Listen to Britain: A God in Ruins–Kate Atkinson (2015)

In A God in Ruins Kate Atkinson returns to some of the characters she wrote about in Life after Life (2013). That novel focused on Ursula Todd, who died many deaths navigating the perils of the twentieth century. I had reservations about the book, but I liked the way it valued sibling relationships over romantic ones. When I heard that Atkinson would be revisiting the Todd family, focusing this time on a younger brother, Teddy, I found myself looking forward to the book with an enthusiasm that surprised me. Recently I spent a weekend with it, engrossed happily enough, but already the book is fading for me, and I’m doubtful it will linger for me the way its successor did.

The great event in Teddy’s life, as for so many fictional characters and, who knows, maybe even real people, was WWII. He served as a bomber pilot, leading risky raids in his rickety Halifax bomber over Germany. Bombers were at constant risk—from anti-aircraft fire, from German fighter pilots, from the dangers of flying itself (taking off and landing were as dangerous as flying over Berlin). Teddy, bored stiff by his prewar job in a bank, comes alive in the air force. He loves the camaraderie, the white-knuckle combination of luck and skill needed to fly a plane, and most of all the terrible danger. Teddy is shot down twice: the first over the Channel, forcing a harrowing water landing and several terrifying days adrift in a life raft, and the second over enemy territory, which leads to his internment in a German POW camp (interestingly, the latter is only alluded to, not shown).

After the war, Teddy works at various provincial newspapers, marries his childhood sweetheart (who had at least as interesting a war as he did, as a code breaker at Bletchley Park), becomes an avid gardener, suffers the loss of his wife to brain cancer, and raises an increasingly difficult daughter with whom he is never quite reconciled but whose children he becomes close to. He has a good life, though maybe not a good death—at the end he is a centenarian who has lingered in a kind of half-life in a depressing nursing home. Atkinson never says so, but I think we’re to wonder if it hadn’t been better for him to die in the war. Teddy’s grandson overcomes a rough childhood to become a Buddhist-inspired guru of sorts. Perhaps this development is the novel’s way of insisting we must accept whatever happens to us, a New Age version of the English stiff upper lip. And yet even though the book is at pains not to glorify war, I think it can’t help but being in thrall to that time in British life.

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The novel’s interest in the relationship of past to present isn’t only historical or political. It’s also narratological. The TLS review suggested that, unlike Life after Life, A God in Ruins is concerned with character rather than narrative structure. I don’t think that’s right. But I don’t think its narrative experiments are always successful. For example, the book is filled with flash-forwards that reveal almost as an aside the inevitably terrible fate of a minor character. Take the case of Julia, a peer’s daughter serving in the women’s auxiliary with whom Teddy has a brief but intense affair. Teddy arrives at their rendezvous to find only a scribbled note thanking him for everything. The narrator continues:

Not long afterwards Julia was posted to an Army ordinance base and was one of seventeen people who were killed when a bomb dump accidentally exploded. Teddy was already in the POW camp by then and didn’t find out about the incident until years later when he read about her father’s death in his own newspaper (‘Peer in sex scandal falls to death’).

Other writers have used this technique to marvelous effect, notably Proust, and, more pertinently to Atkinson’s literary lineage, Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room and Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Atkinson’s glimpses into the future are much more heavy-handed than these other writers. After the paragraph quoted above, we are returned to the present in the most obvious way possible: “But all that was in the future.” Admittedly, the narration here is attached to Teddy’s consciousness, and he’s offered to us as a bit pedantic and dutiful, though all the more loveable for that conscientiousness. Which means that leaden transition could be Teddy’s own. But on other occasions the narrative asides are more obviously the narrator’s, even when expressed by a character. Ursula has a friend in the Air Ministry whose sole function is to provide the novel with war statistics, especially about the long odds that a bomber pilot would survive the war. The joke’s on her, as we learn during one of Teddy’s sorties. His rear-gunner has just seen a spectacular sunset:

As a rear-gunner, Kenny was the least likely of all of them to live to see a sunset in peacetime. Only a one-in-four chance of staying alive until then, Ursula’s girl said. In the end, of course, it was the girl from the Air Ministry who was living without a future, killed by the Aldwych V-1 rocket in June of ’44. She had been on the roof of Adastral House, where the Air Ministry was housed, sunbathing whilst eating her lunchtime sandwiches. (What were the odds against that, Teddy wondered?)

Serves her right for daring to disparage the fortunes of the protagonists of this book! That parenthesis is clumsy—it makes no sense either logically or narratively. When is Teddy thinking this? Certainly not in the plane over the North Sea. (He doesn’t yet know she’ll die this way.) At some later time? But there’s been no acknowledgement that we’ve left that moment in the skies, except perhaps that “of course” which might be taken as an indication of retrospective tsk-tsking: the irony of that girl with her grim statistics being the one who kicked off… and in such unproductive, hedonistic fashion (sunbathing!). Keep calm and carry on, indeed.

