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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in McEwan (3)

Wednesday
Jan012014

Atonement

Literary reviews as a rule do not behoove the person to know anything about the work he is reviewing.  He may revel in some of the trendier devices and philosophy, but in time first-rate novels end up branded with the same nonsense that tattoos the maudlin vulgarities of bestseller kiosks.  Why is this?  Perhaps because there is only so much we can say without context; perhaps because publishers are wise enough to know what type of citation makes a reader feel good about himself (there is no small psychology in such measures); perhaps because, for all our differences, each one of us desires a basket of similar goods – peace, prosperity, love, remembrance, fidelity, hope, and redemption.  The commonality of our themes bespeaks an undercurrent of basic human values all too often downplayed by those who like relativism, which eschews societal responsibilities for a desert bungalow where anything can and will happen (you may have heard such drivel before).  So when we read the decorous praise embedded in the usual display of the reviewer's past readings we discover nothing about its mechanisms.  A literary review has its destination, that of literary context, broadly bent across its brow and nothing more.  The careful reader knows better than to wallow in bibliographies, however luminous they may seem, as in this famous novel.

The structure of Atonement derives its power from its immediate surroundings.  An interbellum British country home; the attendant snobbery and trivial worries; a looming war with a surging and malignant juggernaut – all these are simple tools of fiction from the autoclave of longtime practitioners.  What makes them lovely is the patience with which they are rendered familiar.  Our family are the Tallises, father Jack (conspicuously absent), mother Emily (conspicuously valetudinarian), son Leon (conspicuously unambitious), and, the real stars of the show, two sisters a full decade apart, Cecilia and Briony.  The summer is 1935, a whole generation after Europe was massacred yet sufficiently ahead of fascist hellfire to have us believe that happiness is not only possible, it is also enduring.  For a short visit anyway, the Tallises have been beset by Emily's niece Lola and twin nephews Jackson and Pierrot, names so hideously cacophonous as to shed great doubt on their mother's concern for the well-being of their owners.  Briony's best method for coping with these interlopers is to focus on the visit of the very un-prodigal son, Leon.  In his honor she, an intellectually precocious thirteen, writes a play that she intends to have her cousins act out (the plan ends in non-performance and humiliation).  The other distraction is the tall, handsome, and intelligent creation called Robbie Turner.  A Cambridge graduate just like Cecilia, whom he has known all his life, yet least of all when they attended the same university, Robbie plays an unlikely role in the Tallises' existence in that he is the sole offspring of their beloved charwoman Grace.  The two have heard nothing of his father for seventeen years now, so it has been the self-imposed task of Jack Tallis to see to Robbie's education.  He smartly studied literature at Cambridge; he then also smartly determined that he had little literary talent and has now become greatly interested in a medical degree, again to be subsidized by Jack.  But the figure of particular interest is a coeval of Leon's, another tall man by the name of Paul Marshall.

Marshall smells war – the rotting flesh, the smoke, the taste of dirt in every orifice – but he also smells the spoils.  He knows what will happen because it has already happened (one of the advantages of writing about the past), yet at the same time senses that what his father's generation suffered was not conclusive.  With the confidence of someone who knows that he has enough money never to appear boring, he speaks at length of his wartime plans to fabricate fake chocolate energy bars for every British soldier.  That this foodstuff bears the name "Amo bar" might recall what is stroked into each rifle and machine gun, as well as a certain Latin conjugation (Lola suggests the latter).  Yet for all his millions and "cruel good looks," Paul is ultimately a typical part of Leon's world:     

In Leon's life, or rather, in his account of his life, no one was mean-spirited, no one schemed or lied or betrayed.  Everyone was celebrated at least in some degree, as though it was a cause for wonder that anyone existed at all.  He remembered all his friends' best lines.  The effect of one of Leon's anecdotes was to make his listener warm to humankind and its failings.  Everyone was, at a minimal estimate, a "good egg" or "a decent sort," and motivation was never judged to be at variance with outward show.  If there was mystery or contradiction in a friend, Leon took the long view and found a benign explanation.  Literature and politics, science and religion did not bore him they simply had no place in his world, and nor did any matter about which people seriously disagreed.  He had taken a degree in law and was happy to have forgotten the whole experience.  It was hard to imagine him ever lonely, or bored or despondent; his equanimity was bottomless, as was his lack of ambition, and he assumed that everyone else was much like him.  Despite all this, his blandness was perfectly tolerable, even soothing.

