Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Doing Atonement

You may recall that a while back I did some wondering about great modern novels. Commenter A Philosopher kindly provided quite a list of authors, which landed me at the library poking around around the all-too-oddly assorted fiction section, and coming home with Atonement by Ian McEwan, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino and a collection of Nabokov novels which I never actually got around to cracking open (though MrsDarwin in typical fashion slipped in and read a couple novels while I was doing something else.)

My ambition is always greater than my ability when it comes to finding time to read, so out of all this I read half of the If on a Winter's Night a Traveler and (by several renewals) finally managed to find the time to read Atonement over the vacation.

I actually enjoyed the Calvino novel quite a bit, in an odd sort of way, despite not managing to finish it. (I checked it out again on my return from vacation, so perhaps this time...) Structurally, it is a very easy novel to put down, since its central conceit is that you, the reader, (as a character in the novel) have picked up the latest Calvino novel title on a If on a Winter's Night a Traveler only to find that through some publishing mistake the copy you received only has the first chapter, repeated endlessly.

You attempt to get this rectified at the bookshop, only to be told that it's not even the right first chapter, and you're given another copy -- which you are told is correct. In the process, you meet a pretty girl who is trying to read the same book and suffering the same difficulties, and you get her phone number. Once again the book is defective, however, and the reader and the girl embark on an increasingly odd quest to actually complete a novel, getting entangled in the publishing industry and Eastern European politics, all the while reading multiple first chapters, each of which gets truly involving just as it breaks off and leaves you following the reader narrative rather than the novel-within-a-novel narrative.

All of which is well done, and thus delightful in its way, but is at root too clever by half. It's a well done gimmick novel, and a somewhat infuriating gimmick at that. The only salvation (and given Calvino's skill it's a good bit of a salvation) is that both the multiple first chapters and the reader narrative are involving enough that (given a suitably elitist temperament) you find yourself enjoying the joke of it all rather than simply throwing the book against the wall as it no doubt deserves.

McEwan's Atonement is, at least to initial appearances, a much more conventional narrative. The novel begins in 1935, in the last moments of summer before the shadows of war spread across Europe. 13-year-old Briony, an imaginative aspiring writer, sees an event between Cecilia (her older sister who has just graduated Cambridge and is trying to figure out what to do with herself) and Robbie Turner, the charlady's brilliant son who has just been put through Cambridge on the family's money. The event marks the realization between Cecilia and Robbie that they are in love, but to Briony's young and imaginative mind it receives a different interpretation -- one which becomes suddenly important to everyone when a terrible crime occurs and Briony (based on her interpretation of what she saw) is convinced that Robbie must be the culprit.

Briony's testimony lands Robbie in jail and splinters the family as Cecilia refuses to ever see them again, and the narrative resumes during the British disaster at Dunkirk. Robbie is among the retreating forces and Briony has followed in Cecilia's footsteps by leaving home and becoming a nurse -- in part in an attempt to make up for the fact that she now accepts that her testimony was false, and destructively so at that.

However as the narrative of Robbie and Cecilia's travails seems to be coming to its end, the reader discovers that Briony went on to become a famous novelist, and this this novel which he is now reading is the aged Briony's attempt to do atonement for her wrongs by revealing the truth through fiction. Yet the reader is also told that the author Briony has changed key events in the resolution of the story of Robbie and Cecilia in order to set things right, make them as she now feels they should have been in order to allow her to make up for her sins.

And indeed, some of these keys scenes near the end of the story have an oddly neat, almost false ring to them. Despite the accolades the novelist Briony has supposedly received, you realize that she can't resolve her own life story neatly in a way that rings true. Then as you think more about the parts of the story that Briony could realistically know about, given what you are told was the actual resolution of events, you realize that a number of the other key moments and character themes must also have been the creation of the adult Briony's imagination -- trying to make a sensical story of the lives she unknowingly overturned in her youth. Which in turn leads you to question other key events in the narrative as presented -- and causes you to realize that you can simply not know from the novel what is supposed to have happened. More areas of overly neat plotting appear, and you realize there is simply no knowing what actually happened.

