Saturday, March 15, 2008

Atonement, a Novel, by Ian McKewan

A month or so after teaching Adam style architecture (18th-century Neoclassical English manor houses) and English picturesque gardens – and 8 months after visiting Stowe Landscape Gardens in Buckinghamshire and the Chiswick House and Gardens in London – I began reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement for my monthly book group. Those who have read the novel know that one’s interest is quickly absorbed by its sensational plot, and eventually by the troubling ambiguity of the narrative voice; but my own interest hovered around McKewan’s early discussions of the English manor house and its picturesque garden, complete with architectural follies like the ones I’d been talking to my students about just a short time before. In Chapter 2 McKewan gives us an overview of the house and grounds (which he locates in Surrey) that are the setting for the first half of the novel, which takes place in 1935:

Morning sunlight, or any light, could not conceal the ugliness of the Tallis home – barely forty years old, bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic, to be condemned one day in an article by Pevsner, or one of his team, as a tragedy of wasted chances, and by a younger writer of the modern school as ‘charmless to a fault.’ An Adam-style house had stood here until destroyed by fire in the late 1880s. What remained was the artificial lake and island with its two stone bridges supporting the driveway, and, by the water’s edge, a crumbling stuccoed temple.” (Ian McKewan, Atonement, p. 18)

McKewan returns to his description of the grounds in Chapter 7, which starts like this:

The island temple, built in the style of Nicholas Revett in the late 1780s, was intended as a point of interest, an eye-catching feature to enhance the pastoral ideal, and had of course no religious purpose at all. It was near enough to the water’s edge, raised upon a projecting bank, to cast an interesting reflection in the lake, and from most perspectives the row of pillars and the pediment above them were charmingly half obscured by the elms and oaks that had grown up around. Closer to, the temple had sorrier look: moisture rising through a damaged damp course had caused chunks of stucco to fall away. Sometime in the late nineteenth century clumsy repairs were made with unpainted cement which had turned brown and gave the building a mottled, diseased appearance. Elsewhere, the exposed laths, themselves rotting away, showed through like the ribs of a starving animal. The double doors that opened onto a circular chamber with a domed roof had long ago been removed, and the stone floor was thickly covered in leaves and leaf mold and the droppings of various birds and animals that wandered in and out. All the panes were gone from the pretty, Georgian windows, smashed by Leon and his friends in the late twenties. The tall niches that had once contained statuary were empty but for the filthy ruins of spiderwebs. The only furniture was a bench carried in from the village cricket pitch – again, the youthful Leon and his terrible friends from school. The legs had been kicked away and used to break the windows, and were lying outside, softly crumbling into the earth among the nettles and the incorruptible shards of glass.

Just as the swimming pool pavilion behind the stable block imitated features of the temple, so the temple was supposed to embody references to the original Adam house, though nobody in the Tallis family knew what they were. Perhaps it was the style of column, or the pediment, or the proportions of the windows. At different times, but most often at Christmas, when moods were expansive, family members strolling over the bridges promised to research the matter, but no one cared to set aside the time when the busy new year began. 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 temple was the orphan of a grand society lady, and now with no one to care for it, no one to look up to, the child had grown old before its time, and let itself go. There was a tapering soot stain as high as a man on an outside wall where two tramps had once, outrageously, lit a bonfire to roast a carp that was not theirs. For a long time there had been a shriveled boot lying exposed on grass kept trim by rabbits. But when Briony looked today, the boot had vanished, as everything would in the end. The idea that the temple, wearing its own black band, 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 fake.” (pp. 68-69)

Through his elaborate description of the island temple, McKewan advances his work in many ways: A, he describes the scene where the novel’s central crime(s) will take place on the night that the twins run away (and he even manages in passing to associate it with delinquent behavior); B, he uses architectural history to position the Tallis family within the landed aristocracy who were the patrons for these Adam style houses in the 18th century (though only one half of the family is aristocratic; the other belongs to the nouveau riche, descended from a grandfather “who made the family fortune with a series of patents on padlocks, bolts, latches and hasps”); C, McKewan creates a metaphor for the Tallis family’s descent (continuing a time-honored theme in British literature, the degeneracy of Britain’s aristocracy); D, he alludes to the situation of the children in the novel, who suffer because of the adults’ neglect, much like this temple has been abandoned by its parent, the vanished Adam house.

When I read about the McKewan’s island temple I couldn’t help thinking of the so-called “Temple of Love” on the grounds of the Chiswick House, a garden folly built to imitate the Roman Pantheon but on a much smaller scale. During the 18th century, Englishmen who went on the Grand Tour brought back with them an interest in ancient Roman and Italian Renaissance architecture, and garden follies such as this one were their attempt to show off their continental knowledge and taste. (In Atonement, the Tallis property also boasts of a half-scale reproduction of Bernini's Triton Fountain in the Piazza Barberini in Rome.) I saw many such follies at Stowe Gardens, too, and it’s clear that McKewan has as well, for his description of the crumbling stucco, broken glass, and rotting leaves and animal droppings capture the experience of visiting some of these structures. The Pantheon, built out of Roman brick-faced concrete, has lasted almost 1900 years, but follies like the ones at Stowe and Chiswick House, many of which were made out of wood and stucco, would surely be gone by now if it weren’t for rigorous preservation and restoration work. (The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture defines a folly as "an eyecatcher, usually a building in a contrived landscape, often otherwise useless.")

