The Books: “Atonement ” (Ian McEwan)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Excerpt from Atonement: A Novel, by Ian McEwan

atonement.gifIan McEwan is such a good writer that there were times, when reading this book, when I had to just put it down, and absorb it. I needed time to let it filter down. Not just the plot – which is devastating, inevitable, like a Greek freakin’ tragedy – no way out … but the writing itself. There were times when I was left almost baffled by how good he is. He’s good in the big stuff, and he’s also good in the minutia. Like, I know that I SEE things in this world, and I see things that are so specific, and so … indicative of other things … in the way that McEwan does … but could I describe it?? I’m not being self-deprecating, I know I’m a good writer, but McEwan made me want to be better. But he’s also so good that it seems daunting. For example (and this is just one of many in the book):

She should have changed her dress this morning. She thought how she should take more care of her appearance, like Lola. It was childish not to. But what an effort it was. The silence hissed in her ears and her vision was faintly distorted — her hands in her lap appeared unusually large and at the same time remote, as though viewed across an immense distance. She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger closer to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in the finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it? There was no catching herself out. It was either-or. There was no stitching, no seam, and yet she knew that behind the smooth continuous fabric was the real self — was it her soul? — which took the decision to cease pretending, and gave the final command.

I know exactly the experience he describes so perfectly there. I have done that. I have wondered those things. But to put it into words like that … Atonement took my breath away on nearly every page.

But it was also one of the most wrenching reading experiences I have ever had. The only book I can think of that RUINED me at its end in the same way was Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn (post about the book here). I burst into sobs at the end of that book. That’s never happened before. And I remember where I was when I finished Atonement. I was living with Jen in Hoboken, and I was sitting on the floor of my room. My door was closed. I came to the last sentence, and it was like there was a tiny hiccup deep inside of me – which let loose the flood gates. If you’ve read Atonement then you know that up until almost the very last sentence you think things are one way … and then you realize that no, things are not that way at all. They are this way. And any germ of hope you might have been hanging onto is shattered. I started sobbing – and it immediately became about my own losses in life, my own disappointments, the things I have lost that I can never get back, the love I had that I lost and had to find a way to go on living … I was a mess. Poor Jen was doing yoga in her room or something and heard me start howling, and a soft knock came on the door … “Sheila? You okay?” “Yup! I’m fine!” I sobbed in response. “Just finished Atonement, that’s all!”

The book upset me so much that last year I picked it up to read it again, got through one page and then thought: Nope. Cannot put myself through it. Nope.

Written from many different points of view – which is essential to the book’s success, I think. Because the book is about, in so many ways, how trapped we are in our own skins – how we look out of our own eyes and see the world one way, and we can never enter another’s experience. We see things happening, and we may mis-interpret – but to us, it is reality. There is no overlap. There is no possibility of connection. Briony, the 13-year-old girl who is really the key to the whole book, the linchpin, is a fantasist, it is true. She writes stories and plays, and is deathly serious about all of it. She doesn’t make things up, that’s not Briony’s fatal flaw. It’s that she dramatizes life, she makes up narratives – and I guess all little kids do that, but Briony does it in this particular situation – and two lives are ruined. Well. More. I would say her life was ruined as well. Although she does turn it to her advantage much later in her life – her way of “atonement” – but seen in that light, the “atonement” of the title is horrifically ironic. It becomes a ghastly joke. How do you atone for something like that?

I remember as I was reading the book (and I knew nothing about it, I did not know which way it would go, or what would happen – I had avoided reviews with spoilers) – things were going so badly, like – so unbelievably badly – that you can sense the ruin approaching. It’s horrible. You want to leap in and intervene – which, in my opinion, would mean, saying, “Everybody: Don’t listen to a word that Briony says. She’s a little fantasist and she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” I’m still mad at her. But anyway, I remember saying to my dad something like, “Well, I’m halfway through … and things are going really bad … but I’m hoping that the title … well, the title is Atonement … so hopefully that will mean something.” My dad (who hadn’t read the book) said, “I don’t think it’s a happy ending.” “No, I know. I can feel it.” It’s awful, because you know you’re approaching the end … and you have already been through so much with the rest of the book – the terrible events of that weekend party … and then you skip ahead in time, a couple of years … and WWII has started … and now we’re in London … and you hope … you just hope that maybe things worked out in that little blank interim we had. Maybe McEwan is holding something out on us. Well, he sure is. And he releases it at the end, and shatters all your hopes and dreams. Thanks, bro!

