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Beyond Repair? Ruins and Rubble in Ian McEwan’s Atonement

L’irréparable: ruines et décombres dans Atonement de Ian McEwan
Sylvie Maurel
p. 163-177

Résumés

Situant l’action de Atonement dans l’Angleterre des années trente et durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, Ian McEwan représente un monde qui n’est plus qu’un champ de ruines, avec ses mariages brisés ou chancelants, ses relations amoureuses et familiales détruites et les plaies irréparables de la guerre. L’article s’attarde sur le motif de la grande demeure victorienne, celle de la famille Tallis, pour montrer que, malgré sa solidité apparente, elle signifie la fin d’une ère et de ses mythes. Le délabrement du temple néo-classique qui a survécu dans le parc des Tallis et les ravages de la bataille de Dunkerque font jouer la fonction de révélation de la ruine. Enfin, à la notion d’irréversibilité qui est attachée à la ruine, McEwan semble opposer la réversibilité de la fiction, ultime « rachat » des fautes qui mènent le monde, tel qu’il est représenté dans Atonement, à sa perte.

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1In his very personal book on ruins, The Aesthetics of Ruins, Robert Ginsberg notes that ‘[r]uin is no mere injury or reparable damage, not minor error or temporary setback. Ruin is not something we can overcome. It overcomes us. We cannot mend the ruined. We cannot make amends for what we ruin’ (Ginsberg 287, my emphasis). Ruination is therefore something that cannot be atoned for. In Atonement by Ian McEwan, the title refers, or so is the most immediate explanation, to the young heroine’s ‘crime’ as, still a child, she more or less clearly identified an innocent young man, Robbie, the cleaning lady’s son, as her cousin’s rapist. Gradually realizing her mistake, she nevertheless does not say anything to exonerate him. As a result of Briony’s lie or half-lie, Robbie’s life is ruined: arrested, found guilty and sent to prison, he joins the army in exchange for an early release and dies of septicaemia during the Dunkirk retreat. Briony’s narrative, for we find out at the end of it that she is the author of the story we are reading, is her attempt at making amends for her youthful misdeed through writing. However, the omnipresence of ruins in the novel and the irreversibility which they signpost tone down the potential reversibility that the title suggests. Atonement’s ruins challenge the notion that anyone can make atonement. In McEwan’s novel, the damage seems to be beyond repair; the past may be rewritten but not reclaimed.

A Crumbling World: The Remains of the Victorian Country House

  • 1 See Ginsberg’s approach for example: ‘[i]n the aesthetic sense, ruin is something positive, for it (...)
  • 2 In one of his interviews, McEwan explains that he likes ‘novels, beside emotional and sensual conte (...)

2Atonement teems with ruins: starting with the wreckage of the young heroine’s play at the hands of cousins who are themselves ‘refugees from a bitter domestic civil war’ (8) and whose household is ‘in ruins’ (14), the narrative moves to the breaking of a Meissen vase, ‘ruined’ (29) by Cecilia and Robbie, the life of whom will be ruined by Briony’s lie on an overheated summer night of 1935. Part Two of Atonement stages the Dunkirk retreat with Robbie walking through war-time rubble, obsessed with dismembered bodies as much as with his love for Cecilia, while Part Three mostly takes place in a war hospital where Briony, as a trainee nurse, attends to dying young men, human ruins with cracked skulls held open to her gaze. In the 1999 coda on which the book closes, Briony, now a famous writer, celebrates her seventy-seventh birthday and has just been told that she has vascular dementia (354). The destructive process that will ruin both her body and mind has just begun: ‘loss of memory, short- and long-term, the disappearance of single words—simple nouns might be the first to go—then language itself, along with balance, and soon after, all motor control, and finally the autonomous nervous system. Bon voyage!’ (355). Atonement’s world is a crumbling one. History, in which the novel is steeped, is seen as a process of ruination, not just decay, wreaking havoc on private and public spheres alike. It is not an aesthetics of ruins that McEwan is writing here—a positive approach to ruins which consists in enjoying the new unities that emerge from the lost unity of the original;1 it is a politics of ruins in the sense that the motif partakes of McEwan’s ‘engagement with the world’ and provides commentary on it.2

  • 3 Having made his fortune with the manufacturing of ‘padlocks, bolts, latches and hasps’ (19), the wo (...)
  • 4 Here McEwan blurs the boundaries of history and fiction as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983) is made (...)

