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.

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6 thoughts on “Listen to Britain: A God in Ruins–Kate Atkinson (2015)

  1. Very interesting! We read the novel very differently. For one thing, I like her prose a lot. I see your point about the Greatest Generation stuff ( Sam said something similar in his WSJ review). But I found Teddy’s story gripping and touching. I thought the point of the final few pages is that he DID die in the war, though! Maybe I just got confused, but I reread them nervously just now, worrying about my own review, and that’s still what it looks like to me. I wonder if that would change anything for your reaction.

  2. No, no, I think you’re right about the ending. I found that final reveal so uninteresting that I couldn’t force myself to think much about it or how it might be contributing to the book. But mightn’t it further that sense that everything after the war is a pale shadow? I am definitely looking forward to reading your doubtless more charitable review; hoping it will make me think better of the book.

  3. Pingback: “We Are At Peace”: Mollie Panter-Downes, One Fine Day » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

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