I’m writing about this book as though I am afraid of it. I actually did feel fear for almost the entirety of the book. It tapped into a deep well inside of me, from almost the first page … and I guess there’s nothing worse (on a small level, and on a large level) than being completely misunderstood. Or when you hurt someone by accident … and you SO didn’t mean to hurt them!! … but it happened anyway … and oh God, what an awful awful feeling that is. A sense of urgency comes over me when I am in that situation. I must fix this IMMEDIATELY. It’s terrible. And misunderstanding is at the heart of so much of the world’s tragedies – and the misunderstanding that happens in Atonement is devastating. It seems small, at first. Briony saw something, and misinterpreted what she saw. That happens a lot. Especially with little kids when they encounter something in the adult world that they do not understand. No biggie, right? But the way McEwan writes about it … you just start feeling this overwhelming sensation of dread. Like: oh God. No, Briony, what you saw is what you THINK you saw, and because you make up little stories you’re making this one up, too – what you saw is NOT what you think you saw. You have made the whole thing up! But Briony is not one to let things lie (witness her play rehearsals … she’s obsessive, serious, and … there’s something rigid about her that makes you know she is headed for a huge fall – I recognized myself in Briony, I really did – which is why I think I had such a violent reaction to her.) … Briony becomes fired up with her interpretation of what she saw. She casts herself as the Rescuer, the Savior. She will “save” her sister. Then everyone will know how special Briony is! What a heroine she is!

And so. Briony makes an accusation. And then, just watch how the events unfold. Inevitably. Doors clanging shut behind everyone involved, no way back, no way out.

You could live until you were 110. You could never atone for something like that.

I won’t say anything more about the book. Obviously it’s one of the most powerful books I have ever read. So powerful that I’m not sure I can ever go through it again. In fact, I dreaded today’s excerpt. The book gives off a malevolent glow on my bookshelf, full of its terrible truths, its bleak death-knell of hope. But still: McEwan’s writing is something else, man. He has written many books, but this is his masterpiece.

Here’s an excerpt. It’s from early on in the book. Before the shit goes down. But it’s building here. Briony intercepts the note. The note that has that word in it. “Cunt”. But the context it is in (it’s a love note) is beyond her understanding, and she already has misinterpreted the moment by the fountain … she feels the danger in the air, she senses the threat (even though she is totally wrong). She’s gathering her forces. I know she’s just a little girl, but her desire to be admired, to have attention, to elevate herself into visibility – is not only her downfall, but the downfall of the other two parties involved.

It makes me want to scold her. “Now, Briony, this is grown-up stuff, and you are just a little bratty girl, don’t flatter yourself that you understand anything. Run away and play now, and let the grown-ups carry on with their grown-up lives. You are not a part of it yet. Don’t flatter yourself.” I would like to condescend to her within an inch of her life, I would like to crush her spirit, to see her crumble into insecurity – to have her KNOW that she doesn’t know anything … That’s what the book brings up in me. It’s devastating.

But … and this is the most difficult level … it’s also a book about writing. Briony is NOT just a silly little girl who makes up stories. She is a writer. And her later life will play that out. She knew who she was … even back then. She is a writer. Everything that happens to her, even as a small child, is grist for the mill (you can see it in the excerpt). I was like that as a child. I am like that now. Sometimes “the urge to be writing [is] stronger than any notion of what [I] had of what [I] might write.” It’s totally true. The writing-urge is within her. She’s playing God, in a sense – and isn’t that what writers do? Play God? Moving the characters around, unleashing tragedies upon them, seeing how they react? Briony does it in her little plays as a girl, she does it in her life – with brutal consequences – and she does, indeed, become a writer of some renown.

