When Cyril Connolly launched his famous literary magazine Horizon in 1939, it impressed the entire English literary world¨except Virginia Woolf. She ensured that posterity would record a significant dissenting note at the birth of Connolly's journal when she harrumphed in her diary, "Horizon out; small, trivial, dull. So I think from not reading it." In Atonement, Ian McEwan channels the voice of Connolly when a character sends a novella to Horizon and receives a rejection letter from the editor himself. The real Connolly would doubtless purr with satisfaction at the way his fictional counterpart elegantly condescends toward Woolf's fiction:
We found Two Figures by a Fountain arresting enough to read with dedicated attention . . . However, we wondered whether it owed a little too much to the techniques 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 stylised 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. Put the other way round, our attention would have been held even more effectively had there been an underlying pull of simple narrative.
The letter is written in 1940. It goes on to say, "we do not believe that artists have an obligation to strike up attitudes to the war . . . . Since artists are politically impotent, they must use this time to develop at deeper emotional levels." This sentiment is pure Connolly, but whether the author of Atonement shares it is doubtful. Ian McEwan's ninth novel is deeply concerned with World War Two, devoting 75 pages to describing the retreat of Allied forces to Dunkirk; another long chapter, about a nurse who works in a London military hospital, contains harrowing accounts of wounded and dying soldiers.
Connolly's notion of modernist fiction tempered by an "underlying pull of simple narrative," however, describes Atonement seamlessly. Like a Woolf novel, Atonement spends a lot of time inside different characters' heads, often when they're not acting but lying down or walking by themselves, their private thoughts rendered in free indirect style. But where Woolf eschewed conventional plot in favour of capturing "crystalline present moments," Atonement offers the old-fashioned pleasure of crisply paced storytelling. The result is a well-written and absorbing book, filled with scenes that hang in the memory.
McEwan's gift for depicting inner narratives is evident when we slip inside the consciousness of a young man named Robbie Turner. Robbie is working-class poor, the son of a cleaning lady. But thanks to the financial support of the gentleman who employs his mother, he has recently graduated from Cambridge. While lying on his bed, Robbie recalls an altercation he had earlier that day with one of the gentleman's daughters. Trying to be helpful, Robbie had inadvertently broken a vase she was holding and knocked pieces of it into a fountain. To Robbie's considerable shock, the young woman stripped to her underwear and jumped into the water to retrieve the pieces, finally storming off in anger. Now Robbie faces a dilemma. He has been invited to a dinner where Cecilia, the fountain diver, will be present. Should Robbie accept the invitation? He wants to. But what if she's still furious?
But perhaps¨he had rolled onto his back¨he should not believe in her outrage. Wasn't it too theatrical? Surely she must have meant something better, even in her anger. Even in her anger, she had wanted to show him just how beautiful she was and bind him to her. How could he trust such a self-serving idea derived from hope and desire? He had to. He crossed his legs, clasped his hands behind his head, feeling his skin cool as it dried. What might Freud say? How about: she hid the unconscious desire to expose herself to him behind a show of temper. Pathetic hope! It was an emasculation, a sentence, and this¨what he was feeling now¨this torture was his punishment for breaking her ridiculous vase. He should never see her again. He had to see her tonight. He had no choice anyway¨he was going. She would despise him for coming. He should have refused [the] invitation, but the moment it was made his pulse had leaped and his bleated yes had left his mouth. He'd be in a room with her tonight, and the body he had seen, the moles, the pallor, the strawberry mark, would be concealed inside her clothes. He alone would know, and [her mother] of course. But only he would be thinking of them. And Cecilia would not speak to him or look at him. Even that would be better than lying here groaning. No, it wouldn't. It would be worse, but he still wanted it. He had to have it. He wanted it to be worse.
My copy of Atonement has two check marks beside "He should never see her again. He had to see her tonight." I admire the artful simplicity with which McEwan shows, rather than tells us, Robbie's emotional state. His thoughts race off in all directions; they double back on themselves; they smash into one another. He roils at the thought of seeing Cecilia, and he roils at the thought of not seeing her. Robbie, obviously, is in love.
The relationship between Robbie and Cecilia is at the core of the book. He sends her a note confessing his affections that, by mistake, also contains an explicit sexual fantasy. When the note is read by Cecilia's younger sister, the 13-year-old Briony, it sets in motion a chain of events which results in Briony falsely claiming Robbie is responsible for the sexual assault that has taken place on her family's estate.
Wrongly convicted, Robbie spends several years in prison before enlisting and shipping off to France. Cecilia, estranged from her family, becomes a nurse. These are not the futures either Robbie or Cecilia imagined; Briony's accusation has destroyed their lives. Our sympathies are engaged as we follow the lovers' fates, witnessing their attempts to reunite under trying wartime circumstances. A suspenseful revelation comes when, years after her crime, Briony signals she may be willing to clear Robbie's name and assuage her own guilt. Hence the title of the book, and its theme of moral shame.
Atonement makes much of the fact that in addition to being a liar, Briony is also a writer. We are often asked to consider how, or indeed whether, fiction is distinguishable from falsehood. If one comes away from the book not quite knowing what relation is ultimately being suggested between these two forms of untruth, it seems a small failing given how pleasingly and vividly the story is told. Similarly, it's sometimes hard to know what to make of the book's many literary references, such as Robbie's similarities to Malvolio, whom he plays in a production of Twelfth Night. Both characters are members of the servant class who aspire to a social mobility greater than they achieve; both are undone by a mistake involving a note; both are deemed mentally ill; both are imprisoned. Yet Robbie is so much more sympathetic than Shakespeare's malevolent Puritan that one wonders if the suggestive resemblances are actually accidental. But perhaps such ambiguities are merely evidence that Atonement, like all complex literary works, releases its secrets slowly. Certainly it bears witness, in its own moving way, to the still, sad music of humanity. ˛