I no longer call Ian McEwan my second favourite novelist as I did from about 2006 to 2009, not after Solar, not after falling out of love with Saturday. But even if On Chesil Beach is his last masterpiece, I will probably keep reading every novel he publishes. Continue reading
I wonder if Ian McEwan has done his twelfth novel a disservice by calling it a ‘climate change novel’? It raises the stakes too high, creates the expectation of some startling insight into climate change itself – when it’s unlikely a novel can do such a thing.
I read Solar more as an amusing drama, a better version of his worst novel, Amsterdam. It’s the story of the downfall of Nobel Prize winning scientist, Michael Beard, who has done very little since he won his prize. We get three snapshots of his life in 2000, 2005 and 2009 and it’s McEwan’s skill to capture the passage of years, the shifts in time and world events. Beard is incapable of fidelity and in 2000 his fifth marriage is breaking up. In one of those McEwanian moments, a random and fatal accident suffered by one of Beard’s colleagues gives him a chance at revenge, cover-up and the stealing of valuable scientific secrets, that by the end of the novel he is developing into a lucrative alternative form of solar power.
Michael Beard is an anti-hero who reminds of Rabbit Angstrom, John Updike’s character. John Updike is one of McEwan’s favourite writers, and like Rabbit, Michael can’t control his appetite for food or women or his pettiness. In the vein of the Rabbit books, Beard gives the pulse of the time at spaced intervals; the main difference between them is that Rabbit is a car salesman while Beard is a scientist who was at least once something of a genius.
For me the novel had many moments of McEwan’s strength – startling insight into the moods and thinking of a person. I read the climate change aspect as simply a background for the exploration of an unlikeable but believable and engaging man’s downfall. Yet then on last night’s Bookclub show on ABC, Jennifer Byrne pointed out the obvious reading that I missed. It is a climate change novel because Beard represents us all, too greedy and carnal to prevent the disaster looming over us. Climate change is not just a background; it’s built allegorically into the novel.
A lot of critics have reviewed Solar poorly, but as a McEwan fan, I enjoyed it. 7.5/10.
Two quotes I’ve come across in recent weeks sum up something I’ve been trying to capture about youth in House of Zealots. It’s a particular sense of aliveness I thought all of life would have, but which I now fear dries up. I was writing about something I was experiencing when I started the book in 2002, but now I have to look back and write about it from a distance. Ian McEwan said this in an interview on the Book Show regarding the difference between his early writing and mature writing:
I was young, reckless, I had a kind of reckless pessimism which I think you can afford first of all when you’re young and before you’ve had children. You don’t care what happens to the world, you just want to stir it up. You don’t mind a revolution. I wouldn’t even have minded much a nuclear war. I really wanted things to shake up.
He’s exactly right; it’s how I felt for a time. Anything to make a dent in the world. It’s what Leo in House of Zealots wants to do.
And there’s a slightly different mood, but a related one, that Don DeLillo beautifully describes at the end of Underworld:
I long for the days of disorder. I want them back, the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real. I was dumb-muscled and angry and real. This is what I long for, the breach of peace, the days of disarray when I walked real streets and did thing slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself.
Nick, the character talking, becomes a middle-class, middle-aged man with sadness in his heart, but none of the anger, the readiness and the danger. In a sense the novel is an archaeological dig, taking us back from his present self to the youth that lay behind, as the chapters go circuitously backward in time. How did the boy who shot a man become a manager of a waste disposal company? How do any of us who once were young become what we are now?
Graham Greene-ish. A 25 year old British man who has lived with his parents up until now is sent to work on a secret tunnel in 1950s Berlin, a joint project between the British and Americans. He falls in love with a divorced German woman who introduces him to sex and love. Their relationship is threatened first when he rapes her (having tasted power and wanting more of it) and again when her ex-husband turns up and he feels pressured to be the strong man he has never been.
The prose only sometimes achieves the clarity and beauty which make McEwan one of my favourite writers. But I see in this novel interesting roots for later themes or scenes – Leonard rehearses a letter in much the way Robbie does in Atonement; the descriptions of Berlin resonate with those in Black Dogs; the couple have not so a disastrous wedding night as in Chesil Beach, but a disastrous engagement night for completely different reasons which still manage to tear the couple apart. Indeed, the ending of the novel is – SPOILER ALERT – quite similar to Chesil Beach.
I got there early, but the seats were already filled up and there I was outside the tent in the sun again, and when he came my myopic eyes could only make out a blur. He was a good speaker, but his voice was rougher than I imagined. I thought he’d have the same smoothness as his prose, a sort of aristocratic eloquence, but it wasn’t that kind of voice.
