Atonement – Ian McEwan

5 December 2008
To just after when Briony witnesses the scene at the fountain
I started yesterday, having first read it God knows when and having seen the film a few weeks ago. It was seeing the film that made me want to look at it again: there was so much I’d forgotten, especially about the endings. Plural. This morning came the first real McEwan moment: Briony’s realisation that it’s not only in her writing that she creates fictions. There’s what must be two or three pages of McEwan setting out a kind of stall: he lets the reader know that we aren’t simply reading a fiction, but a bildungsroman. ‘Six decades later’ she will write about how crucial this summer’s day was to her formation as a writer. It will be bound up with the realisation that hers is not the only version of the world that exists: she’s not the only consciousness, and the incident by the fountain could be seen in two quite different ways. She’s discovered the multiple point of view. (In fact, of course, we’ve already had Cecilia’s version, given to us by the omniscient narrator we’d assumed to be McEwan. We’re not so sure now, especially since we’ve only just seen the film and can remember the end….)

But is this no more than a McGuffin, something to tell McEwan’s arthouse readers that this isn’t just another costume drama? And do his novels always need the kick-start of a McGuffin? In Atonement it’s the succession of incidents that Briony doesn’t have the experience to understand, combined with her determination not merely to write, but to create viable narratives based on what she sees. (The manifesto-like seriousness of the section sits rather unhappily with the frankly unconvincing childishness of the Ruritanian romance she’s just written as a welcome home present for her darling older brother. McEwan tries to sell us this as the unintentionally comic Young Visiters ‘before’ stage of her development, but it’s the sort of thing a girl like Briony would have given up at primary school. And I should know. Writers like that don’t depend on moments of epiphany – That’s when I became a writer – they develop over time. And they’re always ahead of the crowd.)

Anyway, McEwan tells us, she knows she’s fictionalised the moment – but it’s a trick. We’re hooked like the readers of a whodunit – that’s what McGuffins are for, after all, and it’s what McEwan always does – but we know we’re not going to get a slow revelation of ‘the truth’. He’s told us, or reminded us, how different people’s consciousness turns any truth into a ghost – and the contingency of truth is what this book is obviously going to be about. And, being the trickster he is, he’s also made the idea into the aged Briony’s, with her (McEwan-like?) reputation for ‘amorality’ and a neat get-out clause for her own guilt.

But I’m jumping the gun. All we know is that this moment, and Briony’s attempts to understand it, will be crucial. Time to read on.

8 December
What’s McEwan’s attitude to class? In some ways he’s obsessed with it, and it slides around in everything he writes. It’s always present, and somewhere along the line he always knocks it about a bit. His working class characters have made some kind of success of their lives: Robbie in this novel, Edward (?) in On Chesil Beach – although he was an outsider in other ways , countrified and from a struggling aspiring family down on its luck – and… and others, I’m sure, like the Jonathan Price character in The Ploughman’s Lunch. To complicate matters there are things for us to sneer at in the upper-middle classes. The money in Atonement is third generation (the Tallises) or trade (Paul, the chocolate magnate) with a whiff of war profiteering. And the house is ugly. And Cecilia only managed a Third compared to Robbie’s celebrated First. And… you get the picture: McEwan’s literary leftiness is unimpeachable.

But he does love those posh settings: this house, even in politically right-on decline; the big house, part of the missus’s inheritance, in Saturday; those Successful People’s places in Amsterdam. (Interestingly, Kate Grenville uses architecture to suggest disapproval in Secret River when she makes the successful land-grabber’s new villa not only ugly but also careless of the pre-colonial heritage, as represented by the covered-over rock painting in the cellar. House as symbol of… something. Maybe the White man’s hubris: the rock painting will still be there long after the ugly house has been mercifully demolished.)

McEwan has his cake and eats it. Non-middle class backgrounds can be sketched in very, er, sketchily; the Heritage bit, like the loving and no doubt carefully researched details of Cecilia’s1935 dresses, is still there – as gratefully received in the movie, along with a highly photogenic house, perfect for the film’s target audience. As, I suppose, McEwan’s knowing, conspiratorial asides to the reading group members he has in mind.

12 December
To the end of Part 1
I’m tired of listening to McEwan persuading me that the whole thing isn’t a preposterous charade, a drawing-room conceit like the 30s whodunnits it borrows from. We’ve got all the characters, all with their reasons for behaving as they do – and, crucially, reasons for covering their tracks as they move along. But this is McEwan-land, not Miss Marple-land, so motives are in line with late 20th Century mores. There’s the needy Lola, persuaded by the cynical capitalist – hiss, boo – that what he’s like from her is what she wants to give him; there’s the literally absent father, busy with government affairs and whatever other affairs his morally absent wife will happily tolerate; there’s the bored little rich girl, down from Cambridge and frustrated in every way, ready for the attention of… Mr Perfect, whose only fault is too much honesty.