One may complain that the rich violence of genius is generally lacking in McEwan; that his subjects are bereft of any spirituality and for that reason sink more deeply into oblivion; that his abuse of the comma borders on the egregious; but this passage is perfect.  It gives us every nuance of those lads we all know that joke, backslap, and carouse their way into middle age without tasting anything akin to structure or system.   And what becomes of these merry men is little different in fiction than in reality – but here I digress.

I have said nothing of the plot because the plot is patently ridiculous.  This is, however, to McEwan's credit.  Robbie and Cecilia share a few scenes that while appropriate for an equally admirable film, have little initial effect since they are based on nothing but supposition.  That two people who grew up near one another in different social strata could fall in love remains one of art's most tested clichés, but we see little run-up to this great affair whose passion will suffuse Atonement with lyricism and regret.  Despite this early blunder, the rest of the novel is magnificent in its pacing: half of it is allotted to two nights in the summer of 1935, because these will be the greatest and the most horrible nights in Cecilia and Robbie's young lives; a fifth – perhaps a symbolic bottle of liquor – advances us into the Second World War and wisely relents before we are overwhelmed by its stench and banalities; and a final thirty percent are devoted to Briony and a series of morally repulsive decisions.  By dint of repetition, by blooding its characters to the wickedness of the world within and without their own private spheres, by ensuring the reader that what lies before him could very well be a fairy tale, McEwan leads us to believe in the vision of a thirteen-year-old girl, in her machinations, her fears, her wonderlands.  Seeing the film might corrupt some details in the reader's mind (including the physical appearance of one of the characters which plays better on-screen but yields yet another problem of plausibility), but we are never engaged in mystification.  What is told to us actually occurs, in the way it is described, and then is set aside to be reexamined when we remember an incongruity.  Briony does write a play, she does see what she saw at the fountain, in the library, under the cover of night, except that everything to which she bears witness cannot be readily understood by the adolescent mind.  I suppose that expiates her actions to a certain extent, although two characters will spend their entire lives promoting the contrary, even when Briony has decided that sacrifice and kindness are not alien to the artistic mind.  And, as we know, literature has never been kind to chocolate manufacturers.

Wednesday
Jan192011

The Innocent

If you have ever lived in Germany, you will know three things: why its language offers endless riches to those who wish to adore it; why its politics, briefly the nadir of humanity, have resulted in the model state for the rest of Europe; and why it has produced the most magnificent music the world has ever known.  Perhaps these factors mean little; after all, Germany may have wine, women, and song, but it also has a reputation for precision and aloofness that frightens those who spurn discipline.  Since I spent many unforgettable years in the Federal Republic, I have always understood that old Latin phrase about home being that place in which you feel completely yourself.  My nostalgia, for better or worse, extends well past my personal experiences and into the early postwar years when the German economy began to recover at a rate unprecedented in history (a period still known in German as "the Miracle").  Why I feel this way I cannot know; I have never loved a German; I have no blood relatives of Teutonic stock; I did not grow up imbued with any particular fondness for this controversial bastion of order and knowledge, and some readers will surely smirk if I mention something about a prior existence.  Whatever the case, I firmly believe that we do not choose what we love, it chooses us.  Which brings us to this novel about a delicate time.

Our year is 1955 and our protagonist is the meek Englishman Leonard Marnham.  Twenty-five and not well-traveled either in persons or places, Leonard hails from a plain family of bourgeois attitudes that cannot so easily be shed.  What separates him from heroes of other compressed Bildungsromans is the mere presence of what we may term humility and what may be better described as incredulity: at numerous moments in his narrative, Leonard simply cannot believe that the world is real and pummeling him with all its ambiguities.  As the story opens Leonard, at home a post office employee with some expertise in the development of telephones, is dispatched to postwar Berlin to collaborate on a project so preposterous it must stem from the annals of historical truth: an East-West tunnel, from an American military compound, with the intention of siphoning communist phone conversations.  I shall not offer to explain what kind of tunnel the erstwhile Allies, in conjunction with the West Germans, were attempting to build at that time, its range of effectiveness, or why anyone ever thought they would be able to maintain the digging and signal interception in secrecy (never mind that the Allies do not have the personnel to make this a time-sensitive method of espionage).  Suffice it to say that the whole endeavor seems like the first, or at least the first known to us because it is the first known to Leonard, of many overwrought stratagems that can only result in heightened tension and a minimal amount of ground gained on a battlefield spread over three or four continents. 

