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In Ian McEwan’s plots human intelligence doesn’t always fare well, let alone triumph. Indeed intelligence is a key ingredient to the character’s failures. And note please: England, France, Germany are characters in the stories. It ain’t just the human players that mistime experience, stumble without wisdom.
In Atonement Briony Tallis is a talented girl, a young story writer, debuting a first play. She’s precocious verbally and in other ways, displays “genius”: but it’s premature, lacks wisdom, causes trouble, blights the love of her wished for lover, blights her sister’s love, is a canker in a great deal. But don’t blame Briony till you appreciate that she isn’t the only one: she makes trouble in 1935: that’s a few years after Hitler was making trouble around Europe. She makes trouble for the people who caused trouble for Hitler and are now about to join Hitler in World War II. German brilliance there was rivaled by French brilliance, and by British brilliance: all these brilliant people went and used their brilliance to blow each other up.
2014 02 03 Jan and I just began season two of Downton Abbey: same sorts of things could be said there too. The death in the trenches is an extension of the power structure, the social and political (and economic) hierarchy, upstairs, downstairs, of the English country house, full of servants, Christianity, hypocrisy. I’ll develop all that when I can.
Maybe Freud, and Marx, and Churchill should have been giving Briony, and themselves, lobotomies. The characters’ intelligence dictates the flavor of their stupidity.
Briony’s brilliant elders believed Briony’s nitwit testimony wrongly identifying her cousin’s rapist. Briony had drafted Robbie’s intimacy against his preference, now she goes bats misinterpreting her older sister’s intimacy with Robbie … Know the novel, and the movie, so you’ll know what I’m talking about: both are great. I’ll add more but first I must move on to complete my introductory point: the same sort of thing happens in McEwan’s next novel, On Chesil Beach. As in Atonement, intelligence is in evidence in more than one character. The bride is musical, a leader. Briony became famous as a novelist, the bride became famous as founder and first violinist of her successful string quartet. The groom achieved a first in college, wants to do history, writing historical tomes … A stupider bridal pair might have had trouble, spoiled their own marriage, but wouldn’t have in quite the same excruciating way as their immature intelligences manage in the novel.
I love the title metaphor: Chesil Beach apparently is a “shingle” of graded stones, all surf pounded, all tide worn, but in a east to west gradient of larger to smaller stones. Jeezus: just like the culture they blighted themselves within.
Visitors to this blog may already know that I am smitten by Saoirse Ronan. I picked up the Atonement novel to prepare myself for seeing Saoirse Ronan play Briony. I’ll be saying a lot more about all of this.