Overlaying all this, of course, is the precocious consciousness of the child who wants to write the story. But instead of harmlessly misconstruing events, she is led via a series of tortuous coincidences to a position where her made-up story is believed. I could start at least three sentence with the words ‘She just happens to….’ Four. Five. But I won’t, because – as I have to admit – on a first reading it’s possible to be carried along: if a story seems interesting enough it’s part of the contract to allow the writer a bit of licence. But by the time Briony makes her accusation McEwan has already spent pages on persuading us how such a story, told by such a girl, at such a point in history – and doesn’t he just love history, with all its convenient oddities of behaviour? – such a story will have its own momentum, and the girl’s motives do not have to be at all malign… etc. etc.

On nearly every page there’s another careful bit of plotting (in McEwan novels these should be abbreviated to BoPs) to make her story more convincing. One example: she finds Robbie’s letter in Cecilia’s room and runs down to give it to – whom? She was going to give it to her brother, but she changes her mind and gives it to the police inspector. Who, in exactly the way we readers of 1930s whodunnits know he would, gets it wrong and sees it as damning evidence. Her brother would have dismissed it as the bit of risqué fun it sounds like – as McEwan the spreadsheet plotter tells us a paragraph or so later – but he’s too late. The damage is done. (All this relies, of course, on the assumption that 1930s police officers lived in the same drawing-room world as those in Agatha Christie novels, particularly its general incompetence. I suspect a real officer would see Briony’s testimony for what it was…. And, for that matter, what we see of the questioning is shown to be perfectly competent: Never mind what you know, the officer replies to Briony’s ‘I know it was him,’ What did you see? But McEwan has told us, endlessly, that the momentum of her story, the class deference of the 1930s and all those circumstantial details, would be enough to sustain a whole trial. Yeh, sure. What McEwan does is use our own liberal prejudices to trick us into believing what quickly becomes an upper middle-class conspiracy. They never did like the upstart, of course they didn’t.)

One other thing. This bit of the novel is set in 1935, which is when the trial scene in To Kill a Mockingbird also takes place. Harper Lee was using the historical moment to make a point about the background to the emerging Civil Rights movement as it stood when she was writing in 1960: Look at what the Blacks had to endure only a generation ago. And what is McEwan doing? Persuading us that the class tolerance of a liberal middle-class family is only skin-deep. In fact, as we later find out, there was no assault, but once one is alleged it’s all too easy to pin it on the son of the cleaner. Ok. But… so? The thought that keeps occurring with regard to all the persuasive details is, What’s this guy selling? He obviously feels he has to, but so much layering of extra psychological evidence, or whatever, makes you realise it’s there to shore up an incredibly creaky premise.

18 December
Briony in the hospital
We’ve had plenty of that McEwan-style detail concerning wounds and pain… to go with the detail concerning death and its ugly banality in the Dunkirk retreat chapters. He seems to have done his research: I suspect the retreat really was something like that, just as I suspect that the life of a probationer nurse really was that much of a grind in 1941. [Note: after writing this I read how the ‘nursing’ sections are taken almost verbatim from published accounts. He’s a slippery bugger.]

And now Briony the aspiring writer has had a letter from ‘CC’ (Cyril Connelly, I suppose): a highly detailed critique of why her novella based on only the harmless parts of the Triton fountain story isn’t as good as a proper novel would be. It needs more of a story, more development. And here’s clever Ian and his clever readers – is he just patronising us? – having a sage little nod over the literary joke. CC’s letter is a pastiche of a 40s critic describing McEwan’s own novel, taking in many of the concerns the reader already has about it: Is it deliberately old-fashioned, like a pre-Modern novel? Does the choice of points of view work? Is there too much plot (as opposed to not enough in the failed effort by the immature Briony…)?

22 December
Near the end of side 19, out of 20
(Did I mention I’m listening to an audiobook?) ‘BT’ has signed the manuscript, London 1999. And we’ve had our old-fashioned pre-Modern – i.e. essentially 19th Century – resolution. The meeting between Briony, her sister and Robbie is a terrible strain, but the lovers are now together, they’ve had their long deferred Wiltshire moment, they know who the real villain of the piece is: the fat cat coining it as our brave lads die.

[Later]
To the end
I wish I could remember what I thought about the final ‘old Briony’ section when I read it the first time around. Did I know? Did I guess, from all the clues that seem highly obvious in hindsight, that the truth is in the hands of whoever writes the story? Dunno. When I saw the film I was surprised all over again by the appearance of Vanessa Redgrave in barmy old woman mode (surely modelled on Doris Lessing, whose surprise over the Nobel Prize some months later was filmed for all to see). I was surprised all over again: I’d forgotten the black joke of the ‘other’ ending.

Hmm. False endings. This one made me think of The French Lieutenant’s Woman – and I think in the movie version Harold Pinter gave a happy ending to either the on-screen or the off-screen couple, and the more troubling ending to, er, the other couple. Must get the DVD. But I think my favourite is Charlotte Bronte’s Villette: not so much a false ending as a challenge to the reader: believe it if you want to, but we all know what life’s really like….

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