The Tallises’ new house, a Gothic Revival structure dating from c. 1895, is considered tasteless, gauche, and quite inferior stylistically by comparison with the Adam house. Plus it’s badly designed. (McKewan refers to a fireplace that has been “unlit since its construction – a fault in the architectural drawings had left no provision for a flue or chimney,” pp. 117-118). The irony is that today almost anything that old is considered architecturally interesting. By 1999, the year of the novel’s postscript-like final chapter, the house has been sold and turned into an inn called Tilney’s Hotel. The artificial lake no longer exists, and the island temple has also disappeared. Part of the grounds have been converted into a golf course, another accurate detail if Stowe Gardens are any indication. When we visited Stowe last summer (July 2007), some of the grounds had been turned over to a golf course, and we had to compete with the golfers in order to walk over to the so-called Temple of Venus. (I should add that the golfers were quite courteous in deferring to the tourists.)

(golf course at Stowe Gardens)

The architecture of the home also defines the novel’s hero, Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallises’ cleaning woman. He and his mother, Grace, share a small bungalow on the grounds, a bungalow that was given to Grace by Daddy Tallis, a liberal aristocrat whose generosity is resented by his wife, Emily. Jack has paid Robbie’s tuition at Cambridge, and has offered to pay for the talented young man to go to medical school, too; Robbie insists on making it a loan rather than a gift.

The novel is essentially about class, as suggested by the contrast between bungalow and manor house. What I appreciate most about this novel is McKewan’s subtlety on the subject. While he spills hundreds of pages of ink dwelling on the “crime” of the 13-year-old Briony, and just a few on the complicity of the 15-year-old Lola, he does not dwell at all on the culpability of the real villain, an adult male who is both aristocratic and quite wealthy. The level of authorial attention is inversely proportional to the gravity of the crime, and I think McKewan does this intentionally to make his point about class in England. This man commits a most heinous crime, yet passes entirely without suspicion. The Tallises never suspect him for a minute, both because he is their guest and, more importantly, because of his social class. They believe the criminal must be from the servant class – to believe otherwise is utterly unthinkable. If Robbie Turner were innocent, then the culprit must be another servant, without question – even Robbie (or so the unreliable narrator would have us believe) shares that bias.

The novel also thematizes the tragedy of children who have been neglected or abandoned by their parents, a tragedy that cuts across class lines. Robbie’s father had abandoned him and his mother when the boy was 6 years old; at one point Grace reflects that “his [Ernest’s] lack of curiosity about his son was inhuman” (p. 83). When the novel begins, the Tallis household has been disrupted by the visit of Emily’s sister’s three children – Lola, Jackson and Pierrot – due to their parent’s divorce; Hermione has run off to France with her lover, and their father has retreated to an ivory tower. Reflecting on the nine-year-old twins, Cecelia is struck by “how hopeless and terrifying it was for them to be without love, to construct an existence out of nothing in a strange house” (p. 94). And the three Tallis children – Leon, Cecelia, and Briony – are left largely to their own devices by a father who is more often absent than not, taken away by his career and his lover; and a mother who is incapacitated by migraine headaches and general ineffectuality. On this theme, too, McKewan’s subtlety registers at exactly the right pitch.

I thought a lot about Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things while I was reading Atonement. Both novels focus on children – their perceptions of the adult world, and their later efforts to understand and come to terms with their childhoods. In fact both are told from the perspective of a young adolescent girl and her relationship with siblings and particularly a cousin – a female cousin – who suddenly comes into the picture, to whom tragedy befalls. Those tragedies befall in part because the adults are not paying attention, they are too immersed in their world. And there are lots of tragedies (like the molestation of the brother in The God of Small Things) that are overlooked because of the larger tragedy that claims everyone's attention. The God of Small Things was so powerful and beautifully written! It was painful to read, but I couldn't stop reading it because of the beauty of the prose.

1 comment:

Jon said...

As a high school English teacher and ex-Architecture undergraduate, I appreciated your observations on McEwan's use of 18th C. design in 'Atonement'. Being a fan of that period's landscape and Architecture, I originally dismissed McEwan's use of it in the novel as a little obvious, but your analysis has given me a fresh appreciation, especially as I'm preparing to teach the novel as a paired text with Gondry's film 'Eternal Sunshine of a the Spotless Mind'. That film also uses an architectural motif in the classic Montauk beach house that Clementine invades. The film uses it for similar symbolic purposes, though less about class and more about identity.