3To start my own journey through the minefield, I will first deal with McEwan’s depiction of the Surrey country house where the Tallises live, which is in fact nothing but a ruin. Barely forty years old at the time when the novel starts, it is a neo-Gothic eyesore that was built by Briony’s grandfather as the culmination of a rags-to-riches story.3 The house is ugly—it is described by Pevsner4 as ‘a tragedy of wasted chances’ (19)—but it is comfortable and safe. It reflects the grandfather’s ‘taste for all things solid, secure and functional’ (19). Emily Tallis, the sickly mother continually nursing migraine in her room, is grateful for its ‘squat presence’ and ‘sturdy walls’:

Her father-in-law’s intention, she supposed, was to create an ambience of solidity and family tradition. A man who spent a lifetime devising iron bolts and locks understood the value of privacy. Noise from outside the house was excluded completely, and even homelier indoor sounds were muffled, and sometimes even eliminated somehow. (145)

4The house, combined with the ‘impression of timeless, unchanging calm’ (19) emanating from the view, may be taken for a symbol of solidity and stability, a pastoral haven outside time, therefore immune to ruination. But it is historically and culturally dated. In Life in the English Country House, Mark Girouard accounts for the Victorian taste for Gothic architecture as follows:

To the Victorians such houses conjured up images of an old-style English gentleman, dispensing hospitality in a great hall, with fires blazing in the great arched fireplaces. . . . [A]s a result of the writings of Pugin, Ruskin and others, gothic was increasingly associated both with Christianity and with truthfulness. A Gothic house stood for good principles as well as a good cheer. (Girouard 172–173)

5In the second half of the nineteenth century, the country house is a ‘moral house’ (Girouard 268), a sanctuary of Victorian values such as morality, domesticity, privacy, practicality and, in the late Victorian period, tradition (Girouard 274).

  • 5 The notion of pastoral in a loose sense of the word came to become attached to the country house in (...)
  • 6 In the past, the Tallises gave shelter to an invalid great aunt, they rescue the young cousins from (...)

6McEwan reveals hidden cracks in this solid edifice and in the mystique of the country house. In spite of its capacity for locking out the outside world, the Tallis house does not appear as a figure of pastoral stability5 in the novel, so much as an arena of pressing historical change. It is the remnant of a passing world. By 1935, the Victorian Age is of course a thing of the past and the now deceased elderly relatives whom the Tallises entertained on Sundays are described as ‘a lost tribe who arrived at the house in black cloaks having wandered peevishly for two decades in an alien, frivolous century’ (50). If the Victorian high regard for hospitality seems to have survived into the twentieth century,6 the fireplace is symptomatically dysfunctional because ‘a fault in the architectural drawings had left no provision for a flue or chimney’ (125).

  • 7 ‘In the years around 1880 the influx of cheap corn from America—which the landed interest was no lo (...)
  • 8 ‘Two years ago her father disappeared into the preparation of mysterious consultation documents for (...)
  • 9 ‘If this sham was conventional hypocrisy, she had to concede that it had its uses. She had sources (...)

7The house itself has been amputated of its open parkland, sold off to a local farmer (18), perhaps a consequence of the agricultural slump of the 1880s7 or of the Great Depression. Far from being the Victorian embodiment of truthfulness, the country house of the thirties, as McEwan represents it, is the locus of sham or lies. The sham gothic house, full of sham banisters and ‘fake parchment’ (102), is also a sham home in which children are left to their own devices by absent parents,8 whose marriage is sham or based on deceit: work is not the only thing that keeps Jack Tallis away from home, as his wife rightly suspects, but she is careful not to confront him in order not to lose her material comfort and social status.9 The guest of honour, Paul Marshall, who turns out to be the villain, is himself a specialist of sham since he has ‘found a way of making chocolate out of sugar, chemicals, brown colouring and vegetable oil. And no cocoa butter’ (152), a chemical simulacrum known as the Amo bar.

  • 10 Conversion, Ginsberg argues, is a form of preservation that saves the building from falling into ru (...)
  • 11 Re-armament and the Abyssinia question are mentioned as early as p. 9 of Atonement. They are brough (...)

