Saturday, December 19, 2009

A final act of kindness

That's the ending paragraph of the novel *Atonement* by Ian Mcewan.

*There was a crime. But there were also the lovers. Lovers and their happy ends have been on my mind all night long. As into the sunset we sail. An unhappy inversion. It occurs to me that I have not traveled 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. It is only in this last version that my lovers end well, standing side by side on a South London pavement as I walk away. All the preceding drafts were pitiless. But now I can no longer think what purpose would be served if, say, I tied to persuade my reader, by direct or indirect mean, that Robbie Turner died of septicemia at Bray Dunes on 1 June 1940, or that Cecilia was killed in September of the same year by the bomb that destroyed Balham Underground station. That I never saw them in that year. That my walk across London ended at the church on Clapham Common, and that a cowardly Briony limped back to the hospital, unable to confront her recently bereaved sister. That the letters the lovers wrote are in the archives of the War Museum. How could that constitute an ending? What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism? I couldn't do it to them. I'm too old, too frightened, too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining. I face an incoming tide of fogetting, and then oblivion. I no longer possess the courage of my pessimism. When I am dead, and the Marshalls are dead, and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions. Briony will be as much of a fantasy as the lovers who shared a bed i Balham and enraged their landlady. No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel. I know there's always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love.

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.

I've been standing at the window, feeling waves of tiredness beat the remaining strength from my body. The floor seems to be undulating beneath my feet. I've been watching the first light bring into view the part and the beidges over the vanished lake. And the long narrow driveway down which the drove Robbie away into the whiteness. 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, nut 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.

But now I must sleep.

Friday, January 23, 2009

When you resent happiness!

This was when i went around repeating to myself, and to anyone who cared to listen, that people like myself had become irrelevant. This pathological disorder was not limited to me; many others felt they had lost their place in the world. I wrote, rather dramatically, to an American friend: "You ask me what it means to be irrelevant? The feeling is akin to visiting your old house as a wandering ghost with unfinished business. Imagine going back: the structure is familiar, but the door is now metal instead of wood, the walls have been painted a garish pink, the easy chair you loved so much is gone. Your office is now the family room and your beloved bookcases have been replaced by a brand-new television set. This is your house and it is not. And you are no longer relevant to this house, to its walls and doors and floors; you are not seen."

What do people who are made irrelevant do? The will sometimes escape, I mean physically, and if that is not possible, they try to make a comeback, to become a part of the game by assimilating the characteristics of their conquerors. Or they will escape inwardly and, like Calire in "The American", turn their small corner into a sanctuary: the essential part of their life goes underground.

My growing irrelevance, this void I felt within me, made me resent my husband's peace and happiness, his apparent disregard for what what I, as a woman and an academic, was going through. At the same time, I depended on him for the sense of security he created for all of us. As everything crumbled around us, he calmly went about his business and tried to create a normal and quiet life for us. Being a very private person, he focused his energies on safeguarding his life at home, with family and friends and on work. He was a partner in an architectural and engineering firm. He loved his partners, who, like him, were dedicated to their work. Since their job was not directly related to culture or politics, and the firm was private, they were left in relative peace. Being a good architect or dedicated civil engineer did not threaten the regime, and Bijan was excited by the great projects they were given: a park in Isfahan, a factory in Borujerd, a university in Ghazvin. He felt creative and he felt wanted, and, in the very best sense of the term, he felt he was of some service to his country. He was of the opinion that we had to serve our country, regardless of who ruled it. The problem for me was that I had lost all concept of terms such as home, service and country.

I became again the child I had been when I would indiscriminately and waywardly pick up books, slouch in the nearest available corner, and read and read. I picked up Murder on the Orient Express, Sense and Sensibility, The Master and Margarita, Herzog, The Gift, The Count of Monte Cristo, Simley's People--any book I could get my hands on in my father's library, in secondhand bookstores, in the still unravaged libraries in friends' houses--and read them all, an alcoholic drowning her inarticulate sorrows.

Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran