“Atonement”, “Life Class” and history

Why do novelists today go back to the two world wars for their fictional subjects? For both Pat Barker and Ian MacEwan, the reason seems closely connected with family memories. Barker has made it clear that her grandfather’s accounts of Gallipoli (and memories of his wounds) made the Great War a subject that she would return to many times. MacEwan has described how his father’s experiences formed part of the essential background for Atonement:

Many ex-servicemen have found it difficult or impossible to talk about their experiences of war. My father never had any such problems. He never tired of telling me, a bored adolescent, and later, an attentive middle-aged son, how his legs were shot up by a machine gun mounted on a German tank; how he teamed up with a fellow who had been wounded in both arms, and how between them they had managed the controls of a motorbike to drive to the beaches of Dunkirk and eventual evacuation.

That motor-cycling pair is glimpsed very briefly during the central Dunkirk section of the novel.

Barker’s Life Class and MacEwan’s Atonement have quite a lot in common. Both take the reader to the grimmest horrors of war – especially to the medical details of agonised casualties with horrific wounds.

Both also use war similarly in their novel’s structure. Both present war, not as the opposite of peace, something utterly different from what has gone before, but as an intensification of the same pattern of life that has already been suggested in peacetime chapters.

Thus Barker’s pre-war chapters are full of antagonisms and violence; life is dangerous and insecure – and then war makes it more so. More subtly, MacEwan’s peacetime chapters are about non-communication and disconnection. Set around a country house where parental house is missing or ineffective, the story shows young people at cross-purposes, making small mistakes with enormous consequences. The Dunkirk scenes magnify this effect, so that the chaos of war is the chaos of peace on a larger scale. The writing is full of simple sentences (or occasionally non-sentences) disconnected from one another, each with its surreal or terrible detail – a ransacked lorry-load of office supplies, a parrot, a dead woman wearing carpet slippers, an attacking plane. Nothing connects or makes sense.

Both writers use hospital scenes to immense horrific effect. In both novels, hospitals are places of suffering rather than cure. In Atonement Nurse Briony is confronted by all kinds of horribly mutilated men; there is no hint that any survive.

How realistic is this? It would be interesting to compare MacEwan’s account with his source material. He has received criticism for having based part of his book rather closely on No Time for Romance by Lucilla Andrews, a wartime nurse, and later a very successful romantic novelist. He has used her experience, but has he used all of it, or just the horrifying parts that fitted his theme?

I wonder, because a statistic in Norman Stone’s World War One:A Short History made me think about how things were skewed in Pat Barker’s Life Class. Stone says that while death rates of the wounded were high at the start of the war, by 1918 only one per cent of wounded men who reached medical attention actually died. That is an astonishing success story – but maybe one that Pat Barker is unlikely to tell. I wonder what the comparable statistics for WWII were.

MacEwan’s Dunkirk is a version that refuses the traditional patriotic myth – the miracle of the army saved from destruction by the flotilla of small boats. He shows us chaos – officers ineffectively trying to organise the soldiers, men looting, drinking, fighting. There is a strong scene where a group of soldiers finds an R.A.F. man and attack him because they need someone to blame for the absence of air support during their retreat (when the German planes ruled the sky , bombing and strafing the retreating troops). MacEwan used survivors’ letters from the marvellous Imperial War Museum archive to write this part of the book, and I bet that most details of his account have a factual basis. But he stops his account before the rescue boats arrive. He gives us the chaos on the beaches, and the lines of men waiting desperately in the water – and that’s it. We switch to Nurse Briony’s experiences, and soon the Dunkirk casualties arrive. We’re forced to attend to their head wounds and leg wounds and burns, and there’s no recognition that out of the chaos and horror the navy and their civilian helpers managed to bring at least partial success, with over 80% of the army rescued – more than 330,000 men – most of them in one piece. Getting them across the Channel was an amazing achievement of co-ordination – but stressing that would hardly fit with MacEwan’s theme of misunderstanding and non-communication.

I’ve been looking at the trailer for the forthcoming film of Atonement (It arrives in British cinemas on September 7th). It looks good – but I was struck by one short shot. The hero, Bobbie, is seen walking through a field of Flanders poppies. That’s WWI imagery! But then Atonement treats the Second World War rather like Barker and others treat the first. It’s a site of horror and suffering, not a righteous operation to combat Hitler. Ever since All Quiet on the Western Front, the first war in the popular imagination is one that has lost its causes and its rationale, and has become seen just as an exercise in futility. Is the same thing happening to the second?

Barker and MacEwan are both people of my generation. We were brought up among bomb sites and war stories. The adults around us had mostly lived through two wars, and regarded war as a fact of life. I think there was a presupposition that those of the younger generation would have to face the same thing some time. Of course, we’ve been the lucky generation. Sixty-odd years of more-or-less-peace, with wars tucked away in distant corners of the world, never coming home. But it means that our generation has an immense curiosity about war. Did the older generation have access to deeper experiences than we are ever likely to? Did war show them terrible truths that we can only guess at. Barker’s grandfather and MacEwan’s father had seen things that their descendants could only try to piece together in their imaginations. Ted Hughes felt the same way about Gallipoli,where his father had fought, and spent years trying to write an account of the battle. He called the Great War our “Number one national ghost”, and I think the Second War haunts later generations too.

So writers create new myths about them MacEwan’s novel deals brilliantly with the power of myth and story. His account of Dunkirk is a shocking corrective to comfortable myths – but it too is likely to create a different myth, perhaps equally partial.

Here’s the trailer for Atonement.



  1. Posted August 21, 2007 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    This article, also based on the IWM archives, gives a similar impression of the Dunkirk campaign, or possibly worse.

  2. Posted August 23, 2007 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the reference – it’s a fascinating article. I’m sure that MacEwan’s account of Dunkirk is fairly accurate – in telling the story of a stray soldier in the worst of the chaos. My question is about why he selected this subject – like Barker choosing war as the worst of human experiences, and then focussing in on the very worst of the worst. The two writers seem to be saying that horror is at the heart of the human condition. Fair enough – but is it the whole story?
    I think MacEwan is a better writer than Barker, though. Atonement is much more attuned to the oddities and paradoxes of human nature than Life Class is, and parts of it are very funny – whereas Barker’s characters all take themselves immensely seriously, and her novels are strenuously joke-free. Never a good sign.

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