He read from his work in progress, a climate-change novel which sounds brilliant so far, full of those McEwan tics, timeframe and style that I love so much. He covered about five minutes of narrative-time in twenty minutes of reading.
A woman taking an ego trip asked him if it was possible to write happiness, because (she claimed) Saturday was a failure.
‘I did it,’ he replied graciously, ‘and you didn’t like it.’
I disliked a lot of the questions throughout writer’s week. They seemed to be divided between the self-serving, the loony , the wannabe writers looking for The Secret – and, I must admit, the good. ‘Don’t let the public near a microphone. They’ll say all kinds of stuff.’
The woman saying how it was unfashionable to talk about the afterlife. All the boring old men who made speeches. We didn’t come to hear you!
I’m a grumpy old man. I believe in everyone having a voice, but I don’t necessarily like the outcome.
This panel had Paul Auster, John Kinsella (my PEAC teacher’s cousin!), Margo Lanagan and Matt Rubenstein.
None of the writers particularly liked the question, and it was amusing to see them deconstruct it. Lanagan and Kinsella were both amusingly opinionated. I liked Kinsella’s rabble-rousing excitability and his earnest ideology – ‘I am a vegan pacifist anarchist’ – but it didn’t go down well with the older book-club set sitting near me.
Auster was brilliant. He said there was only one truly subversive thing – clarity. And I agree with him entirely. I love clarity too, a transparent book where the words aren’t calling attention to themselves but you’ve just found yourself immersed in the narrative world. It’s what’s similar about Auster and my second favourite writer, Ian McEwan.
Auster said at one point ‘I live in such a solitary world. I’m just trying to do my work. I don’t have an awareness of the literary world.’ He talked of his indifference to critics and fame and I thought of his years living ‘hand to mouth’ working on translations and starving. For him, writing is about one person talking to another, two strangers meeting in intimacy. Well, I’m a stranger to him, but he’s not a stranger to me.
Auster’s only rule : ‘swift and lean’. He said profound things on the spur of the moment in answering questions and he was private yet generous. He didn’t want to be there, but he was making the most of it and delighting me.
The rest of the world got to see Atonement months ago, but its official release in Australia was yesterday, Boxing Day. The Windsor Cinema – just metres from my house – had sneak previews last weekend, and so I got to see it a few days before most of Australia.
Of course, the film didn’t live up to my experience of the novel – but I was still impressed. (There was no chance of it being an equivalent experience, because for me the strength of Ian McEwan’s writing is his description of thought processes and emotions – something that can only be represented externally in a film.)
- The film has the novel’s elegance and intelligence.
- The actor playing the young Briony is perfect. She has a slightly haughty face, yet still likeable; she does precociousness so well.
- Keira Knightley was good as Cecilia but not brilliant. She didn’t have the subtlety I was expecting, the depth behind her words. I often felt like she was talking too quickly. But this might be the effect of the book moving so slowly, giving us each character’s thoughts around each line they deliver.
- The scenes were often excellent, especially the tired troops on the dirty beach at Dunkirk in the midst of the shambolic retreat. The ruined holiday town was perfectly evoked.
- Leon, Cee’s brother, wasn’t good natured enough. The novel’s so clear on his jollyness and generosity.
- I was worried that the war scenes would be extended and become the focus (when they were my least favourite part of the book) – but they weren’t; they were actually shortened.
The most significant change was the ending, but I thought it was a good change. Briony actually publishes her version of Atonement, the one with the happy ending, whereas in McEwan’s novel she can’t publish while the Marshalls live for fear of litigation.
Briony’s appearence as an aged woman on the talkshow manages to encapsulate so much sadness, time and wisdom. It’s a compressed version of the epilogue that is nearly as profound as the original. I thought Vanessa Redgrave’s performance as the old Briony was brilliant.
Atonement manages to work as both a compelling narrative with popular appeal – the sort of novel you can recommend to people who don’t read literary fiction – and as an extended exploration of life and the nature of writing itself.
The compelling narrative comes from a strong plot and masterful control of detail. It is a love story, but a love story told mainly from the perspective of the person who has come between the lovers.
McEwan gives us two very attractive characters in Robbie and Cecilia – both young, intelligent and vibrant people. We want them to love each other, we want them to be happy.
Yet Briony is likeable in her own way too. A precocious and brilliant child who is on an awkward cusp of maturity and immaturity. Her desire to make life more dramatic, to make it black and white, good and evil leads her to decide that the rapist she saw running away from Lola must be Robbie.
Reading it the second time and knowing what was to come, I was tensely aware of all the small details that were piling up, sending events down the path that would lead to Robbie going to jail for the rape and being separated from Cecilia. What would have happened if he hadn’t added the impulsive postscript about his sexual desire for Cecilia? Or even if he’d sent the right note, the corrected one? Would he still have ended up in that passionate tryst in the library which Briony interrupts?
