat. A miracle. "Britain loses every battle but the last." John Masefield, then Poet Laureate, wrote a book about it called The Nine Days' Wonder (he'd distinguished himself in the First World War by writing a book about Gallipoli which began each chapter with a quotation from the medieval french epic La Chanson de Roland, and compared Sir Ian Hamilton to Charlemagne). Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose (1941) memorialises the fleet of little boats which set sail from the coasts of England to pick up soldiers from the beach and ferry them out to the waiting warships and transports.

    A lot of powerful myths and archetypes are therefore bound up with Robbie's nightmarish retreat to the beaches through the Apocalyptic war landscape of Northern France.

    He folded the map away, and as he straightened from picking up the coat and was slinging it around his shoulders, he saw it. The others, sensing his movement, turned around, and followed his gaze. It was a leg in a tree. A mature plane tree, only just in leaf. The leg was twenty feet up, wedged in the first forking of the trunk, bare, severed cleanly above the knee. From where they stood there was no sign of blood or torn flesh. It was a perfect leg, pale, smooth, small enough to be a child's. The way it was angled in the fork, it seemed to be on display, for their benefit or enlightenment: this is a leg. (192)

    Note the careful detail of this description. "it seemed to be on display" - like a kind of Surrealist outrage, a urinal or other found object put up in an art gallery "pour epater les bourgeois" [to shock the townsfolk].

    I think it's important to remember here that every war is as much of an ideological battle as it is a physical one. Think of the famous opening passage from Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929):

    There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

    And then compare them to this, Winston Churchill speaking to the House of Commons on 4th June, 1940:

    Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender

    I think it's a fair juxtaposition. There's something magnificent about those Churchillian periods, of course: just like that speech two weeks later heralding the beginning of the Battle of Britain:
    Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."

    But we must beware. That was the point of all those surrealist outrages in the first place. Hitler could make eloquent, moving speeches, too - so could Goebbels. So could (for that matter) Walt Disney, whom Goebbels admired as the master propagandist of the age.

    That's the main point, I think, of Robbie's long walk through the pointless, petty human disasters which are the true face of war. He is, to all intents and purposes, already dead. Already on p.192 we get a succinct description of the wound which will gradually kill him through septicaemia. It's not for me, perhaps, to speculate on the presence or otherwise of "glory" in such a wound - it's not in the back, after all. "He nothing common did or mean / Upon that memorable scene" - but it seems a little hard that he should have to die for it, after all. As A. E. Housman put it:

    Here dead lie we because we did not choose
    To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
    Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
    But young men think it is, and we were young.

• Theme (or Implication)

What, then, is Briony atoning for? The sin of not speaking up, for believing her own well-meaning exaggerations (a common characteristic of writers), for confusing "self-interest and kindness" -- her admitted desire to save her sister from a sex-fiend; her more shadowy jealousy and desire to keep Robbie for herself (as in fact she succeeds in doing, by embalming him in this marble mausoleum of a book: a kind of textual Taj Mahal constructed in his memory).

What is McEwan atoning for? W. H. Auden again put it best, perhaps, in his "At the Grave of Henry James" (1945):

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead:
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling, make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.

For every Hemingway, stripping our rhetoric bare and showing us the grinning skull beneath the skin, there's a Masefield lavishly hymning the deeds of a Commander who never actually left his warship to go ashore on the Dardanelles. For every Evelyn Waugh, exposing the cruelty and pretensions of the aristocratic Flytes, there's an Agatha Christie keeping impostors and jumped-up bounders in their place. For every A. E. Housman there's a Rudyard Kipling. Yes, there are many "whose works / are in better taste than their lives."

Is Ian McEwan on the side of the angels, then? He has a fine line in depicting the cruelly, tragically mixed motives of fallible human beings. Influencing other people's lives by the way one depicts and reinvents them is a heavy responsibility to bear, though, and it's hard to avoid the suspicion sometimes that it might have been better never even to start. "First do no harm" is the first precept taught to medical students.

"It's better to be damned for action than inaction" is a counter-maxim which might be applied here, but in every case it's best to suspect the consequences of one's own ignorance and vanity - as in Briony's case, the results of getting the wrong end of the stick.

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