Now, at a time when the British novel is an all-singing, all-dancing thing—as likely to be written in Glaswegian as in Standard English, to take place in Zanzibar as in Hampstead, to be set during the first Afghan war as during the last general election—it is hard to remember just how boring British fiction used to seem. When I was growing up (I’m thirty-nine) it was axiomatic in Britain that interesting novels came from somewhere else—usually America. British fiction was domestic realism, often about adultery; as for the prose, the rule was that you could have any color you wanted, so long as it was gray. American English had a relationship with the vernacular, a strength and flexibility and vividness, which British English, in its literary form, simply could not match, and made no attempt to match. A sentence by Bellow or Roth or Updike—any sentence—had a range and ambition and sheer aliveness that made sentences by their British contemporaries look dead.
Credit for this state of affairs having changed is usually given to the writers who were first published in London, but who came from further afield, some of whose names—Naipaul, Rushdie, Ishiguro—are now world-famous. This phenomenon has been given many names, one of them being “The Empire Strikes Back”; I prefer the term “Nesbian,” a characteristically lively piece of Australian English denoting writers of a non-English-speaking background. And it is undeniable that the Nesbians have done a lot for British English. But there was another group of writers whose work had a big impact on the literary language of Britain, a group whose first work was published in The New Review and the New Statesman, and whose central fictional talents were, and indeed still are, Martin Amis (b. 1949), Julian Barnes (b. 1946), and Ian McEwan (b. 1948). To young readers, they were the people who helped make British English seem alive again as a literary medium, principally because they wrote British English sentences at full stretch. They acted on the self-fulfilling assumption that literary language could be pushed as hard in British English as it could in American. If it now seems ridiculous that British fiction should have had an inferiority complex vis-à-vis American fiction, this group of writers must get a large share of the credit.
This is why McEwan is a key figure in British writing, and has been for a quarter of a century—a long time, for a man in his early fifties, but he started young, with the publication of First Love, Last Rites, a volume of stories, in 1975. The first sentences of the first story, “Solid Geometry,” struck a new note in British fiction:
In Melton Mowbray in 1875 at an auction of articles of “curiosity and worth,” my great-grandfather, in the company of M his friend, bid for the penis of Captain Nicholls who died in Horsemonger jail in 1873. It was bottled in a glass twelve inches long, and, noted my great-grandfather in his diary that night, “in a beautiful state of preservation.”
The narrator of “Solid Geometry,” not the last creep or weirdo to find himself narrating a McEwan story, comes across a geometrical formula, a magic knot, which enables him to fold things up in such a way that they disappear. Naturally, he uses it on his annoying girlfriend:
As I drew her arms and legs through, Maisie appeared to turn in on herself like a sock. “Oh God,” she sighed, “what’s happening?” and her voice sounded very far away. Then she was gone…and not gone. Her voice was quite tiny. “What’s happening?” and all that remained was the echo of her question above the deep-blue sheets.
The absolute confidence of this—its deadpan kinkiness, its matter-of-fact darkness and perversity—was the keynote of McEwan’s early fiction, through his next collection of stories, In Between the Sheets (1978), and his first two novels, The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981). The stories’ central preoccupation was what The Comfort of Strangers called, in terms McEwan probably wouldn’t employ today, “the sexual imagination, men’s ancient dreams of hurting, women’s of being hurt.” But although the matter was always hot—sex and death—the style was always cool. The emotional landscape of the fictions was supremely bleak, but the narrator of any given story would usually not acknowledge that, or would only do so with a monstrous jauntiness. After taking his sister’s virginity while simultaneously losing his own, the narrator of “Homemade,” in First Love, Last Rites, muses: “This may have been one of the most desolate couplings known to copulating mankind, involving lies, deceit, humiliation, incest, my partner falling asleep, my gnat’s orgasm and the sobbing which now filled the bedroom, but I was pleased with it, myself, Connie, pleased to let things rest awhile, to let the matter drop.”