I also don’t think it’s an accident that it’s a WORD that starts Briony on her terrible journey. It’s the WORD that confirms her fears of what she saw at the fountain. A writer. Responding to the call of the word, however mistaken.

But again. There is no atonement. There is no taking back that devastating moment when she made that choice.

Great book.

Excerpt from Atonement: A Novel by Ian McEwan

The very complexity of her feelings confirmed Briony in her view that she was entering an arena of adult emotion and dissembling from which her writing was bound to benefit. What fairy tale ever held so much by way of contradiction? A savage and thoughtless curiosity prompted her to rip the letter from its envelope – she read it in the hall after Polly had let her in – and though the shock of the message vindicated her completely, that did not prevent her from feeling guilty. It was wrong to open people’s letters, but it was right, it was essential, for her to know everything. She had been delighted to see her brother again, but that did not prevent her from exaggerating her feelings to avoid her sister’s accusing question. And afterward she had only pretended to be eagerly obedient to her mother’s command by running up to her room; as well as wanting to escape Cecilia, she needed to be alone to consider Robbie afresh, and to frame the opening paragraph of a story shot through with real life. No more princesses! The scene by the fountain, its air of ugly threat, and at the end, when both had gone their separate ways, the luminous absence shimmering above the wetness on the gravel – all this would have to be reconsidered. With the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness, and even in her excitement over the possibilities, she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help.

The word: she tried to prevent it sounding in her thoughts, and yet it danced through them obscenely, a typographical demon, juggling vague, insinuating anagrams – an uncle and a nut, the Latin for next, an Old English king attempting to turn back the tide. Rhyming words took their form from children’s books – the smallest pig in the litter, the hounds pursuing the fox, the flat-bottomed boats on the Cam by Grantchester meadow. Naturally, she had never heard the word spoken, or seen it in print, or come across it in asterisks. No one in her presence had ever referred to the word’s existence, and what was more, no one, not even her mother, had ever referred to the existence of that part of her to which – Briony was certain – the word referred. She had no doubt that that was what it was. The context helped, but more than that, the word was at one with its meaning, and was almost onomatopoeic. The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings. Three figures huddling at the foot of the cross. That the word had been written by a man confessing to an image in his mind, confiding a lonely preoccupation, disgusted her profoundly.

She had read the note standing shamelessly in the center of the entrance hall, immediately sensing the danger contained by such crudity. Something irreducibly human, or male, threatened the order of their household, and Briony knew that unless she helped her sister, they would all suffer. It was also clear that she would have to be helped in a delicate, tactful manner. Otherwise, as Briony knew from experience, Cecilia would turn on her.

These thoughts preoccupied her as she washed her hands and face and chose a clean dress. The socks she wanted to wear were not to be found, but she wasted no time in hunting. She put on some others, strapped on her shoes and sat at her desk. Downstairs, they were drinking cocktails and she would have at least twenty minutes to herself. She could brush her hair on the way out. Outside her open window a cricket was singing. A sheaf of foolscap from her father’s office was before her, the desk light threw down its comforting yellow patch, the fountain pen was in her hand. The orderly troupe of farm animals lined along the windowsill and the straitlaced dolls poised in the various rooms of their open-sided mansion waited for the gem of her first sentence. At that moment, the urge to be writing was stronger than any notion she had of what she might write. What she wanted was to be lost to the unfolding of an irresistible idea, to see the black thread spooling out from the end of her scratchy silver nib and coiling into words. But how to do justice to the changes that had made her into a real writer at last, and to her chaotic swarm of impressions, and to the disgust and fascination she felt? Order must be imposed. She should begin, as she had decided earlier, with a simple account of what she had seen at the fountain. But that episode in the sunlight was not quite so interesting as the dusk, the idle minutes on the bridge lost to daydreaming, and then Robbie appearing in the semidarkness, calling to her, holding in his hand the little white square that contained the letter that contained the word. And what did the word contain?

She wrote, “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.”