What if Briony hadn’t read the note? Would she still have thought Robbie a sexual maniac?
What if the twins hadn’t run away and everyone gone to search for them? Would there have been no opportunity for Paul Marshall to rape Lola?
There are what-ifs in any narrative, but McEwan handles them so well, piling them precisely and expertly.
In part two as Robbie trudges through France trying to get home to Cecilia, the narrative drive is simple and strong: his survival, which would have been suspenseful in any case, is made even more so by the knowledge that Cecilia is waiting for him and their love has been so cruelly interrupted by years in jail.
In part three, we follow Briony as she works in the wartime hospital, ‘atoning’ for her crime by forsaking her dreams and trying to help others. The narrative drive comes from the fact that just like her, we don’t know what’s going on, whether Robbie made it, until, at the end of the section and the end of the novel as she wrote it, she visits Cecilia and Robbie is there with her.
An exploration of life and writing
Everything shifts with the revelation in the epilogue ‘London, 1999’ that the preceding novel has been written by Briony Tallis, and that in ‘real life’, Cecilia and Robbie both died in the war. It breaks my heart. I’ve gone soft; I would rather things ended where they did and I didn’t have to think of the happy ending as a fiction within the fiction.
But it’s a profound epilogue. Full of wisdom about the experience of being old and looking back on life. And full of insight into writing itself.
Briony writes in first person, asking herself whether writing can be atonement, whether by creating happiness for Robbie and Cecilia she has atoned for her crime. The answer is ambiguous. The problem is that the writer is the god of her novel, and so there’s no-one higher to appeal to, no-one to forgive her for what she’s done.
Thus the final scene as the dying Briony witnesses the play that was never staged with all her family around her has a special poignance. It’s realistic about the consolations that are available in life. Even if there’s no undoing what’s done, there’s still moments like these of joy and love. Not a happy ending, but a happy scene at the end of a profound life.
I’ve just finished re-reading part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Having got of prison early in exchange for enlisting, Robbie’s in the midst of wartorn France, with death and atrocities all around him. He’s retreating to the coast and trying to focus on Cecilia waiting for him across the channel.
It’s a strange juxtaposition after the single atrocity in the midst of the civilisation of the manor in the first section; McEwan never takes us quite where we expect.
Towards the end of the section is the key to the connection:
But what was guilt these days? It was cheap. Everyone was guilty, and no-one was. No one would be redeemed by a change of evidence, for there wasn’t enough people, enough paper and pens, enough patience and peace, to take down the statements of all the witnesses and gather in the facts… You killed no-one today? But how many did you leave to die?(261)
The tide of blood in war, the constant atrocities, drown out that one atrocity, that one event that changed everyone’s lives back at the manor. When we learn, later on, that it’s Briony writing this, the juxtaposition of her crime and the war might make us think her innocent by comparison. Or at least dilute the magnitude of what she did. (Of course, she can’t forgive herself that easily but she’d like to.)
I found this part less compelling, less insightful than the first part, but then the first part is one of my favourite pieces of writing ever.
Few books make me feel so deeply as Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I’ve just finished re-reading the first part, and I’m devastated again.
As the party waits for Robbie to return and be arrested, we watch it through Briony’s eyes and it’s so very frustrating because I long to know about Cecilia’s rage at her note being shown around to everyone and her passion for Robbie. I long to know what Robbie is thinking. Such a heartbreaking scene: him coming out of the mist at dawn having found the lost boys, expecting a hero’s welcome, and instead this stony faced line of people waiting with angry hatred for him.
And in feeling so angry at Briony, we forget the worst sin committed here: Paul Marshall’s rape of Lola and then the cowardly warmongering snob’s silence as an innocent man is arrested for the crime. What an evil human being! This novel affects me so much that I hate him as I read, I hate the way he’s got between Cecilia and Robbie, the way he’s destroyed Robbie and Lola’s lives.
McEwan casts this villian so well by giving Marshall plausible pomposity and this delicious detail of him being the gleeful inventor of that disgusting counterfeit – compound chocolate – and his desire for war so that the demand for his chocolate increases.
McEwan is a writer who has such superb control and pacing. He knows how to create narrative hunger in the reader, and yet once he’s done this, he also knows the precise speed at which to release details to us to keep us enthralled and desperate for more.
Some people I respect a lot find the first part slow and boring. I wonder if this is because their experience of the world is too different to McEwan’s. For me, McEwan so precisely gets to the experience of being alive when he talks of his characters’ motivations and thoughts that I don’t mind if a perfectly ordinary day occurs. However, I also am always aware that some menacing event that’s about to change everyone’s lives is hanging in the air.