The epilogue scene in which the 80-year-old Briony basks in the glow of her extended family at a reunion, trying to assure herself that she has done justice by putting things right in the fictional narrative to make up for her wrong in real life, becomes infuriating, since she now seems not only to have ruined other people's lives, but also to have made it impossible for the reader to know what actually happened in those other lives in the first place. Having first wrecked other's lives, she has now taken them over, owned them, and made them an extension of her dramatic imagination rather than creatures of independent existence.

It's a fundamentally unsatisfactory ending -- and I assume intentionally so. One of McEwan's themes is the impossibility of truly doing atonement for one's sins against others, and part of this, I think, is an attempt to make the reader find it impossible to forgive Briony, just as her sister and would-be-brother-in-law find it impossible to forgive her. And yet in the end it has much the same too-clever-by-half feeling that Calvino's novel did, but without the fun of being in on the joke until the end. While Calvino explores the question of what a reader's relation to the narrative is in company with the reader, McEwan springs the question on you at the end -- a literary case of laughing at rather than laughing with.

I don't question that McEwan is a rather good writer -- though he has an odd habit of wallowing in great swaths of description that nonetheless take a great deal of time and verbiage to actually bring a character into focus, almost as if he is trying to simulate the difficulty of going from observation to hypothesis -- but I found the last minute, retroactive switch from traditional narrative to study of the impossibility of ever really knowing what happens in life deeply annoying.

Which is in part why I found myself wanting to go back and finish If on a Winter's Night a Traveler instead.


Literacy-chic said...

Calvino is a very interesting writer. I'll be teaching his Invisible Cities this summer for the second time. It's the first thing I read by him, when I was an undergrad. I look forward to reading more, starting with If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. I think his version of postmodernism is very palatable. Anyway, if you decide to pick up Invisible Cities, let me know! It may actually be a bit more straightforward. In a nutshell, Marco Polo is describing to Kubla Khan the cities he has visited in the Khan's empire.

I enjoyed the reviews!

Literacy-chic said...

(Invisible Cities is also less elitist than either that you mention here.)

Darwin said...

I'm enjoying If on a Winter's Night moderately well. If you can put up with the central conceit it's a fair amount of fun (especially as the first chapters are in some ways parodies of different types of novels). What annoyed me so much about Atonement is that it blindsides you with its ambiguity vortex at the end.

Todd said...

An interesting take on Atonement.

I found I was sympathetic, very much against my will, for Briony at the end. I thought it was clear that she had indeed destroyed Robbie's life, then alienated and ultimately lost her sister. The resulting gap she suffers at the end of the novel was terribly poignant. Everyone else is celebrating, and her brother seems to have accepted his family's loss to a degree. Other family members celebrate, unknowing of the tragedy Briony carries in her soul. That, for me, was the atonement, that silent suffering, that wondering of what could/should have been.

Anonymous said...

I'm flattered that you would take the time to read these two books on my recommendation. My reaction to If On a Winter's Night a Traveler isn't too far off of yours. I don't really think of it as a "gimmick book", though -- it seems to me to be more like a loosely thematically-organized collection of short stories. One has, I think, to get beyond the admittedly gimmicky manner of organizing the short stories and consider them as stories. (There is, admittedly, an attempt to use the structural form as a launching pad for a metafiction-style investigation of the relation between author and reader; in the end I found that particular aspect of the book to fall flat.)

But then I found the weakness of the book to be that the independent stories really weren't all that great. The genre riffs were fun, but there wasn't enough beyond that to sustain things. (I think there's an interesting idea to be had here that stories are often better at the beginning than at the end (thus, for example, the way in which The X-Files became less and less satisfying as the plot threads started to wrap up), and thus an attempt just to give us lots of beginnings without ends. But I'm not convinced that the idea is executed successfully.)

But I found Atonement to be much more satisfying than you seem to have. Again the central difference may be that I didn't see it as a "gimmick book". It's true that there's a dramatic "twist" at the end which alters one's perception of the earlier part of the book. And I agree, more or less, with your take on the consequences of that twist -- Briony spreads her own guilt over all of reality, making the other characters disappear into her. I just don't think that creates the effect you had. The question of what actually happened is, of course, meaningless, since there is no actuality here. There remains a story, of the interactions among Briony, Robbie, and Cecilia, and I think an interesting one. That isn't taken away from you at the end, any more than any story is taken away by the inevitable return to reality. There is just added on a final additional story, reflecting on the earlier story. The final story does in effect draw the earlier story into itself as a component, but that doesn't eliminate the earlier story, but just add a new one. Even if you find the concluding story unsatisfying -- I didn't, but I can see why one might -- one is still left with, I think, a strong novel. (I've seen Atonement compared to War and Peace (obviously not to put the two on the same level, but to observe some stylistic, psychological, and thematic similarities. I suppose one could have a similar reaction to the final part of War and Peace that you had to the end of Atonement -- that the take on necessity and freedom in the epilogue undermines the legitimacy of the moral struggles and growth that the novel had presented -- but again that strikes me as optional at best.)