Surely it was not too childish to say there had to be a story; and this was the story of a man whom everybody liked, but about whom the heroine always had her doubts, and finally she was able to reveal that he was the incarnation of evil. But wasn’t she – that was, Briony the writer – supposed to be so worldly now as to be above such nursery-tale ideas as good and evil? There must be some lofty, godlike place from which all people could be judged alike, not pitted against each other, as in some lifelong hockey match, but seen noisily jostling together in all their glorious imperfection. If such a place existed, she was not worthy of it. She could never forgive Robbie his disgusting mind.

Trapped between the urge to write a simple diary account of her day’s experiences and the ambition to make something greater of them that would be polished, self-contained and obscure, she sat for many minutes frowning at her sheet of paper and its infantile quotation and did not write another word. Actions she thought she could describe well enough, and she had the hang of dialogue. She could do the woods in winter, and the grimness of a castle wall. But how to do feelings? All very well to write, She felt sad, or describe what a sad person might do, but what of sadness itself, how was that put across so it could be felt in all its lowering immediacy? Even harder was the threat, or the confusion of feeling contradictory things. Pen in hand, she stared across the room toward her hard-faced dolls, the estranged companions of a childhood she considered closed. It was a chilly sensation, growing up. She would never sit on Emily’s or Cecilia’s lap again, or only as a joke. Two summers ago, on her eleventh birthday, her parents, brother and sister and a fifth person she could not remember had taken her out onto the lawn and tossed her in a blanket eleven times, and then once for luck. Could she trust it now, the hilarious freedom of the upward flight, the blind trust in the kindly grip of adult wrists, when the fifth person could so easily have been Robbie?

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28 Responses to The Books: “Atonement ” (Ian McEwan)

  1. amelie says:

    oh, God. i remember emailing you, sheila, when i read this book for college two years ago. [[was it really two years ago? wow! reading you has been brightening my days for over two years!]]

    i wondered which part you were going to excerpt when you got to this book on your shelves — how do you excerpt mcewan? — and i must say, that was a really good choice, but i’m so very very glad the first excerpt, about the command of her hand, made it into this post. brilliant.

    this reminds me, i haven’t seen the film yet. have you? if you have, does it do mcewan justice, in your opinion?

  2. red says:

    Haven’t seen it. I’m really not interested at all.

    I’ll eventually see it, I suppose, but I feel no burning desire to check it out.

    Yes – that command of her hand thing – just so amazing, so minute – I just read that and am in awe of it. I love the parts where Robbie is in his room by himself, wrestling with his feelings and emotions … and then the moment of the revelation and the accusation – that whole chapter – just perfect and horribly written.

  3. red says:

    I should say – I WAS excited to see it, and the previews made me nervous … it looked good – and that made me nervous – like: could it actually be good???

    Then it came out and the reviews came in (all glowing reviews) and I lost interest completely in seeing it. Not sure why.

    I’ll check it out on DVD eventually.

  4. Emily says:

    I think part of the reason why I didn’t like the film as much as the book is because the power of it isn’t just the story. It’s the way McEwan writes and when you take that away, so much of what I love about Atonement is just gone.

  5. red says:

    Emily – yeah the writing is just stunning. And how it switches perspective just adds to the helpless feeling I had reading it … like you could just tell that these misunderstandings were piling up … Horrible.

    Also the fact that I really fell in love with Robbie, as a character. And what happened to him just killed me. So unfair.

  6. Brendan says:

    Sheil, remember when I first saw the Abominable Snowman in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer? And it so terrified me that I stood up and announced, “I’m not watching THIS.”

    Well, now that you’ve written about this book, I feel much the same way. I’m not reading THAT.

    At least, not for a couple weeks.

  7. red says:

    Bren – “I’m not watching THIS.” hahahahaha That is so cute!!! Yes, I remember. I’m smiling ear to ear. Miss you guys a lot.

  8. Emily says:

    Oh, Robbie was the hardest part for me. To have a character with so much promise ahead of them just have their life wrecked…it was friggn’ painful.

    James McAvoy did a GREAT job in the film, though. The scene where he finally confronts Briony is intense.

  9. red says:

    Without even having seen it – I LOVED that casting choice. It really feels right to me.

