Rereading Atonement

In my latest post about This Week in My Classes, I spent so much time on Gwendolen and Daniel Deronda that I never got around to Briony and Atonement. I mentioned there, though, that I was struck by at least one parallel between these two protagonists, which is their will to power or mastery. As it happens, they are both, also, severely chastened for their presumption, though in different ways: Gwendolen gets beaten down–not literally, at least, but figuratively–by her husband, who proves indifferent to her will and strong enough to master it–and also by the novel, which chronicles her halting progress towards a higher consciousness, one in which she is “dislodged from her supremacy in her own world” and must subordinate her own desires to “the larger destinies of mankind.” Briony, in turn, is forced to acknowledge the devastating and inalterable consequences of her own manipulation of reality into a story of her own telling, a story shaped by her own toxic combination of ignorance and precocity, of misunderstanding (of life, of other people, of love) and knowledge (of words and the power that they give you). “There was nothing she could not describe,” she reflects, even as she kneels beside her raped cousin and proffers a description of what happened, “her story, the one that was writing itself around her.” That slippage into the passive voice is revelatory of Briony’s evasion of agency, as if her words are not, themselves, decisions, as if her conviction that “the truth was in the symmetry” is about life, not art. That we can judge her error, her “crime,” as the narrator bluntly calls it, is of course due to Briony herself, our storyteller, “crime” her own word, later, when it’s too late. She knows, and says, that “she would never undo the damage,” not by any action, not by any redescription.

But it’s not Briony’s mastery of the facts, her tyranny over the truth, that I am most struck by at this point in my rereading: it’s McEwan’s over his story, his words, and thus my experience as I reread Atonement. It’s a mesmerizing experience because the control is so total, the effects so precisely wrought. Every detail seems just enough, placed just right.  I think this effect is particularly strong because I’m working on it after spending a few weeks thinking and talking about Modernism, and of course, the echoes are everywhere, self-consciously so, as is the critique or reaction against Modernism that has been part of our class discussion as well. The intellectual pleasures, in this context, are everywhere, like the allusions, some explicit (Cecilia quotes “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” in a letter to Robbie: “In the nightmare of the dark, / All the dogs of Europe bark”), some implicit:

In a field ahead, he saw a man and his collie dog walking behind a horse-drawn plow. Like the ladies in the shoe shop, the farmer did not seem aware of the convoy. These lives were lived in parallel–war was a hobby for the enthusiasts and no less serious for that. Like the deadly pursuit of a hunt to hounds, while over the next hedge a woman in the backseat of a passing motorcar was absorbed in her knitting, and in the bare garden of a new house a man was teaching his son to kick a ball. Yes, the plowing would still go on and there’d be a crop, someone to reap it and mill it, others to eat it, and not everyone would be dead . . .

“About suffering, they were never wrong,” indeed, and indeed the plowing does go on, after a Stuka attack that leaves only a crater where a mother and her son had huddled, the mother soothing her son, “telling him that everything was going to be all right. Mama would see to that.” Infusing his own novel with so many references to other novels might have turned Atonement into a kind of parlor game for pretentious literati–and I admit one source of satisfaction is “getting it” in this way. But I think the high level of intertextuality works in Atonement, because the novel is so metafictional, and intelligently so: it’s a novel that is, in part, about what we want or expect or fear literature does in the world, and in our heads, about where it comes from, about its “proper” subjects (“we do not believe that artists have an obligation to strike up attitudes to the war,” Cyril Connolly writes Briony; “Indeed, they are wise and right to ignore it and devote themselves to other subjects“–advice Ian McEewan, and Briony, both ultimately override, thus urging us, too, towards an interrogation of that particular form of aestheticism). Writing about writing too risks become tediously knowing, though, and Atonement avoids this trap too, by embracing story and character, by giving us a deep human problem to contemplate. The literary allusiveness is part of the novel’s realistic context as well as its self-awareness, too, and the characters (a novelist and two English majors chief among them) are believably, as well as aptly, engaged in thinking and rethinking the relationship of their stories to other stories they have read, which are always part of the texture of our lives.

So, McEwan dazzles (this reader, at least) with the intelligent profundity of his thinking about writing, but as important is that his writing is so good. Do I think so at least in part because I have been raised, trained, in the same tradition he invokes and engages? No doubt. What is it exactly that I admire so much about his style? I want to say, its lucidity–but so often it creates effects of slightly shimmering confusion or misdirection because he understands so well how to shade into the perspectives of his characters. Perhaps, its concision–but it isn’t an elliptical or minimalist style; he will linger over a detail (a leg, inexplicably in a tree, “pale, smooth, small enough to be a child’s,” a landscape, a sound, a smell). Its control–but there is emotion, even pathos, though it’s never sentimental (Briony, now Nurse Tallis, sitting with Luc Cornet as he dies, leaning closer to whisper in his ear the only remaining thing she has to offer: “It’s Briony. . .  You should call me Briony”). Maybe, overall, it’s the unstated but unequivocal certainty of the writing: this is the word, this is the place for it, this is enough. At any rate, I find it mesmerizing, satisfying, painful, beautiful.

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6 Responses to Rereading Atonement

  1. Sam says:

    Wonderful post on the whole, but I think the final speculation is exceptionally astute–there IS a kind of 19-century certainty in the way that McEwan fashions his prose. Which is curious because so many of his books, and maybe Atonement especially, are about the accidents of contingency and the unreliability of narratives. All that randomness and relativism, but delineated with unwaveringly assured prose. There must be a contradiction there, as though all the time he spends crafting his sentences should tell him that we aren’t entirely at the mercy of chance events. I wonder if that’s at the heart of what’s always nagged me about his work….

  2. Rohan says:

    That’s very interesting, Sam. I think you are casting as a kind of epistemological certainty what I had been thinking about just as aesthetic (even poetic) certainty, but the more that I think about it, the more I wonder how those two can be severed–and that is perhaps what you mean, as well. I wonder if it makes sense to think of that kind of craftsmanship as a response to the contingency and unreliability he focuses on: we can’t control events, only what we say about them or how we describe them.

  3. Pingback: Novel Readings | Like Fire

  4. tam says:

    how does the material/social world around her affect Briony’s mental state?

  5. tam says:

    And in what ways has she changed? how are her main attitudes changed?

  6. Rohan says:

    Tam, those sound like questions from a class assignment!

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