Saturday, February 25, 2012

Atonement: The writer's point of view

In the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan the main character is Briony, who at age 13 is a budding author. She already thinks like a writer most of the time, seeing plots for novels and stories in the family life and nature surrounding her. The world to her is a place of inspiration for something she can later put down in writing. In a way her life is lived more on the page than in her direct contact with the surrounding world.

The whole book is circling around the theme of writing, the word as expression, or even the word as a more real reality than reality. I think this is something many bookworms can recognise, readers and writers alike - the world of fiction and literature is the preferred place to hang out. More safe and controlled perhaps, but also a place where there is room for high ideals and strong, fatelike friendships, fantastic actions and heart-wrenching sacrifices in the name of love, humanity, truth etc. Of course literature is mirroring to some extent the world the authors live in, but still - a different place to reality.

A favourite moment of mine in this novel is Briony's literary culmination when she has had an awakening and is being hurled out of childhood, all through seeing a scene in the park surrounding her house, involving her sister Cecilia and the family friend Robbie. This scene is the structural hub of the novel. Briony is too young and misinterprets what she sees - a feud between two near adults who have known each other their whole lives and who are beginning to understand that they love each other. Briony sees them argue over a broken vase in front of the fountain on the lawn, and interprets the whole situation wrongly. She sees Robbie threatening Cecilia (he is actually trying to stop her from stepping on the broken bits of the vase) and is convinced she has to protect her sister from this man. Her suspicion is later galvanised when Robbie uses Briony as a messenger in bringing Cecilia a letter. The letter was supposed to be an apology for his behaviour around Cecilia lately, with him hinting at his new feelings towards her. But of course McEwan has him putting the wrong note into the envelope, one including a word Briony has never heard before but immediately understands as belonging to the just-discovered world of grown-up dealings; and of course he has Briony, the writer who needs to know everything about the world around her, reading it. ("The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings.") The scene and the word is spiralling her into a different existence.

Anyway, a passage I've always loved in this novel, culminating in a single sentence, is where Briony is writing down her opening line of a story after seeing the fountain scene and understanding that she must enter a new level of writing and existing; enter the grown-up world and write about more serious layers of reality than fairytale princesses and storylines always ending in good marriages.

She sits in front of the white paper, pen in hand, and after considering everything she has seen and started to understand that day, writes "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly".

This one sentence, seemingly a leap from the context she is consumed in, to me says a lot about what writing is. From one kind of material springs a whole new material or world, somehow related to its origins, but often very different in form and content (if 'origins' is a word possible to use around the writing process). Creativity doesn't move in orderly autobahn-lines, it makes the most surprising leaps, leading us to completely new places with strange and fresh connections to the world we know and the evergrowing literary geography.

Not magic, only the endless possibilities of human imagination.