Monday, March 03, 2008

Deepish sorts of thinky-ness re: ATONEMENT.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead for the film version of Ian McEwan’s ATONEMENT.

Full disclosure: I haven’t yet read McEwan’s ATONEMENT, though it’s been on my TBR pile for some time. The following comments are applicable to the film version only.

I understand from conversations with others that the plot of the book and the movie are essentially the same: Brit Boy and Girl fall in love circa late 1930s, as the world slides into war; Girl’s Younger Sister, in a fit of jealousy and adolescent self-righteousness, tells a fairly horrible lie about Boy, sending him to prison and later to war; Girl and Boy suffer beautifully for one another as Younger Sister grows up and realizes the error of her ways; Girl and Boy die, separately, of the horrors of war; Younger Sister spends the rest of her days attempting to atone for her misdeed.

A sad story, though beautifully acted and filmed. I saw it as a Brit/WWII version of COLD MOUNTAIN (a book and movie roundly despised by contemporary lovers of romance) in some ways, as many of the same struggles were showcased: love, hope and faith in the face of the misery of war. Even the refrain of “come back to me” resonated in a very Nicole Kidman-struggling-with-a-Southern-accent kind of way. And, of course, the ending...painful, yet hopeful.

But I came away feeling slightly dissatisfied with ATONEMENT because the two lovers, Robbie and Cecelia, had so little screen time together – much like the old-fashioned historicals that often left the hero and heroine separated for huge chunks of the book – that I found it difficult to care very much about their doomed love.

What did leave a sharp impression on me was the last scene – Vanessa Redgrave, playing Younger Sister in her golden years, being interviewed regarding the release of her final novel. She had this to say:

“So, my sister and Robbie were never able to have the time together they both so longed for... and deserved. Which ever since I've... ever since I've always felt I prevented. But what sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending like that? So in the book, I wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia what they lost out on in life. I'd like to think this isn't weakness or... evasion... but a final act of kindness. I gave them their happiness.”

I’ve been reading online message boards at various review sites, and posters appear to be of two moods regarding Briony’s atonement for the ruining of Cecelia and Robbie’s lives. Most folks seem convinced that Briony did nothing to make up for the suffering she caused as a jealous thirteen-year-old. The fictional happily-ever-after she gave Robbie and Cee could never be enough to atone for the truth of their last, miserable years apart. The film failed for a good number of people who viewed it this way.

While I understand that point of view, I’m more interested in looked at ATONEMENT as a work of metafiction (a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction. It is the literary term describing fictional writing that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually, irony and self-reflection. In a sense, it can be compared to presentational theatre, that does not let the audience forget they are viewing a play; metafiction does not let the reader forget he or she is reading a fictional work. ~ Wikipedia) that addresses the writer’s responsibility to her audience in terms of shedding light on “universal truths.”

In 1950, during the height of the Cold War, the author William Faulkner won a Nobel Prize for literature. In his acceptance speech, he had this to say:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed -- love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. [emphasis mine] Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” ~W. Faulkner, December 10, 1950, Stockholm.

For me, this is what Briony is talking about when she says “...what sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending like that?” She’s attempting to give some meaning – find some “universal truth” – the suffering of her sister and her lover. Her version of that truth would likely be “loyalty, faith and true love are rewarded by ultimate happiness.”

But are they? They certainly should be, but we know real life often doesn’t work that way. Which is maybe why we, as romance writers, create the stories we do, in which true love has its chance to overcome the odds.

Perhaps Briony’s atonement – which consisted of personal sacrifice in the form of nursing broken, dying men as well as her final “gift” to Cee and Robbie – can be seen as inadequate from a personal standpoint. Certainly, in the movie we’re given no indication of the state of Briony’s personal life. Did she meet her own true love? Did she find perfect fulfillment elsewhere, in her work perhaps? The film gives no clue, other than to picture her very much alone in the moment she gives her final interview.

But even this would not be enough to make up for the pain she caused, would it? Even if she spent her entire life in enforced solitude, would it be enough?

I think maybe that’s not the point. I think maybe only the effort to atone is the point. It’s in the effort we make to be worthy human beings that the beauty lies, just as the journey of life is the point of living, and not the destination at the end. And while “happily-ever-after” may give us that “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” sense of satisfaction, is not the very struggle to find and preserve true love, however it ends up, a lovely reminder that we AREN’T just a collection of glands, after all?

So while ATONEMENT can’t possibly be called a “romance” in the sense of the current romance fiction tropes – girl meets boy, girl loves boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy, HEA – the fact that it celebrates what Faulkner calls “universal truths” – means it succeeds. At least for me.

But then, I loved COLD MOUNTAIN, so maybe I’m just bent. – Romance of Dubious Virtue


Blogger Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...

There's simply so much that's in the book, in particular, the epilogue, that can't possibly play out properly on film. Not that it takes away from the accomplishment of the film, from what I understand it's stunning, but it's just the fundamental difference between written word and reading between the lines and having a scene presented to you as fait accompli, if you will.

But the sense of dissatisfaction? Not restricted simply to the film. I think that's precisely what McEwan was going for—there's this sense of build up and expectation and then finally, when you see them together, you're at least relieved that they made their way back to each other, only to have even that small sense of joy dashed to tiny, glass shards, leading to the ultimate sense of dissatisfaction and thereby, drawing the focus back to Briony. You, as the reader or independent observer, is left to decide if what she's done is enough. Will it ever be enough?

In a way, it's the show of ultimate respect from a writer to his readers—he's allowing them to draw their own final conclusions (albeit, after shamelessly manipulating their emotions) but he's trusting they'll make the final judgment call rather than telling them HOW they should feel.

It's really rather tremendous when you think about it.

3/03/2008 10:37 AM  
Blogger Selah March said...

The book is next up on the pile, so I'll probably have more to say after I read it.

But yes, I like it when an author doesn't hit me over the head with how I'm supposed to feel, or the conclusions I'm supposed to reach. I fear I do that too often in my own writing, however subtle I try to be about it.

3/03/2008 10:41 AM  
Blogger Zeek said...

I do want to see this movie ... but mostly because of James McAvoy.

3/03/2008 11:28 AM  
Blogger Kate R said...

wow. I have to read this again--particularly that bit by Faulkner. Again.

It all sounds right, rings true, but I don't think it's anything new for the atomic age--maybe slightly more desperate in a faster time. People have always been afraid of being blown up (or dying of plague or being eaten by wild boars) so we've always indulged our glands. Decameron!

3/04/2008 7:19 AM  
Blogger Ann Vremont said...

excellent deepish sort of thinky-ness

waiting for the dvd

3/04/2008 11:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked Cold Mountain the book, but it left me feeling manipulated for the sake of Literary Accomplishment. So he got the accolades he strove for, and I learned never to do that to my audience.

And I liked the Faulkner bits, too. But I don't know if I'd see Atonement.


3/05/2008 8:39 PM  
Blogger Zeek said...

I didn't like it. It was incoherent and tedious. I liked Redgrave as Briony but I hated that she gave them a hea. It was still her making up what she wanted to be true and it cheapened their love. She hadn't learned a blessed thing.

But I did like Cold Mountain. (Mostly because of Ruby... hmmm maybe that's what this movie needed. A ruby.)

3/22/2008 11:06 PM  
Anonymous patrick said...

Atonement was a great flick; it looked and felt a lot like Pride and Prejudice… come to think of it, both movies have the same director, leading lady, both are based on books and both take place in England

i wonder: Is Briony's vocabulary typical for British 13 year olds?

3/26/2008 4:33 PM  

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