8Through such emphasis on sham, McEwan exhibits the constructedness of the myth of the country house, cracking the veneer of solidity, exposing a ruined home and a derelict sanctuary harbouring values gone skeletal in a world that cannot accommodate them. And he wreaks further havoc on the myth by subjecting it to the flux and ruination of history. In 1935, the country house is going through what Girouard calls its ‘Indian summer’ (Girouard 299). By the end of World War II, it has virtually vanished. As we learn in the 1999 epilogue, the Tallis house has been converted into a luxury hotel.10 If the country house era is coming to an end in 1935, so is peace in Europe: 1935 is the year when Hitler openly announced the re-armament of Nazi Germany and when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia,11 both events eliciting deluded, half-hearted responses on the part of France and Britain. Europe is about to be hurled into global wreckage. In the private sphere of the Tallis House, the family is shattered by Marshall’s crime and Briony’s lie. History and fiction collude to represent a world stretched to breaking point.

Ruin as Ethical Unveiling

9As a derelict fragment of the past, ruin necessarily points to absence, to loss. The little neo-classical temple on the artificial island, the only true ruin in the Tallis grounds, is described as a bereaved orphan grieving for the loss of the original Adam-style house which disappeared in a fire in the 1880s. It is a tragic embodiment of loss:

More than the dilapidation, it was this connection, this lost memory of the temple’s grander relation, which gave the useless little building its sorry air. . . . The idea that the temple, wearing its own black band [an accidental soot stain], grieved for the burned-down mansion, that it yearned for a grand and invisible presence, bestowed a faintly religious ambience. Tragedy had rescued the temple from being entirely a fake. (73)

10In spite of the rather sentimental tone of the passage—it is told from Briony’s perspective—there is no nostalgia involved in McEwan’s treatment of his ruins. They are used to reveal things that are meant to remain hidden, to reveal ‘invisible presences’. This function of ruins is discussed by both Michael Roth and Robert Ginsberg:

The ruin is a reintroduction to the functioning of construction. . . . The ruin is the revenge of the formerly unseen upon the whole made invisible. The hidden springs into consciousness and takes up a central position. . . . The ruin stimulates our curiosity about the workings of things. (Ginsberg 34–35)

11Thus in the same way as human remains were used to advance anatomical knowledge, ‘ruins of classical buildings were often employed to instruct, offering architectural students and practitioners the ‘‘skeletons’’ that would help them understand the principles of building’ (Roth 2). Of course, one may see in this function of ruins a metaphor for the self-conscious metatextuality of Atonement. But McEwan also makes use of the ruin’s capacity for laying bare to carry out his social critique and his indictment of ethical dereliction in particular. Georges Letissier, for example, argues that Atonement’s metatextuality ‘opens thought-provoking tracks for reflection on the tension between creative writing and testimony’ and that intertextuality ‘does not merely contribute to the novel’s self-reflexivity . . . since it can be established that Atonement shows how, in a post-traumatic age, the literary experience is endowed with a testimonial function’ (Letissier 212).

12Thus, McEwan revisits the eye-catching function of the eighteenth-century temple. Two centuries later, the dilapidated folly still plays an eye-catching part, although not ‘to enhance the pastoral ideal’ (72). Exhibiting its rotting laths which look ‘like the ribs of a starving animal’ (72), it makes visible an invisible scene that occurs in the dark and is distorted by Briony’s faulty perception, the scene of the rape which takes place at the foot of the island temple. It is also there that Briony’s feverish imagination will form the certainty that Robbie Turner is the rapist, a certainty formulated in terms of vision: ‘I saw him. I saw him’ (165). In the twentieth century, the crumbling temple bears the scars of time, neglect and loss, but it also spotlights the irreparable damage caused by delusion and the brutality of unethical sex.

  • 12 As a child, Briony is obsessed with order and symmetry. This obsession is in part responsible for e (...)