Darwin said...


That I do a agree is a very compelling story line. And in that sense, I do have a certain amount of sympathy for Briony. However, I found it hard to focus on that given the bait-and-switch narrative approach. More on that in a second...

A Philosopher,

Interesting that people should have compared it to War and Peace, as I actually hated the epilogue there as well... Though that may be part of a more general dislike for Tolstoy -- Dostoyevski is my kind of Russian, and Tolstoy very much is now.

I guess I actually did find the first chapters in If on a Winter's Night fairly satisfying, or at least as much so as such things can be without ever resolving. Plus I'm enjoying (and curious to see where it's going) the falling-apart-at-the-seams world which the reader inhabits (which seems in some ways of echo of the sort of atmosphere Waugh built in some of his comic masterpieces like Decline and Fall and Scott King's Modern Europe.

On Atonement, I should first of all say that it's in part because the book is so well written in many respects that I found myself so annoyed by the ending. McEwan certainly has a gift for description -- though at times I had an odd sense that through the forest of narrative one had less of a clear feeling for what was going on than one might have with another writer who has more of a tendency to state things more clearly. I'm pretty sure this was a conscious choice of style, though.

Anyway, I think part of my hang-up here is that I do very much buy into the sub-creative idea of story telling. So it does seem to me that there is a there there, if you will.

Now certainly, I've found some books very satisfying in which important parts of the reality within the novel are mis-understood, unknown, or even lied about by a narrative character.

I think part of what really got to me in this case is that you have what purports through the main section of the story to be a fairly omniscient narrator, and yet at the end it's sprung that not only is the narrative written by one of the characters, but that fundamental parts of it have been changed.

Even this might not have bothered me so much, except that the ending scene in which Briony meets with Robbie and Cecilia had rung very false to me as I was reading it. It seemed that there must be some other shoe waiting to drop, because something about the interraction just didn't seem right. So when I hit the epilogue, I thought: For all of Briony supposedly being a prize-winning author, she can't write a true-sounding narrative resolving this problem in her life. And so I thought that McEwan must have intentionally written the conclusion to be unconvincing in order to show that Briony couldn't resolve it in her own mind.

This sent questions cascading back through the narrative. And once you think about it, there are a number of key things that Briony the character would have had no way to find out for sure from the letter she would have actually had copies of (I'm guessing that Cecilia's possessions were destroyed in the bombing that killed her, so Briony would only have had access to Robbies letters which ended up in the war museum). So for instance, she doesn't actually know why the scene at the fountain took place -- which perhaps explains why it seems more like a novelist's device than a real event between real people. Nor does she know anything about his real experiences on the retreat to Dunkirk. The Lola events seem sufficiently odd that you can't help wondering if Briony has actually got to the truth of that set of events either. And so you find yourself at the end looking at a narrative which may be primarily mistaken. A story which is more the product of Briony's need to resolve her problems than of actual events within the story world. And yet since the author has to keep this back until the very end, you don't actually get much of a chance to work through this other question of Briony trying to exorcise her guilt, since the fact that this is more an attempt to do that than anything else doesn't come up until so late.

Now, I think most of this has to do with the way in which I view fiction. If I was more able to take it as a pattern of narrative and character divorced from the necessity of there being a story-reality, I think I'd probably enjoy the cleverness and suggestiveness of all this a good deal more.

So I think at the end, my dissatisfaction is primarily centered around my differences with what appear to be McEwan's ideas about what a narrative is.

On a side note (just in case this comment isn't already post length) this is part of why I object so strongly to those benighted moralists who try to do "clean cuts" of books and movies. Because it seems to me that the reality that resides within a story is important, hiding bits of that does not strike me as changing either the story or the characters at all.