Despite his obvious sincerity, friendliness and warmth do not come easily to our hero, who ends up spending many mornings eating alone in the compound's cafeteria.  One of his cohorts is Bob Glass, a vulgar American intelligence officer who does not live up to his surname in either fragility or transparency.  He instead embodies that other vitreous meaning, a reflection, if an opposite one.  While Leonard is callow, prudish, and staunchly British in his perpetual embarrassment over the awkwardness of human interaction, the thirtysomething Glass is back-slappingly loud and vulgar (his smug coercion of Leonard suggests a porn director).  Glass will constantly appear to be looking over Leonard's shoulder, a jurisdiction that extends into his private life and the young man's affair with Maria Eckdorf.  We cannot be sure from where McEwan, a researcher nonpareil, culled this thirty-one-year-old divorcée with no real personality apart from being a vulnerable woman who wishes to escape her native country, either physically or just in her mind.  Nevertheless, The Innocent crests when these two are alone and trying to make their love eternal, most gloriously in chapter six, Leonard's first visit to Maria's flat:

She sat across from him and they warmed their hands around the big mugs.  He knew from experience that unless he made a formidable effort, a pattern was waiting to impose itself: a polite inquiry would elicit a polite response and no other question.  Have you lived here long?  Do you travel far to your work?  Is it your afternoon off?  The catechism would have begun.  Only silences would interrupt the relentless tread of question and answer.  They would be calling to each other over immense distances, from adjacent mountain peaks.  Finally he would be desperate for the relief of heading away with his own thoughts, after the awkward goodbyes.  Even now they had already retreated from the intensity of their greeting.  He had asked her about her tea making.  One more like that, and there would be nothing left to do .... It was an assumption, lodged deep beyond examination or even awareness, that the responsibility for the event was entirely his.  If he could not find the easy words to bring them closer, the defeat would be his alone.

There are in this scene dozens of magnificent observations about two people who could be together, if they could simply find a hook, a joke, a commonality amidst a world of differences.  Apart from three short consecutive sentences that overdo an ironical situation, this remains one of the finest chapters I have ever read in any book, and may count as McEwan's crowning achievement as a novelist.  Their relationship blossoms ("when they were out walking they compared themselves favorably with other young couples they saw ... it gave them pleasure to think how they resembled them, how they were all part of one benign, comforting process") then collides one regrettable evening with Leonard's misplaced notion of masculinity.  This leads him to question how he comports himself with his work colleagues, his snoopy British neighbor Blake, and even his beloved parents who he cannot quite believe no longer tend to him.  The way Leonard writes to them, without affect or detail, implies that he cannot embrace or open up to them because his own life is unembraceable and closed.  Why closed?  Perhaps owing to that most melancholy of situations, his embarrassment at the immaturity of his ways; after all, he is a recently deflowered twenty-five-year-old.  Unsure of how he is supposed to act, as exemplified by his horrible assault on Maria, he certainly cannot convey subtlety or meaning of existence to the preceding generation.  But as youth is wasted on the young, so is wisdom on the wise, and Leonard is far too plain in his thinking to imagine a world terribly unlike the one he is in right this very moment.  In other words, he can neither abjure his realm nor get enough of it. 

Much later the novel shunts onto a track at which I shall not hint, but it spoils nothing to mention that one dramatic possibility usually present in these types of tales Maria as a double agent is not cultivated.  Consequently the love story slips into a metaphor for the spy story, or vice versa, which is why loving a woman and a country are the two strongest and most treacherous emotions a non-parent can experience.  We understand why Leonard loves Maria and we realize that Maria needs someone like Leonard who is unbesmirched by war.  But we are never really convinced that Maria could love Leonard, a fear sadly shared by our hero.  At one point he laments another disconnect between the couple: 

She was beautiful, he knew that, but he could not feel it.  Her beauty did not affect him the way he wanted it to.  He wanted to be moved by her, and for her to remember how she felt about him. 