13In his discussion of intertextuality and metatextuality in Atonement, Brian Finney notes a number of symmetrical motifs which draw attention to the constructed nature of the narrative. One of them is the connection between neo-classical buildings and the predatory instincts of the Marshalls: the wedding of Lola Quincey and Paul Marshall, five years after the rape, takes place at a London church that looks ‘like a Greek temple’ (323). Briony’s last encounter with the Marshalls occurs at the Imperial War Museum, also a neo-classical building: ‘[b]ehind the neo-classical façades that come to represent the ‘‘mausoleum of their marriage’’ lurk ruin, a joint lie, and the destructive memories of a war from which Marshall made his fortune’ (Finney 75). The ruined little temple, a lonely fragment of the eighteenth century, has given birth, it seems, to a progeny of sounder buildings which conceal festering wounds behind the order and symmetry of their façades,12 instead of exposing them to view.

  • 13 For example, ‘[o]n the other side of the canal, evenly spaced, white-painted stones marked out a pa (...)

14In Part Two, in order to convey the insanity of war, McEwan focuses on a not so glorious episode of the Second World War, the Dunkirk retreat of May 1940. It is seen through Robbie Turner’s eyes, who was separated from his unit and is walking cross-country to Dunkirk with another two soldiers, trying to avoid the Stuka attacks along the main roads. In his ‘direct’ representation of war, McEwan does not stage what the Dunkirk retreat is mostly remembered for, that is to say the miraculous evacuation of 338 000 British and French soldiers from the beaches around Dunkirk, with the help and support of hundreds of amateur sailors and their ‘little ships’. In Atonement, the Dunkirk retreat is primarily presented as a retreat, not an achievement, which will leave French civilians to fend for themselves in the face of the advancing German army. Robbie feels ‘the full ignominy’ of it (201). Thousands of soldiers are made to walk into a trap, a dead-end (there are ‘no boats’ as Robbie finds out when he reaches the beach [216, 247]), their destination advertised by a huge black cloud which makes them sitting targets for the attacks of the Luftwaffe (241). There is no celebration of the Dunkirk spirit in Atonement, but a long chaotic walk amid rubble and dead bodies (227), interrupted by the ‘satanic howling’ of diving Stukas (236), desperate runs for shelter and absurd encounters with the pathetic remains of military discipline in the midst of general rout.13

15In this section of Atonement, McEwan perhaps revises a convention in the representation of ruin discussed by Michael Roth in ‘Irresistible Decay’:

Ruins were . . . . used as scenes of moral instruction, or admonition, in the wake of violent conflicts. This convention grew more intense after World War I, when the graveyard was to function as a somber reminder of the destructive power of mechanized warfare. And again after World War II, ruined buildings such as Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche and Dresden’s Frauenkirche were to serve as ‘perpetual’ warnings against militarism. (Roth 15)

16McEwan subjects the convention to ironic revision. The many reminders of the previous World War tend to show that no lessons have been learned since. Nothing, it seems, can prevent the periodical resurfacing of collective violence. In Part Two, we are dealing with what Roth calls ‘premature ruins’ (Roth 8) which evoke none of the pleasurable melancholy of slow decline but the repeated horror of destruction.

17Part Two begins with the description of one of those ‘premature ruins’, a bombed cottage, ‘fairly new, perhaps a railwayman’s cottage rebuilt after the last time’ (191). This house, rebuilt and ripped open anew, testifies to the repetition of violence. Looking up absently, Robbie sees a leg in a tree, a premature human ruin which will haunt him ever after:

It was a leg in a tree. A mature plane tree, only just in leaf. The leg was twenty feet up, wedged in the first forking of the trunk, bare, severed cleanly above the knee. From where they stood there was no sign of blood or torn flesh. It was a perfect leg, pale, smooth, small enough to be a child’s. The way it was angled in the fork, it seemed to be on display, for their benefit or enlightenment: this is a leg. (192)

  • 14 According to Ginsberg, there is an incongruous dimension to ruins: ‘[t]he ruin is something out of (...)

18It is the productive incongruity of ruins, ‘the incongruity of absent continuity’ (Ginsberg 60), the ‘out-of-placeness’ of ruin (Ginsberg 51), which comes into play here and which McEwan makes use of in his exposure of twentieth-century evils.14 Natural renewal is ironically pitted against cultural repetition of horror. The incongruous element of ruins is exaggerated into a form of awry disjointedness that refracts a world gone out of joint. If, for Ginsberg, the incongruity of ruins is aesthetically fruitful, McEwan ironically disparages the aesthetic response—‘a perfect leg’ as if ‘on display’—to place himself and the severed limb on ethical ground. Robbie’s mental reconstruction of the whole from the part, perhaps a parody of the eighteenth-century approach to ruin as a piece of a whole that may be completed by the activation of disciplined imagination (Ginsberg 320), is even more disturbing than the fragment of human flesh: a child has just been blown to pieces. This fleeting reconstruction of the whole is precisely what distinguishes Robbie from the bombers who ‘empty their bomb bays over a sleeping cottage by a railway, without knowing or caring who was there’ (202; my emphasis). The making visible of the ‘vanished boy’ reintroduces ethical responsibility in the face of indiscriminate collective violence.

The Reversibility of Fiction

19‘The process of the world is of falling apart. Nothing lasts. Decay is the authentic stamp of Being’ (Ginsberg 290). If human history is a process of ruination leaving wasted lives, severed limbs and rubble behind, literature, it seems, is immune to ruination, not just because of ‘the endless replicability of print’ (Ginsberg 292), but because narratives of the past are endlessly reversible and because there seems to be such a thing as literary tradition for McEwan, continuities whereby literature appears as an ongoing process of construction.

20The epilogue reveals in retrospect that what we have been reading previously is pure invention: Robbie never returned from Dunkirk and never got to live with Cecilia, who was killed during the Blitz, shortly after Robbie’s death. Briony never visited them, could never atone, never got to recant, was never forgiven—and never went as far as inventing a melodramatic scene of forgiveness. She herself is now an aging lady in the early stages of vascular dementia and vividly feels her ‘helpless confinement within a process of decay’ (362). The novel’s coda makes clear that past reality cannot be reversed, that dead lovers cannot be resurrected, that destruction is irreversible. What was done in the past was never undone. Past reality itself is lost. It is a ruin or a set of disconnected fragments, like the orphaned temple of the first part which, having lost its connection with the original Adam house (73), stands as a discontinuous testimony of absence.

21Linda Hutcheon makes a distinction between ‘the brute events of the past and the historical facts we construct out of them. Facts are events to which we have given meaning’ (Hutcheon 54). It is of course the brute events of the past which are lost. Historical facts, in Hutcheon’s meaning of the phrase, that is to say representations or textualizations of the past, proliferate: the Imperial War Museum, for instance, where Briony spends hours going through archives, is full of them. There is no end to the narratives we construct from the disjointed events of the past. Like ruin, the vanished or fragmentary past is productive; it releases new formal unities, to borrow from Ginsberg’s terminology.

22As historiographic metafiction, Atonement draws attention to the narrativization of past events and to how we make sense of them by telling ‘plausible stories out of the mess of fragmentary and incomplete facts’ (Hutcheon 64). Granting meaning to or (mis)interpreting scenes she is not fully equipped to understand is what Briony does throughout the first part. She will spend fifty-nine years trying to compose the confusing data into a consistent narrative. In her coda, she tells us that what we are reading is the last draft of many different versions written between January 1940 and March 1999. If past errors cannot be atoned for and if their tragic consequences are irreversible, narrative is eminently reversible or rewritable. In the concluding lines of the epilogue, she even goes as far as suggesting yet another possible version of the story:

I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet. If I had the power to conjure them at my birthday celebration Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, still in love, sitting side by side in the library, smiling at The Trials of Arabella? It’s not impossible. (371)

  • 15 Natasha Alden says that in the ‘London, 1999’ section, ‘we are shown how the narrative is corrected (...)

23As well as challenging the authority of any narrative,15 this passage may be read as a celebration of the boundless possibilities of fiction and as a final compensation for the ruins the novel represents, unless, like Briony herself, McEwan ‘no longer possess[es] the courage of [his] pessimism’ (371).

  • 16 To name but one, Alistair Cormack’s ‘Postmodernism and the Ethics of Fiction in Atonement’ describe (...)
  • 17 See for instance Laurent Jenny: ‘[l]e regard intertextuel est donc un regard critique et c’est ce q (...)
  • 18 L’intertextualité désigne non pas une addition confuse et mystérieuse d’influences, mais le travai (...)
  • 19 In her essay, ‘Atonement de Ian McEwan ou le désir d’expiation d’un écrivain’, Christine Reynier ex (...)

24Finally, as opposed to McEwan’s vision of twentieth-century history, literary history appears as a fruitful system in this highly intertextual narrative. Many essays discussing Atonement comment on its critique of modernism in particular16 and it would be tempting to round off the argument of this paper by saying that McEwan builds his own postmodernist poetics out of the debris of modernism. However, although the intertextual gaze is a critical one,17 it does not necessarily imply rejection. It is primarily a fecund process of incorporation and transformation.18 It seems to me that McEwan inscribes his indebtedness to modernism, as much as he distances himself from it.19 The whole of Part One, not just the novella that Briony writes and that is rejected by Horizon and Cyril Connolly, in which she drowns ‘her guilt in a stream—three streams!—of consciousness’ (320), owes much to the modernist emphasis on consciousness and perception and to modernist devices such as multiple internal focalization. Placing himself in the wake of modernism, making his own narrative form develop out of the old, McEwan restores literary-historical continuities—ironic distancing does not mean cutting oneself off from predecessors.

  • 20 Brian Finney notes that ‘Arabella’ is the sister of Clarissa in Richardson’s Clarissa, also referre (...)
  • 21 I am referring here to a passage where Briony as a probationer looks after the ruined bodies of sol (...)

25The same could be said of the tradition of sentimental literature. McEwan makes fun of it through ‘The Trials of Arabella’, the melodramatic playlet that Briony writes at the beginning of the novel and that is performed in her honour at the end.20 Its sharply discriminated characters, its clear polarisation of good and evil are pleasantly ridiculed but the reunion of Cecilia and Robbie imagined by Briony in her last draft owes something to sentimental melodrama: ‘[i]t occurs to me that I have not travelled so very far after all, since I wrote my little play. Or rather, I’ve made a huge digression and doubled back to my starting place’ (370). She, as a professional author, has incorporated old formulas to produce new and more sophisticated fictional material, in much the same way as McEwan revisits textual fragments of the past with an eye to carving a space of his own in literary history but also to bring to light, in a kind of desperate, consolatory gesture, the persistence of literary forms, where human matter is ‘easily torn, not easily mended’ (304).21

26There is a passage in Irresistible Decay which might have been written about the politics of ruins in Atonement:

[t]he sentimental attachment to the ruin, the contemplative gaze that finds some sign of renewal in nature’s growth on a broken stone, has been shaken, diverted. The promise of understanding the past and of the renewal or even redemption that this understanding might provide seems empty or a lie in the wake of the extremities [the total wars of the twentieth century] (and the threat of nuclear annihilation) that turned a world into (potential) ruins. (Roth 20)

27Under the circumstances, atonement is at best wishful thinking. Since she cannot mend the tragic consequences of her ‘crime’, may Briony make atonement through writing at least? Georges Letissier sees her sense of guilt, as well as the wounds which she inflicted on others, as incurable, her multi-layered narrative being a way of relating to, without coming to terms with, a traumatic past: ‘[s]o writing can be regarded as what permits the young woman, and later the novelist, to survive the traumatic experience of having wrecked two lives’ (Letissier 211). There is indeed no cure for the various processes of ruination depicted in Atonement. Briony will forever be haunted by her incriminating statement, until, that is, her own memory goes blank. The past is irretrievably lost in spite of proliferating textualizations, and Briony’s own text may not even be published in her lifetime: the Marshalls, who are likely to outlive Briony, have seemingly made legal provisions not to be exposed and to continue living in the public eye as national benefactors. The ending therefore offers no resolution other than the threat of dissolution, which is, after all, part of the definition of the ruin: ‘[t]he ruin is dissolving into dirt. We catch it in-between, after destruction but before dissolution’ (Ginsberg 57). This is where Atonement leaves us: on the borderline between destruction and dissolution.

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Bibliographie

Alden, Natasha, ‘Words of War, War of Words: Atonement and the Question of Plagiarism’, Ian McEwan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, ed. Sebastian Groes, London: Continuum, 2009, 57–69.

Cook, Jon, Sebastian Groes, and Victor Sage, ‘Journeys without Maps: An Interview with Ian McEwan’, Ian McEwan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, ed. Sebastian Groes, London: Continuum, 2009, 123–34.

Cormack, Alistair, ‘Postmodernism and the Ethics of Fiction in Atonement’, Ian McEwan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, ed. Sebastian Groes, London: Continuum, 2009, 70–82.

Finney, Brian, ‘Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan’s Atonement’, Journal of Modern Literature 27.3 (Winter 2004): 68–82.

Ginsberg, Robert, The Aesthetics of Ruins, Amsterdam: Rodopi 2004.

Girouard, Mark, Life in the English Country House, New Haven: Yale UP, 1978.

Hutcheon, Linda, The Politics of Postmodernism, London: Routledge, second edition, 2002.

Jenny, Laurent, ‘La stratégie de la forme’, Poétique 27 (1976): 257–81.

Letissier, Georges, ‘‘The Eternal Loop of Self-Torture’: Ethics and Trauma in McEwan’s Atonement’, Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary British Fiction, eds. Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011, 209–26.

McEwan, Ian, Atonement (2001), London: Vintage, 2002.

Reynier, Christine, ‘Atonement de Ian McEwan ou le désir d’expiation d’un écrivain’, Études britanniques contemporaines 28 (juin 2005): 101–11.

Roth, Michael S., Claire, Lyons, and Charles, Merewether, Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed, Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1997.

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Notes

1 See Ginsberg’s approach for example: ‘[i]n the aesthetic sense, ruin is something positive, for it is existent. It has not been destroyed, though it is the product of destruction. It is not devoid of unity, though in relation to the original it is fragmentary. It has been refreshingly found, not irretrievably lost’ (Ginsberg 287–88).

2 In one of his interviews, McEwan explains that he likes ‘novels, beside emotional and sensual content, to have some muscularity of intellect, and engagement with the world’ (Cook, Groes and Sage 128).

3 Having made his fortune with the manufacturing of ‘padlocks, bolts, latches and hasps’ (19), the working-class trader set up as landed gentry with the house as testimony of material success and bulky endorsement of Victorian values.

4 Here McEwan blurs the boundaries of history and fiction as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983) is made to comment on a fictional house.

5 The notion of pastoral in a loose sense of the word came to become attached to the country house in the late 1890s as the correlation of power and landownership started to decline and wealthy businessmen reading Country Life started to acquire country houses to emulate a romanticized vision of the country as the seat of a simpler and better life threatened by industrialization and urbanization (see Girouard 303).

6 In the past, the Tallises gave shelter to an invalid great aunt, they rescue the young cousins from domestic strife at home or entertain Leon’s friend.

7 ‘In the years around 1880 the influx of cheap corn from America—which the landed interest was no longer strong enough to keep out—led to twenty years of deep depression in the British farming industry’ (Girouard 300). This resulted in a change of function of the country house: in the early twentieth century, because the income from the land was no longer sufficient, the owner of a country house typically worked in the city and ‘found that a country house provided a pleasant retreat from the cares of his office and the round of London’ (Girouard 302). Mr Tallis works for the Home Office and the pastoral romance of release from hard work and city life is evoked by Paul Marshall, the industrialist, warmonger and rapist, when he first arrives at the Tallises’: ‘[h]e told them how wonderful it was, to be away from town, in tranquillity, in the country air’ (49).

8 ‘Two years ago her father disappeared into the preparation of mysterious consultation documents for the Home Office. Her mother had always lived in an invalid’s shadow land’ (103).

9 ‘If this sham was conventional hypocrisy, she had to concede that it had its uses. She had sources of contentment in her life—the house, the park, above all, the children—and she intended to preserve them by not challenging Jack’ (148).

10 Conversion, Ginsberg argues, is a form of preservation that saves the building from falling into ruin but destruction has occurred all the same, ‘destruction of purpose . . . and hence of the building’s unity in use’ (Ginsberg 301).

11 Re-armament and the Abyssinia question are mentioned as early as p. 9 of Atonement. They are brought in parallel with the ‘bitter domestic civil war’ that is shaking the family of the cousins from the North, which reads as another example of how McEwan correlates the public and the private in his novel.

12 As a child, Briony is obsessed with order and symmetry. This obsession is in part responsible for ethical and perceptual limitations, more specifically for her viewing Robbie as the rapist: ‘[a]s far as she was concerned, everything fitted; the terrible present fulfilled the recent past. . . . Now she saw, the affair was too consistent, too symmetrical to be anything other than what she said it was. . . . The truth was in the symmetry, which was to say, it was founded in common sense’ (168–69).