  10. Brendan says:

    Sheil, we are coming to visit from St. Patrick’s Day to the 27th. Just so you know!

  11. Emily says:

    It really was perfect. At least I thought so. He’s so talented. I am so thrilled at his success. I especially loved seeing him and Ann Marie Duff on the red carpet at the Oscars. Like, you two SO deserve to be there!!

  12. Lisa says:

    Just *reading* about your reaction brought it all back to me. I remember just where I was when I read the end, like when people talk about the Kennedy assassination. I don’t think I’ve ever had that visceral of a reaction to a book. I was GUTTED.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet either. I’m almost scared to.

    (OT: Have you ever seen the Alexander Hamilton episode of American Experience with Brian O’Byrne [Cousin Kerry’s castmate] in the title role?)

  13. amelie says:

    sheila, i remember sending you the link when i found out they were making the movie. i was excited that james mcavoy was going to be in it — but i haven’t felt the need to see it.

    and emily, even without having seen it, i think that you’re exactly right with this:
    /I think part of the reason why I didn’t like the film as much as the book is because the power of it isn’t just the story. It’s the way McEwan writes and when you take that away, so much of what I love about Atonement is just gone./

    great, wrenching book.

  14. Emily says:

    Also – without spoiling it for you guys in case you do plan to see it some time – I didn’t have the same emotional reaction to the film. I mean, I cried for the entire last chapter of the book so damn hard I could barely read it. I went to the theater armed with tissues, sure I was going to need them, but didn’t. It just didn’t have the same impact on me. This isn’t me being a “oh, the movie is NEVER as good as the book” snob at all, either. I think a lot of books are adapted very well. This one was, too, but the story is just better as a book, with McEwan’s “voice,” as it were. At least for me.

  15. amelie says:

    thanks for the ‘just in cases’ heads-up. i can imagine a lot of the elements of this book being compromised in some way or another by film, so i’m glad to hear it was adapted well nonetheless. maybe i’ll see it sometime down the road. i’m just glad i’ve heard mcewan’s ‘voice,’ as you aptly described it.

  16. Kerry says:

    I loved the book, absolutely adored it. It’s one of my top ten, possibly top five books I have ever read. It completely killed me, and I tell everyone I know to read it, like some missionary. I saw the film and loved it, but have told everyone to read the book first, because that way you know what is going on in the characters’ minds when you see the film, and the whole thing is fleshed out. I thought it was a very respectful treatment of a stunning book. There seems no need to say it, the book is ALWAYS better. But come on, Vanessa Redgrave as the older Briony? Do you get better than that?

  17. Su says:

    Isn’t it fascinating that a lot of people seem to have that same reaction to “Atonement” – I mean looking back on it, remembering not only your immediate reaction and feelings but the exact situation you were in, the cirmumstances and surroundings you read it in, or perhaps more importantly: finished it in (though that might be the same thing for some of us, I guess…?).
    For me it’s like that as well and I remember being quite dazed for some time, upset and unhinged by all those brutal truths thrown at me in that brilliant prose.
    I don’t bond easily with literary characters but when I do it usually grips me very hard and sometimes, as in this case, kind of destroys me for a while. Robbie. Briony. Thinking back I actually clench my teeth and there’s that after-punch feeling in my stomach. That’s what makes a great book for me.

    “I’m writing about this book as though I am afraid of it.” – I can very much relate to that.

    Atonement just “happened” to me: It wasn’t recommended, I didn’t read any reviews, I just came upon it and read it in…2 days, I think.
    When I first heard about the film I was upset, when I heard of McAvoy’s casting I was most pleasantly suprised. I actually went to finally see it with a sense of dread but loved it.

    I agree on the different (maybe lesser) impact of the film but I find it to be very much in the spirit of the book, much more than an “accurate adaption” could or should ever be.
    I loved it for its sometimes obvious and sometimes very subtle references to film – like a mirror of what the book did with literature, language, words, as you said, Sheila.