These narrative infelicities aside, though, the scenes in the bombers are terrific: vivid and exciting, filled with enough historical and cultural details that we understand what risks those young men ran and what they were asked to accomplish. But when Atkinson gets philosophic about the results of the bombing war—specifically, the firestorms that incinerated German cities, deliberately targeting civilians—her heavy hand returns. The culmination is a scene between Teddy and Ursula at a wartime concert of Beethoven’s Ninth where she asks him how he can justify bombing those civilians. Against the obstreperous backdrop of the Ode to Joy, the siblings discuss man’s inhumanity to man:

‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder,’ Ursual said. ‘Do you think it’s possible? One day? That all men could be brothers one day? People—by which I largely mean men—have been killing each other since time began. Since Cain threw a rock at Abel’s head or whatever it was he did to him.’

‘I don’t think the Bible’s that specific,’ Teddy said.

‘We have terrifically tribal instincts,’ Ursula said. ‘We’re all primitives underneath, that’s why we had to invent God, to be the voice of our conscience, or we would be killing each other left, right and center.’

In a scene we don’t see, Ursula returns to her rooms to continue reading Freud’s Totem and Taboo… Look, D. H. Lawrence is my favourite writer—I don’t mind a philosophical debate/disquisition in the middle of a novel. But this one is so pat: it considers whether German civilians are really civilians, whether they’re not also the enemy, culpable by association; it adds that awkward parenthetical about male aggression. The implied argument of A God in Ruins is that everything in Britain went downhill after the war, that nothing afterwards could ever do justice to its excitement and moral urgency. Indeed, war is exciting. As Freud put it in “Thoughts for the Time on War and Death,” written six months after the start of WWI, nothing quickens our appreciation for life than the imminent risk that it will be taken away. My sense is that in including set-pieces like this one between the Todd siblings Atkinson wants to question or qualify her own thesis about the terrible beauty of war. But its hastiness and triteness works against that aim. The moment feels dutiful, the prose especially lax. Only when Teddy is in the air does it come to life. In the end, then, the book feels like a hymn to the Greatest Generation, as evidenced by the number of times characters wonder how the cosseted and ineffectual postwar generations would cope in extremis, as if everyday life at any time didn’t offer up all sorts of emotionally rich, vital, and meaningful situations every day.

In the end, then, I hold two things against A God in Ruins. First, its self-congratulation about the seriousness of the enterprise of documenting twentieth century history, which comes across most fully in those heavy-handed exchanges between Ursula and Teddy about the possibility of a just war, a self-congratulation that folds into a conservative narrative about Britain’s decline. Second, the flatness of Atkinson’s prose, which holds no surprises, offers no resistance to easy digestion. It’s so inoffensive, so unlike the English fiction of the period it’s fascinated by (Bowen, Green, Lehmann, Taylor, etc). I can’t tell what’s more dispiriting: the vision of Atkinson writing a novel dedicated to each of the Todd siblings (even the eldest, the insufferable prig Maurice, might eventually get redeemed), or the vision of myself despite everything reading them all.

Miscellany

Some thoughts on recent reading, mostly crime fiction related:

Some Die Eloquent—Catherine Aird (1979)

Discovered Aird thanks to Steve at Stevereads (how does he read all those books?). Some Die Eloquent must come midway through the Sloan & Crosby series, but I don’t think it matters much where you start. Aird is clearly a genius in her way and I wonder why she’s not better known. Wonderful dialogue (witty but not snappy: dry), very funny, keen eye for the way institutions work (here medicine, especially hospitals). And a decent plot in less than 200 pages. Take that, bloated 400-pp crime novels! More Aird is definitely in my future.

 

Several books by Karin Fossum (translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson, Charlotte Barslun, and others)

I read Fossum’s Inspector Sejer books when they first started appearing in English translation, about ten years ago. I liked them well enough, but suddenly there were more and more and they just didn’t grab my attention enough to continue. I returned to her this year thanks to the English-language publication of the first in the series. (Eva’s Eye in the US, In the Darkness in the UK—both quintessentially lame crime fiction titles.) Despite what I just said above about length—the book is 400 pp—I thought this an auspicious start to the series.

Ruth Rendell claims to like these books, and it’s easy to see why. Like Rendell, Fossum is primarily interested in motivation—most of her books aren’t that suspenseful. Rather, the suspense comes from seeing how the perpetrator’s actions come undone. Fossum is better than most crime writers at characterization: her best feat comes in The Indian Bride, where she manages to make plausible and sympathetic an aging Norwegian bachelor who goes to India to meet a woman after falling in love with a picture in a National Geographic book. Eva’s Eye is good in this regard, too, giving us a desperate, haughty, and clueless artist.

What I particularly like about the first book is its balance between criminal and detective. Sejer is a bit in the sensitive mold I’ve decried before, but his triumphs are more muted and thus more palatable. In later books, Fossum seems unable to decide what she wants to do with Sejer. Sometimes he’s important, sometimes barely present. It’s as if she’s experimenting with crime novels that would have no detective or inspector, and only accidental perpetrators. I guess I like my procedurals more conventional. Still, I read four of these in a row, and have now read almost everything that’s in English, and I’ll likely pick up the latest translation when it’s out this summer.

