Thursday, February 04, 2010


I must be a philistine. I didn't love Ian McEwan's Atonement. And I feel terrible about it. This is the fourth McEwan book I've read, and I consider myself a fan, but I didn't love Atonement, and I prefer Saturday (and we'll see what else as I continue to read through his oeuvre).

There is much that is highly admirable in Atonement, but I simply didn't connect with it. After forgiving the fact that the novel is terribly predictable, I admit there are things about this book that are exquisitely beautiful — the story above all — and it brought me to tears.

(For a précis, see elsewhere. I'm not interested in reviewing the book so much as examining my reaction to it.)

McEwan has a deft way with some very complicated emotions, particularly not fully formed ones, inching toward being effable. And yet he is able to map them; he seems to know what parts of the emotion are common ground, what will be understood without being said, in order to describe the rest of it most simply.

Also, there were a number of wonderful maxims McEwan produced throughout the book. For example, "It was not generally realized that what children mostly wanted was to be left alone."

I like this passage for conveying all the naive self-certainty of any reasonably smart 13-year-old:

These thoughts were as familiar to her, and as comforting, as the precise configurations of her knees, their matching but competing, symmetrical and reversible, look. A second thought always followed the first, one mystery bred another: Was everyone else really as alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it, with a finger held up to her face? Did everybody, including her father, Betty, Hardman? If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone's claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance. But if the answer was no, then Briony was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had. This was sinister and lonely, as well as unlikely. For though it offended her sense of order, she knew it was overwhelmingly probable that everyone else had thoughts like hers. She knew this, but only in a rather arid way; she didn't feel it.

So why don't I love Atonement the way I'm supposed to?

I expected something epic (I don't know why). Instead: the first half covers the emotional life of little more than a single day. The second and fourth sections cover similarly slight slices of time, with only the third part describing the experiences of a couple weeks. There's a certain kind of stillness required for reading time treated in this way, and the words themselves couldn't draw me into that state. Maybe, simply, this wasn't the right time for me to be reading this book.

It's the first section, half the book, that sets the stage, that culminates in the act for which the atoning shall be done. The second section confused me. I'm still not entirely sure why it's there. It's Robbie in France, retreating to Dunkirk. Conditions are hard, and one might almost think Robbie is atoning, that this is his punishment. Robbie's been wronged, of course, but this section has the effect of making me forget. Rather than intensify his suffering, it serves to dilute it — he suffered war just as thousands of other young men did. Perhaps he would not have, had Briony behaved differently, but this fact does not elicit sympathy from me.

So then, finally, Briony gets on with her atoning, late in the novel, and this reassured me somewhat. (But as a writer, she's God: to whom does God need atone?)

I think Briony's rejection letter (at about three-quarters through the book — I'd just about lost hope) holds a clue to my disenchantment:

However, we wondered whether it owed a little too much to the technique of Mrs Woolf. The crystalline present moment is of course a worthy subject in itself, especially for poetry; it allows a writer to show his gifts, delve into mysteries of perception, present a stylized version of thought processes, permit the vagaries and unpredictability of the private self to be explored and so on. Who can doubt the value of this experimentation? However, such writing can become precious when there is no sense of forward movement.

Certainly Briony's initially submitted draft was improved upon, as it's clear she incorporated some of the other suggestions made, but I can't help but believe some of the observations might be equally well levelled at McEwan. "Precious" is a bit strong. But it feels too much like an exercise in style (and not being a fan of Mrs Woolf, it's an exercise lost on me). It lacks the ease and simplicity I've come to associate with his writing. Yet, the prose has a "floaty" quality (I'm sure that's a technical term), but in a heavy way, like a wet butterfly. It's not languorous but rather wilted in the heat. There's something like a surface tension, an anticipation — the thing can't move freely, but it won't alight, trying to keep a cool distance on the hottest day of the year. In this way it remind me a little Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy, which I loved. So maybe this attitude is all very deliberate, but it feels at cross-purposes and doesn't work for me here.


Days later, my opinion has softened somewhat. The several passages I've reread are quietly charming; they are not assaulting me with their pretensions.

However, I continue to believe that style gets in the way of the sincerity I've loved in some of McEwan's other books.

If you are among those who love this book, please, share with me why.

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