McEwan has said that he takes a “psychoanalytic” view of these early fictions. If we take that to mean that their darkness and strangeness seems somehow unmediated, transcribed from the unconscious with their terrible intensity intact, we can agree. These fictions may not be about anything much, but they are so alive that it doesn’t matter. I don’t think the reader sees this as a fault of McEwan’s early work so much as a defining characteristic. What he writes, the reader sees—whether the reader wants to or not. Our sense that these fictions contain things that have not been entirely worked through, psychologically and thematically resolved, adds to their vividness.
All writers grow up in public to some extent, but writers who make a big impact while still in their twenties have to do more of it than most. For McEwan, this involved an increasing emphasis on setting up structures to control the demons and torments emerging from his imagination. The novels after The Comfort of Strangers have a central horror, or horrors, and a thematic apparatus which seems to be subsequent and secondary to it. These novels begin in a nightmare, and then set out to explain the nightmare, to control and rationalize it. In The Child in Time (1987) a little boy is abducted and his parents’ relationship dissolves in acrimony as a result; in The Innocent (1990) a man and a woman murder, eviscerate, and dismember her husband, and then fall out; in Black Dogs (1992) a husband and wife fall out after she has an encounter with a pack of dogs trained by the Nazis to rape women; in Enduring Love (1997) a man and woman argue irreparably after he is stalked, and nearly murdered, by a lunatic; in Amsterdam (1998) two friends fall out so badly that they simultaneously murder each other, each having hit on the plan of using the Netherlands’ newly liberalized laws on voluntary euthanasia as the ideal opportunity to commit the perfect homicide. In contrast to the early work, these novels are all very much about specific people and events: Mrs. Thatcher (The Child in Time), the cold war (The Innocent), Europe after the end of the cold war (Black Dogs), and so on. These novels always feature an argument between two principal characters about what has happened; the argument sets a rational character, usually a man, against an irrational but more sensitive one, usually a woman, and then weights the argument on the rational character’s side.
All of these novels also leave a residual sense of unease. The conflict between the central horror and the organizing, explanatory apparatus always leaves behind a sense of something unresolved, unfinished, creepy. For me the characteristic McEwan novel from this period is The Innocent, a sort-of love story about a young man, Leonard Marham, a telecommunications engineer involved in the (real-life) 1956 attempt by the Western powers to run a tunnel filled with listening devices under Soviet-controlled East Berlin. Leonard, the innocent of the title, meets and begins an affair—his first—with Maria, a sexy German woman. Her violent husband Otto catches them together, there is a fight, and they kill him. And then there is what feels like the core of the book, a twelve-page scene in which Otto’s body is cut up.
The prose is realistic and remorseless, and the whole lingers in the mind for a long, long time after the novel finishes—which it does with a brilliant twist: Leonard’s neighbor is the spy George Blake, who, coincidentally, betrays the tunnel to the Soviets immediately after Leonard hides the dismembered corpse there. As for the corpse, which must have been found hidden in a suitcase where Leonard left it, the Soviets do—nothing. We can only conclude that a scandal over the body would detract from the geopolitical scandal they wish to cause over the issue of the illegal tunnel. Otto’s death has no consequences. The human-scale horror of what happens to Otto is invisible against the larger-scale horrors of the cold war. That’s the idea, anyway; but the darkness spreading from the center of the book feels too real, too alive, to be so easily contained.
The Innocent is an utterly chilling novel, with the true texture of a nightmare, and very close to the spirit of Kafka. At least, that’s what I thought. Many of McEwan’s admirers disliked it; many of them loved Black Dogs, which I hated. Amsterdam is probably the least admired and praised of his recent books, though it did win the Booker Prize. Although no one sensible disputes the scale of McEwan’s talents, there is, perhaps because of this sense of unresolved psychic residue hanging around his fiction, not much of a consensus about his work, book by book.