    Give it a try when you’re ready. I absolutely understand your difficulties…

  18. southernbosox says:

    Okay Sheila, here’s the quiz I’ve given customers for the past 3 years or better: Who is the young girl pictured on the cover? She was a model/actor as a child and is now on television. Only 2 customers have gotten it right over the years. I’ve never seen it officially acknowledged. But if you look at it carefully you know it’s her-

  19. Jon says:

    Oh me oh my. This is too much. Earlier this week, as though today’s post were a siren’s call from the future, I finished reading “Atonement” (am floored by it and have already begun reading “Saturday”–which I’m already equally riveted by). And two nights ago, I went to hear Alice McDermott speak about writing and also read a new (and pretty great) story of hers called “Our Girls,” forthcoming in the Hopkins Review. (She’s a great reader and a completely seemingly down-to-earth, practical, funny, non-precious-sounding person). Call it what you will (fate/destiny/kismet/coincidence/serendipity/superstition/some crazy combination thereof), but somehow it makes crazy sense that both McEwan and McDermott (could it have something to do with the twinning Mc’s?) have shown up before both of us this week in figurative and literal ways. Haven’t really read McDermott before (aside from the great section you excerpted from “Charming Billy”–so useful and instructive, by the way, on use of dialogue in fiction), but I plan to. And have you read McEwan’s “Amsterdam”? Booker prize nothwithstanding, I think it’s really funny–a near-romp compared to “Atonement” (which often put me in mind of the kind of brain-child-book Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” would have if it got mashed up with some of “The Bad Seed” and Freud’s “Dora: a Case History”) (and also a little bit of “Mrs. Dalloway”). Ironic, then (or not), that McEwan chose an epigraph from “Northanger Abbey”–which itself was hardly meant to be taken as a completely serious book. Then again, perhaps that’s one of the things he’s trying to revise or reimagine by pushing things as far as he does with Briony et al. Almost as if he’s saying: here’s a situation that with just a slighly different flick of the wrist could turn into a flat-out, laugh-til’-you-drop kind of farce. (and god knows he has the talent and skill to do this very thing). But, no, obviously, that wasn’t his project with the book. And what he creates instead is an incredible guilt-ridden tragedy of emerging and occluding consciousness that implicates country as much as it does character, class as much as it does gender, war as much as it does peace. In other words, everything under the sun…setting on the empire…and then some.

  20. red says:

    Jon – I’m so jealous you went to go see Alice McDermott! I’ve heard her interviewed on NPR and I just love her energy. Seems like a really nice person. You told me about one book she wrote that is taught in classes – because the first two pages are basically an example of “the perfect opening” … what book is that, do you remember?

    I definitely want to read Saturday as well – I own it, just haven’t gotten to it yet. I still feel burned by Atonement – Ian McEwan put me thru enough torture!

    I love your comments about class and empire. So true. That house, and the way they live – reminiscent of the atmosphere in Remains of the Day – although not so formal. It’s a world about to die. And somehow … they all know it. There’s a sense … that things are shifting, changing – great upheavals … nothing will be the same again.

    There’s a line in the book that I love about Robbie – I’m paraphrasing, but it’s something like, “Robbie had a social ease which was greatly resented by those who didn’t understand why he had it.” Like: he’s just a hired boy who lives in the garage … who is HE to be so confidant in himself?? Those class issues – that permeate every moment he has with Cecilia – and it permeates Briony’s misinterpretation of his character. He is the dreaded “other”. He is encroaching on their turf. Now Cecilia obviously doesn’t feel that way … or maybe she does, but for her … it’s a welcome encroachment. But that blurring of the classes – that has gone on thru the 20th century in England – is made manifest in that whole relationship. Robbie’s aware of it, too – but he has ambition … he’s going to keep grinding away at his work … and make something of himself. I just ache for Robbie. What a loss.

    And excellent call with the Northanger Abbey quote. yes – a novel that admits it’s a novel, that is kind of playing on itself – making fun of the genre, while also submitting to it … really interesting. Atonement has so many of those layers I can’t even count them all – and so often books like that come off gimmicky … I have read some critics who do feel the ending was a “gimmick” – or, a “twist” – like a literary device … To me, it felt like the end of the goddamn world. Not a “gimmick” at all. But it certainly is a sleight of hand … McEwan revealing himself as the author, and pulling back his lens on Briony – as an old woman and an author … both of them are creators of worlds … It’s just amazing. An amazing book.