Why Leonard arrives at such hippish conclusions provides much more than an allegory of Germany itself, the conquered and divided land, subjugated to the winners' whims, yet not entirely west or east, because such parables, while appealing to readers of quick judgment, are ultimately unrewarding.  Leonard rushes to judge Glass and Maria, and yet waits patiently for the rest of mankind to be pleasant to him before he settles his opinions a recipe for disappointment if there ever were one.  And for that and other reasons the fourth thing you will know is why a cobbler should never quit his last.      

Saturday
Jan052008

Amsterdam

Goethe famously claimed to have read this book in five and a half hours, a whole morning. When asked whether authoring a great novel or a great poem would be more satisfying, a renowned critic opted for verse because he could sit down with a glass of scotch in his study and finish the deed between dinner and bed.  And while each of us must decide his own threshold of sustained artistic pleasure, with our poor attention span constantly assailed by news bytes masquerading as watersheds, its natural length seems to be about two and a half to three hours.  There is something inherently sumptuous about a literary work that can be read and enjoyed in the same time as an opera, play, or artistic film.  A major asset of the 1998 Booker Prize winner is precisely this feeling of round edges.  The circle, beginning with two bad men and excessive ambition, will certainly be completed.  Since the only reference to the Dutch city involves a very controversial procedure, even the news–bitten reader understands that death awaits one of the co–protagonists, who in no small irony begin their fatidic march at the funeral of a shared lover.

Several years past their forties, Clive and Vernon are long–time friends and not unremittingly bad.  But too many of their own concerns clutter their living space.  Clive can barely leave his privileged residence to mingle with the rabble, and has to turn to the whims of nature to inspire himself to Europe's next great symphony (reminiscent of the central motif, literally and figuratively, of this film).  Vernon on the other hand is a gambler of souls, making money off reputations and what readers of his tabloid could possibly be led to believe.  Snippets of boardroom banter reveal that he is neither respected nor feared by his staff, and that his life has been wasted on the petty faults of the famous.  A clear dichotomy between the artist and the huckster, except that our dear composer is an unrepentant boor and snob (there is an excellent passage in which he "dares" to think of himself as a "genius").  He is also, like his yellow newsman chum, sentimentally attached to the late and lovely Molly Lane.  Funerals of lovers, especially those loved in a distant past, are convenient moments to mull over the deceased's infidelities, promiscuity and forks in the road.  Molly's husband George, unpleasantly aware that no fewer than three mourners had prior enjoyment of his companion, sets the two friends upon the third, an MP of rising importance and unaccountable physical repulsiveness.  What did Molly see in him? They both stare and frown and shake their heads as all boys do when they see a pretty girl with anything less than an Adonis.  Ah, but George knows what.  And he has the pictures to prove it.

It is here that George, McEwan, and the reader wisely lean back and watch the spectacle run its course.  Each of our protagonists is a misanthrope (a surly and unproductive Clive is even shrouded in "misanthropic gloom" on a train ride): Vernon has to make his readers hate celebrities in order to get them to read about their hatefulness, and ends up hating everyone except Molly (he has always, it should be said, hated himself), while Clive hates people because they were not assigned the honor of composing the symphony of Europe and all they do is prevent him from fulfilling his destiny.  In time, hate becomes the mantra for the entire novel, and we know that hate is only rewarded in one way.  And if it isn't, then we have just wasted our expectations on one of most uniformly detestable casts of characters in recent memory.  What follows is both perfectly predictable and perfectly preposterous.  Considering the "moral choices" that the two men make (a point given emphasis in most blurbs on the novel), the results merit no questioning.  Just deserts could not be stamped more clearly on their lurching backs.  About two–thirds through Amsterdam, Molly vanishes into a corner of both her former lovers' minds to remain beautiful and haunting forever and ever.  With her go the youth and youthful frivolity of two souls whose idea of facing adulthood is watching a grown man squirm.