Until now, that is: Atonement, his ninth novel, has had rave reviews in Britain, and has (by no means an automatic consequence) been selling in truckloads. This is a highly unusual thing for serious hardback fiction in Britain, and has given McEwan his first-ever outright commercial smash hit. Four months after its publication in Britain, Atonement was still third in the best-seller lists, outselling more recent books by Jackie Collins, John Grisham, and Stephen King, inter alia. Atonement is also the book in which McEwan for the first time turns his full attention to the question of why writers invent characters and then devise torments for them. It is a novel in which he engages with the question of what he has been up to in his fiction until now.
McEwan is technically at the height of his powers, and can do more or less anything he likes with the novel form. He shows this fact off in the first section of Atonement, in which he does one of the hardest things a good writer can do: engrossingly, sustainedly, and convincingly impersonate a bad one. Here is the opening:
The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch. When the preparations were complete, she had nothing to do but contemplate her finished draft and wait for the appearance of her cousins from the distant north. There would be time for only one day of rehearsal before her brother arrived. At some moments chilling, at others desperately sad, the play told a tale of the heart whose message, conveyed in a rhyming prologue, was that love which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed.
This is leisurely-seeming, but more eventful and full of portent than it might appear. It is the summer of 1935 and we are in a large English country house. Briony is Briony Tallis, a thirteen-year-old girl who is “one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so.” Mr. Tallis is absent in London at his civil service job, as usual. Mrs. Tallis is lying in her room, paralyzed by migraine, also as usual. Cecilia Tallis, elder daughter, has finished her course in English literature at Cambridge and is hanging about, waiting to decide what to do. Leon Tallis, beloved only son, is visiting from his job in London, where he lives a life of “agreeable nullity.” (“Literature and politics, science and religion did not bore him—they simply had no place in his world, and neither did any matter about which people seriously disagreed.”) His friend Paul Marshall is visiting with him: he is an aspiring chocolate magnate, full of plans to sell his new Amo bar to the British army. (“Watching him during the first several minutes of his delivery, Cecilia felt a pleasant sinking sensation in her stomach as she contemplated how deliciously self-destructive it would be, almost erotic, to be married to a man so nearly handsome, so hugely rich, so unfathomably stupid.”)
Staying with the Tallises for an open-ended period are Briony’s three cousins, fifteen-year-old Lola and nine-year-old twins Pierrot and Jackson; they have been sent to the house for safekeeping while their parents’ marriage disintegrates. Also hanging around the house is Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallises’ cleaning lady. He is a brilliant young man, whom Mr. Tallis adopted as a protégé and for whose education he partly paid; he graduated from Cambridge with a first in English and is now planning—thanks to Mr. Tallis’s help—to train as a doctor.
We might seem to be a long way away from the worlds of “Solid Geometry” and The Innocent—but wait, all will turn out to be not as placid as it seems. Atonement owes a debt to the work of Elizabeth Bowen, a writer I would never have thought of as an influence on McEwan, but one whose presence is apparent in the country-house setting of the book, and more importantly in the sense that the novel’s prose is a limpid surface with intentful monsters lurking beneath. There is also a feeling for both the fragility and the dangerousness of innocence, a theme common to McEwan and Bowen, and embodied here in the figure of the would-be writer Briony. The opening of the book is charged with expectation. Everyone is waiting for something to happen. Some of the tension is geopolitical—Mr. Tallis’s job turns out to involve predicting casualty levels from aerial bombardment—but more of it is personal and sexual. Reading hard between the lines, we detect something going on between Marshall and fifteen-year-old Lola. Reading the lines themselves, we see Robbie realizing that he is in love with Cecilia, his friend since childhood. He writes her a note, a semicomic declaration of his feelings:
“The truth is, I feel rather light-headed and foolish in your presence, Cee, and I don’t think I can blame the heat! Will you forgive me? Robbie.” Then, after a few moments’ reverie, tilted back on his chair, during which time he thought about the page at which his Anatomy tended to fall open these days, he dropped forwards and typed before he could stop himself, “In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt. In my thoughts I make love to you all day long.”
There it was—ruined. The draft was ruined. He pulled the sheet clear of the typewriter, set it aside, and wrote his letter out again in longhand, confident that the personal touch fitted the occasion.