 

Red Road—Denise Mina (2013)

Mina’s a superior crime writer, one of the few I’ll drop everything for. Her previous books have come in trilogies; I was glad to see that Red Road is the fourth in the Alex Morrow series. Morrow is a great character: smart, a bit stroppy, unable to let things go. Halfway through the book a body is found in an apartment high rise that’s being demolished. Morrow’s unwilling trip to the scene of the crime is a brilliant, frightening set piece. I don’t think Red Road is as good as either the second or third in the series, but it’s totally worth your time.

 

Life After Life—Kate Atkinson (2013)

Some of the people whose reading taste I respect most really love this book. I liked it, too, even quite a lot at times. But I didn’t fall under its spell the way they did. Strange, that: the book ought to be right up my alley, being set in the historical periods (Edwardian England through WII Germany) I’m most invested in.

Ursula Todd, the protagonist, lives many lives in the book, eventually learning to avoid the causes of death and unhappiness (influenza, rape, sexual abuse) that befall her in some versions of the story. At some point, Todd, struggling through a series of vividly depicted second world wars (though I prefer Sarah Waters, or, you know, Henry Green, on the Blitz), both in London and Berlin, decides she must assassinate Hitler to stop the bad things of the twentieth century happening. This view of history is less juvenile than Quentin Tarantino’s, say, but still pretty naïve.

Atkinson, never much of a stylist, does better with England than Germany (despite the irritating, anachronistic “parade of historical ideas” quality, evident, for example, when Todd is sent to a Harley Street psychoanalyst quite unlikely to have present in the early 1920s of historical London). Atkinson did a lot of research for the book, and it shows, mostly in the laboured scenes set in Germany. There’s a whole dull little biography of Eva Braun waiting to be excised from this book.

The book’s merits are two-fold. The first is in its play with our attachment to Ursula. We do get attached to her, despite or perhaps because she keeps dying on us. Each death comes as a bit of a shock, a disturbance anyway, even though we know she will begin life again on the next page. Atkinson makes us care about Ursula and her family a lot. I think the book’s structure is key to that feeling, but I’m not sure how exactly. Anyone have any ideas?

The second is its steadfast refusal of romantic love for Ursula. She has a few relationships, even in one life a (disastrous) marriage, but none of them are ever important. As the lives pile up and she starts to “learn” from earlier ones, she avoids sexual and romantic intimacy more and more. One reason for that is a traumatic early experience, important in a book that believes events have resonances not just over the course of a life but across many lives. Another, more interesting, reason is that there are already lots of intense relationships in the book—they just happen to be between siblings. Interestingly, the Todd children aren’t orphans, in the way they might have been in the Edwardian children’s book that lurks in the unspoken background to Life after Life. What this means is that the book doesn’t feel the need to undo the parent-child relationship altogether to present the one between siblings as the most meaningful one a person can have.

Still, I wanted the book to do more with these things. I wanted it to be smarter. But I can understand why many smart readers are excited about it. For a particularly compelling view, read Derek Jenkins’s Goodreads review—it is better than the book itself, and, at moments seems to be a brilliant riposte to, for example, Adam Mars-Jones’s surprisingly brittle and hostile review in the LRB: “When someone complains about the slack internal logic of Todd’s eternal recurrence, they aren’t exactly missing the point, but they are evidently missing some of the pleasure.” Wonderful!

 

Several books by Benjamin Black

When it first came out I eagerly read Christine Falls, the Irish novelist John Banville’s pseudonymous effort at crime fiction, set in 1950s Dublin and starring a pathologist named Quirke. In the meantime, Black has published a number of sequels, which have accumulated on my shelves on the hopeful assumption that I would like the others as much as I did the first. I’ve read the next three now, and they’re entirely satisfying, although sometimes a bit workmanlike. Black is better on atmosphere—he sure gets the fug of provincial cities right—than on plotting, and the general trajectory of the books (Quirke stumbles upon wrong-doing at the highest echelons of the young Republic’s oligarchy and is unable to do much about it) gets repetitive. But he’s a good writer, and he comes by his genre interest legitimately: as a reviewer of his recent Marlowe novel put it, the best part of Banville’s work already involved secrets and investigations of one sort or another.

He can do you a fancy, (almost) overripe sentence:

Strange, how for him all the uncertainty and doubt, all that feeling of adolescent fumbling, how it was all gone, rid of in an instant, replaced by something deeper, darker, of far more weight, as if that kiss had been the culmination of a ceremony he had not been aware of as it unfolded, and that had ended by their sealing, there by the cold hearth, a solemn pact of dependence and fraught collaboration, and it was not the nearness of the fireplace, he knew, that was giving to his mouth a bitter taste of ashes. (A Death in Summer, 2011

And he can do you a marvelously efficient one:

All institutional buildings made Quirke, the orphan, shudder. (The Silver Swan, 2008)

That’s how you do exposition!