13 For example, ‘[o]n the other side of the canal, evenly spaced, white-painted stones marked out a path to a hut being used as an orderly room’ (243). Robbie cannot help noting the cruel irony of those white-painted stones while wounded men are dying on the side of the roads: ‘[s]urely there would be ambulances coming up from the defence perimeter, making regular runs to the beach. If there was time to whitewash rocks, there must be time to organise that’ (245). See also: ‘[h]e’d assumed that the cussed army spirit which whitewashed rocks in the face of annihilation would prevail’ (247).

14 According to Ginsberg, there is an incongruous dimension to ruins: ‘[t]he ruin is something out of place that is home to out-of-placeness: the locus of enriching incongruity. The ruin brings to the fore what ordinarily is amiss, such that we experience its prominence and dislocation. . . . Ruin incongruity is linked to anachronism, anomaly, ambiguity, irony, and uncanniness . . . , all forms of disjointedness, oddness, out-of-orderness, out of the ordinary/orderly, out-and-out irregular’ (Ginsberg 51).

15 Natasha Alden says that in the ‘London, 1999’ section, ‘we are shown how the narrative is corrected, purged of factual errors and mistakes. Thus, the constructed, mediated and fallible nature of the narrative is emphasized’ (Alden 61).

16 To name but one, Alistair Cormack’s ‘Postmodernism and the Ethics of Fiction in Atonement’ describes Atonement as an attack on ‘static, morally disengaged, plotless modernism’ (Cormack 77) and a return to the tradition of English empiricism.

17 See for instance Laurent Jenny: ‘[l]e regard intertextuel est donc un regard critique et c’est ce qui le définit’ (Jenny 260).

18 L’intertextualité désigne non pas une addition confuse et mystérieuse d’influences, mais le travail de transformation et d’assimilation de plusieurs textes opéré par un texte centreur qui garde le leadership du sens’ (Jenny 262).

19 In her essay, ‘Atonement de Ian McEwan ou le désir d’expiation d’un écrivain’, Christine Reynier examines McEwan’s (unfair) critique of Virginia Woolf in Atonement and investigates this mixture of critical distancing and indebtedness: ‘[à] la fois reconnaissance de dette et règlement de compte avec Woolf (et peut-être avec le premier McEwan), Atonement se veut être une justification par l’auteur de ses choix esthétiques’ (Reynier 110). She argues that Woolf’s art, however abstract, is nonetheless referential and expressive of an ethical position vis-à-vis the war, especially in Between the Acts: ‘McEwan méconnaît cet engagement à l’œuvre dans la fiction de Woolf . . . , et semble ainsi vérifier la théorie d’Harold Bloom selon laquelle toute écriture est une erreur de lecture’ (Reynier 110).

20 Brian Finney notes that ‘Arabella’ is the sister of Clarissa in Richardson’s Clarissa, also referred to in Atonement (Cecilia is reading it) (Finney 73).

21 I am referring here to a passage where Briony as a probationer looks after the ruined bodies of soldiers: ‘[e]very secret of the body was rendered up—bone risen through flesh, sacrilegious glimpses of an intestine or an optic nerve. From this new and intimate perspective, she learned a simple, obvious thing she had always known, and everyone knew: that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended’ (304).

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Sylvie Maurel, « Beyond Repair? Ruins and Rubble in Ian McEwan’s Atonement », Études britanniques contemporaines, 43 | 2012, 163-177.

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Sylvie Maurel, « Beyond Repair? Ruins and Rubble in Ian McEwan’s Atonement », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 43 | 2012, mis en ligne le 10 juillet 2014, consulté le 16 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/1332 ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.1332

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Auteur

Sylvie Maurel

Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail—CAS.
Sylvie Maurel is a senior lecturer at the university of Toulouse-Le Mirail, France. She has written a book on Jean Rhys and a number of articles on Jean Rhys and Daphne du Maurier. More recently, she has produced work on the notion of rewriting and, more specifically, on contemporary rewritings of fairy tales (M. Atwood, E. Donoghue, Tanith Lee, Meghan B. Collins, etc.).

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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