Sunday, December 09, 2007

Atonement (the book)

When I realized that I didn't own Pride and Prejudice I also realized that I did not own Atonement by Ian McEwan, now a film with Keira Knightly. I remember in the beginning of summer when I first heard advertisements for it I thought, "But there aren't any good female parts in Atonement." There aren't any good female parts in Amsterdam, McEwan's book before Atonement. This made me realize that I didn't own and hadn't read Atonement.


So, since I now work a few blocks from a Barnes & Noble, a terribly dangerous thing for me--I went an bought them (I also bought The Maltese Falcon and Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham--that's why I don't go to bookstores--it's hard for me to stop).

I don't want to give the story away. I had wondered where the transition between the McEwan of Amsterdam and the McEwan of Saturday had happened. This would be the book. I reviewed On Chesil Beach (and I believe Saturday before I started doing labels). McEwan's early work is fascinating and disturbing, but his characters were too distant. In Saturday he had overcome that, and here too, in Atonement. There is an understanding of all the characters--most especially Briony--the catalyst. The 11 year old who's vision of the world is so rigid that she cannot entertain the idea that what she has witnessed does not fit into her (11 year old) experience. I could not help wondering if Briony was a sort of stand in for McEwan himself. In one of his subtle moments of foreshadowing, he talks of Briony's future books, for she is already a writer at 11, and says that they were considered amoral. It has often been said of McEwan's writing as well.

And too it is a novel (at least the last part) about writing--the power of the writer on the reader, on the perception of what is real. Briony tells us, the reader, that what we have read is both true and not true. That she has started with truth--that we have been reading her novel up until this last part, her autobiography--but that a vital piece of it has been changed by her, the omnipotent writer. This is a dangerous line to tread--for McEwan, the real writer. To remind us that what we are reading is not in fact, fact. Is a story, and that the writer will alter what he needs to alter for the sake of the story.

In 2004 I had a subscription to The American Scholar which had an essay by Ben Yagoda called Heavy Meta, about the moment as puts it, "that I responded powerfully in estimable works of art to moments when the artist...winks: acknowledges, implicitly or explicitly, that what we are experiencing is after all a piece of human handiwork and he or she is the creator of it. It is gesture simultaneously of humility and of majesty, in both cases honoring the potency of art." I too grab the moments of reflexivity in art and find them fascinating. AND the magic moment when works refer to other works--"intertextuality," sometimes called meta. His essay is fantastic and if I had time I would try to see if it's online. Amongst his thoughts is the conundrum of Hoagy Carmichael's Stardust. The song is about a melody that haunts the singer's reverie. So is Stardust that song, or another song?

So, McEwan's pointing out that Briony (not he) has written this story and altered the facts for her own...sanity, while we know, of course, that McEwan wrote the story? And she has written for atonement, atonement she could not achieve without her alteration of the facts. So, is McEwan seeking atonement as well or is this just a well written novel from a man who gets really good ideas?

And, on the effect of the personal, what do I do with my recognition of my own self in the 11 year old Briony. Not in her crime but in her outlook?

I find I have annotated little in this book, so caught up was I in the narrative. It is a hard novel, and a heartbreaking one.

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