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  22. Jon says:

    The Alice McDermott book I think I referred to way back when (and which is now on my nightstand to be read in full–not simply taught as an opening that basically cements your eyes to the page) is called “That Night.” It’s her 2nd novel and was pub’ed in 1982.

    As for “Atonement,” yes, I can see how it might want to make you put the veil on any of his other stuff for the time being. Like that was so good I don’t even want to risk being possibly disappointed a bit by something else he writes. In his case, though, I have yet to ever experience such a let-down–even with the “less intense” works (e.g., Amsterdam).

    Truth be told, I have to say that I’m slightly less floored about “Atonement’s” ending–but in a good way, I think. Though it packs a punch in terms of resolving or answering questions about characters’ fates (esp. Cee and Robbie; your sobbing in a room upon finishing the book while someone’s doing yoga next door is a novel–or at least a great short-story–in itself), I’m not sure finally what beyond recognizing the end of a particular world (and the figures therein we’ve come to know so deeply and intensely) I’m supposed to make of that section. Not that the “end” of a world isn’t profound enough of an ending (I was thoroughly moved by it), but somehow, compared to everything that occurs earlier on, the last section also seems slightly anti-climactic (which, given that it’s the novel’s denouement, makes technical sense).

    Still, if the true power of the novel lies in the extended movement leading up to “1999,” it would seem that the last section is as much about tying up loose factual ends as it is about suggesting that Briony has not simply atoned for her terrible childhood misdeed and misunderstanding, but has also in fact thrived as a result. After all, she’s alive and, though about to enter a moribund period of illness, has turned out to be the successful writer she always dreamed of being.

    Of course, the losses she sustained for and because of her writerly impluses (i.e., Cee & Robbie) are heavy and permanent. But they are also her material and professional gain. In other words, she’s lived to tell; and in telling well, we become her beneficiaries. As such, the ending (both hers and ours) would seem to lean more toward the side of uplift than devastation, tragic as the preceding events may be. Perhaps this is why I’m not finally “hit” as hard by those final pages. Then again, this is possibly McEwan’s intention: not to leave us in a complete emotional shambles, but rather with some hope and relief (relatively non-climactic qualities) about surviving and transcending tragedy (nationally and personally).

    But what a tragedy it is.

    Anyway, thanks, as always, for the great and inspiring post.

  23. red says:

    Jon – I wish I could track down some of the other critics I read – learned intelligent people – who were less than floored by the ending, and they made quite a compelling case, as you do here.

    I think I am less inclined to forgive Briony and not at all inclined to worry about the quality of her life. At least that’s how I remember my experience of the book. I knew she had been punished enough, I know her pain must have been … I mean, it’s unspeakable

    … I cannot even imagine the lifetime of agony she had, knowing what she did … but I still felt, somewhere, that what she did was unforgivable. And “atonement” was a JOKE compared to a sin of that magnitude. And yes – she has turned it into her gain – which you can even see in the excerpt below … I mean, she’s just a little kid, but she already has the soul of a writer, know what I mean? She’s not a particularly happy person, she’s already split off from herself (but in a different way from Cecilia – whose split is more curious and open-ended in nature – as that excerpt about moving her hand shows) … but Briony is already living her life for AFFECT … and yet she’s also a prickly introverted little weirdo. I mean, if that’s not a writer … And I speak as someone who knows!!

    For me, the sense of loss – of what Cecilia and Robbie were robbed of … was so acute that I still feel anger towards Briony. I feel compassion, too – like I mentioned above – or maybe it’s more like pity. But I think she got what she deserved.

    Good for her that she was able to make a buck from it. many people cannot turn their misery into something profitable.

    But I still think back to cecilia and Robbie in that library …

    McEwan is brilliant here – because … he’s a writer himself. And he has turned his own life (however it is) into his novels … and has become quite successful … yet he seems to also be saying: these are just words, folks … this is not a triumph … real life is the thing, and some of us are not fit for “real life”.