Robbie puts his missive in an envelope and asks Briony to hand it to her big sister before they are all due to meet at dinner—and then, just too late, realizes that he has sent the wrong letter, the obscene typed version rather than the tactful handwritten one. Briony naturally reads the letter before giving it to her sister, and convinces herself that Robbie is “a maniac”; Cecilia reads the letter and, with a sense almost of shock, realizes that she is in love with Robbie; they make love, standing up, in a cupboard, before dinner, until Briony bursts in on them; and then, during dinner, it is discovered that the twins have run away. A search is organized, during which Briony finds Lola being, she believes, raped, by, she believes, the “maniac”—Robbie. When Robbie returns home with the twins, he is taken away by the police. His life is ruined: only Cecilia, and his mother, believe that he is innocent of Lola’s rape.
The way in which Briony convinces herself of what she saw, and sticks to it during interviews with the police, is superb:
At this early stage, the inspector was careful not to oppress the young girl with probing questions, and within this sensitively created space she was able to build and shape her narrative in her own words and establish the key facts: there was just sufficient light for her to recognize a familiar face; when he shrank away from her and circled the clearing, his movements and height were familiar to her as well.
“You saw him then.”
“I know it was him.”
“Let’s forget what you know. You’re saying you saw him.”
“Yes, I saw him.”
“Just as you see me.”
“You saw him with your own eyes.”
“Yes. I saw him. I saw him.”
This is Briony’s “crime,” the act for which she is to spend the rest of her life seeking the atonement of the novel’s title: because the person she saw was in fact Paul Marshall. Lola’s willingness to go along with Briony’s false identification seals Robbie’s fate. We are not so far away after all from “men’s ancient dreams of hurting, women’s of being hurt.” The note of McEwanesque sexual unease is compounded by the fact that Lola and her rapist—if he is that—end the book happily married for more than half a century, at the ages of seventy-nine and eighty-eight, respectively.
To go any further into the main plot would be to betray Atonement irreparably; suffice it to say that that summer night in 1935 is by no means the end of Robbie’s and Cecilia’s story. If the book has a source in the work of Elizabeth Bowen, it has another in Philip Roth’s masterpiece The Counterlife, a novel in which the twists of the narrative are matched by twists and changes in the apparent identity of the narrator. It is Briony, we ultimately learn, who is telling this story; she is pulling the narrative strings and arranging the scene, just as she had been longing to do in the first paragraph of the book. After Briony’s “crime” she sought expiation during the war by becoming a nurse, treating men who had suffered terribly at Dunkirk—the evocation of which military disaster occupies the middle section of the book, and is another tour de force on McEwan’s part. But during these years she was also struggling to become a writer, beginning with a long short story which attempts to address the events of that night in 1935. Her story is long and eventless, full of fine writing about water and stone and light. She sends it to Horizon, and elicits a rejection letter from Cyril Connolly himself. His comments are all too perceptive, and prompt Briony to realize that she has used fiction to evade the truth about what she did:
Did she really think she could hide behind some borrowed notions of modern writing, and drown her guilt in a stream—three streams!—of consciousness? The evasions of her little novel were exactly those of her life. Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella—and was necessary to it.
That confrontation is, we conclude, Atonement, a story which Briony—by the end of the book a distinguished novelist on her way to her seventy-seventh birthday celebration—has repeatedly tried to tell. The early, bad writing at the start of the novel is, we infer, her first attempt at the story; by the end of Atonement, we are reading something close to the unvarnished truth. Except we can’t quite be sure of that, or of how Cecilia and Robbie’s story really ends:
The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limit and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.
There is a blurriness here. A novelist’s responsibility to her characters is not at all the same thing as her responsibility to other, real, people. Atonement is an ethical rather than an aesthetic idea; it doesn’t make sense to talk about atoning to a fictional being. Briony seems not to notice this—which is in character, since her sense of other people’s existence was always weaker than her wish to have the world “just so.” She ties things up, and leaves us feeling not quite at our ease, which is what McEwan’s narrators have been doing ever since “Solid Geometry.”