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Saturday, September 08, 2007


Crucifying yourself is never a good idea. After all, how are you expected to get the next nail in after the first hand goes up? No, it never works out.

I was reminded of this as I sat watching Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement yesterday. First young Briony wrecks two people’s lives with her malicious and false identification of her sister’s friend Robbie as a rapist. Then she sees becoming a nurse rather than spending the Second World War in Cambridge as a stab at ‘redemption’ (though for the sister whose life she wrecked and who is also a nurse it is presumably merely a punishment). Then we see her making a grand gesture of apologizing to Robbie and her sister, only to learn this never happened, because Robbie died in France and the sister died in a tube bombing. The apology scene and Robbie and Cecilia’s being reunited have only happened in the fictional retelling of the tale written by the now-famous novelist Briony in old age. The film ends with her confessing to a television interviewer that she has changed what happened so as to give the couple the happy ending she denied them in life.

So first she wrecks their lives by overriding the truth with her self-interested and distorted version of events (an inchoate crush on Robbie lies at the bottom of her malice), and then she tries to make it better by throwing reality out the window again, and finally she comes clean in a live television interview.

What I took from the film was a damning portrait of the deluded and self-absorbed artist who, whether wrecking or trying to mend lives, cannot allow the story to be centred around anything other than herself. But what I thought the film was trying to say was how well Briony’s passion for distortion, sorry, justice had all worked out, given the nice happy ending her novel (and the film itself) had managed to give the couple, and then, after the narrative about-turn, the dignified and lip-biting send-off they got as well, on a kind of 2-for-1 deal. And all this because Briony is an artist and the artist knows best even when she’s making a complete balls-up of everything.

I also kept wondering whether the mole on Keira Knightley’s back was her on-off switch.

As for the farcical McEwan novel that's just been put on the Booker shortlist about the life-derailing tragedy of a husband spilling his bugs on his wife's chest by mistake on their wedding night, I find myself with nothing to say. A tragedy not just for the woman in question, but for us all. Maybe Kleenex hadn't been invented in 1962.


Mark Granier said...

Not a McEwan fan, eh? I seem to recall your putting the boot into Amsterdam as well.

Haven't read Atonement but I quite enjoyed Enduring Love, whose plot is also open to a reductive piss-take. A couple of my friends have read Chesil Beach (you'd know them) and they loved it. I have it on my shelf and will get around to it soon enough (The Lay of The Land is another).

Chesil Beach may well be as bad as your synopsis of Atonement (which does sound pretty shite), but it's easy to strip many a book or play down to its poor knobbly bones and kick it apart.

I am with you on Amsterdam though; much as I enjoyed some of the sniping dialogue, especially near the beginning, the plot, with that badly glued-on ending, WAS absurd.

But if McEwan pisses you off so much why bother with him at all (unless you're one of those superhuman beings who can read a book in an hour)?

puthwuth said...

My comments about the apotheosis of the artist were aimed more at the film than the novel.

But by way of amends (atonement even) I will post a few things about fiction I actually like. Or try to anyway.