    Briony was never “fit” for real life.

    Sometimes I think I’m not either.

    I realize that Briony pushes my buttons because I am so much like her. I want to shake her smug little body until her brains rattle around in her head.

  24. Jon says:

    “She’s also a prickly introverted little weirdo”

    Ha ha ha.

    Well, if it’s prickly little creations like Briony that necessarily reflect back an authorial consciousness as magesterial and life-affirming as McEwan’s, then bring on the Brionys (even the “unforgivable” ones, Sheila–yours included!)

    You raise an interesting point, though, about the nature of Briony’s affect–i.e. whether once we witness her trying to guess at the mystery of what moves her finger we should unrelentingly question the sincerity of her subsequent actions. I wondered, for example, despite her guilt-ridden, sincere devotion to following in Cee’s footsteps as a nurse, whether Briony was doing it all finally “for writerly material”–however possibly unconsciously. I realize how cynical this makes me sound; but in truth this wasn’t so much a nagging question for me as it was something that danced subtly at the back of my mind as I continued reading. And ultimately, as detached and self-split Briony is (and has to be) in order to “order” her experiences on the page, she doesn’t attempt to incriminate Paul Marshall publically by publishing her account of the war while he’s still alive. True, we’re told she’s motivated here partly by the threat of litigation. But I also get the sense that Briony, who’s undoubtedly suffered her whole life for what she did, has decided in a final conscious act of contrition to stanch the pattern of ruination by letting the biggest criminal of them all (arguably) go free. Almost as if she’s said: enough is enough, more lives have been ruined than needed to be, I won’t contribute to it if I can help it, damned and deserving of exposure as Marshall is. It’s not like bringing 90 yr. old man to justice is going to bring Cee or Robbie back from the dead. Certainly not any more than writing a book about them will.

    (Question still remains: how much help really can Briony–or anyone in her position–do to make amends? This is arguably “Atonement’s” primary question and one which, with its possibly unknowable answer, gives you, Sheila, understandably, considerable grief!)

    As for the un/real divide between stories and life, I sort of, in my own weird introverted prickliness, have come to believe that keeping one’s sanity has as much to do with being able to know and mark in no uncertain objective terms the difference between reality and fantasy as it does with positing fiction as an undeniable form of life itself (and not simply an imitation or reflection of it). This feels particularly true to me when I read something as psychologically acute and real as “Atonement” (and also possibly has something to do with your sobbing in that room upon finishing the book; if that’s not life, then what is? “Are you all right, Sheila?” “Yes, fine, just finished ‘Atonement,’ that’s all” HILARIOUS! HEARTRENDING!

    Which is all another way of saying books like “Atonement” somehow lift me up in the end, despite or even because of the terror and tragedy they depicts. Easy enough to say, I know, sitting on my duff, popping chocolate into my mouth as I turn the pages (as opposed to digging a trench somewhere near Baghdad and spitting out sand). But this feels true to me, however weird it may sound. It feels true and it’s also the kind of thing that makes me feel like continuing to write is worth it (esp. on days when the writing’s not going particularly well, ahem…)

  25. Su says:

    I love what you’re all saying; I can see all your points and Jon, I don’t think it’s cynical at all to consider Briony’s motives in following in Cee’s footsteps – I was wondering about that, too.

    “many people cannot turn their misery into something profitable.”
    Now that’s something I’m still chewing on…I hadn’t quite thought about that particular aspect of it. Wow.

    Have any of you, by chance, read “On Chesil Beach” by McEwan? I read it on the train in a couple of hours…just couldn’t put it down.

  26. red says:

    Su – No, I have not read it yet – very much want to, though!

  27. The Books: “The Shipping News” (Annie Proulx)

    Next book on my adult fiction bookshelf: The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx. (Some of my thoughts on this book are already on this blog – I went through some of the posts and pulled some of my own language…

  28. Hello, Neat post. There’s a problem with your web site in internet explorer, would check this? IE nonetheless is the market leader and a large section of people will omit your magnificent writing because of this problem.

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