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.