Impossible Pursuits

This blog post contains spoilers pertaining to the book (and film) Atonement by Ian McEwan. 

If you have not read Atonement, you should be reading it instead of reading this blog post. It is a phenomenal book.  Go on, pick it up, this can wait.

If you have read the book, good, come, sit, let's have a chat.
But the heresies died when he read her last letter. He touched his breast pocket. It was a kind of genuflection. Still there. Here was something new on the scales. That he could be cleared had all the simplicity of love. Merely tasting the possibility reminded him how much has narrowed and died. His taste for life, no less, all the old ambitions and pleasures. The prospect was of a rebirth, a triumphant return. He could become again the man who had once crossed a Surrey park at dusk in his best suit, swaggering on the promise of life, who had entered the house and with the clarity of passion made love to Cecilia - no, let him rescue the word from the corporals, they had fucked while others sipped their cocktails on the terrace. The story could resume, the one that he had been planning on that evening walk. He and Cecilia would no longer be isolated. Their love would have space and a society to grow in. He would not go about cap in hand to collect apologies from the friends who had shunned him. Nor would he sit back, proud and  fierce, shunning them in return. He knew exactly how he would behave. He would simply resume.
- Atonement (Kindle edition) by Ian McEwan - Page 213

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 tried to persuade my reader, by direct or indirect means, 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.
- Atonement (Kindle edition) by Ian McEwan - Page 350

Robbie Turner was innocent. You know it, I know it, and god knows Briony knows it, too. The three of us, you, me, Briony - and of course the lovers themselves - wanted Robbie's name to be cleared, wanted to see him with Cecilia, free at last, and "without shame." When I reached that scene in Cecilia's rented room, the scene wrought with anxiety and relief and the image of that old woman with her cart outside on the road on whom Briony focused all her attention while the lovers kissed, because Cecilia asked Robbie to "Come back to me" and he did, he really did, it was like a personal triumph. Reading alone in my semi dark room, I felt I had been through too much with this book. With Robbie and his thirst and his wound and his blisters and that bomb that vaporized a mother and son and that ominous line, "Wake me before seven. I promise, you won't hear another word from me." With Briony and the French boy with half his skull missing, with her hand scrubbing and her bedpans and her story Two Figures by a Fountain and subsequent rejection and...I needed to put it down. Robbie was home, he was safe, he would resume, they would resume. I could sleep well. I walked barefoot into my cold kitchen, filled a tumbler of water and finished all 16 ounces of it without taking a breath. It was a good thing, putting down the book at that point, dozing off with the image that Briony saw of Robbie and Cecilia together outside the station, because the next night, well, the next night I would finish the book, and there would simply be no question of sleep. 

In life, as in good novels, you hardly ever get to "simply resume." Robbie and Cecilia didn't resume, did they? They died. They never saw each other after Robbie left for the war. Before he left, they had a few minutes, a quarter of an hour, not even an evening of entertaining the possibility of love and a life together, and then what happened? But, wait. Let that sink in for a minute. Robbie went to jail based on the false accusation of a precocious and imaginative thirteen-year-old-girl. Robbie and Cecilia did not have epic love to sustain them through their separation; they had a few minutes alone in a library, the mere idea of allowing their love for each other to flourish, simply that and nothing more. And then what? They wrote letters to each other while Robbie was incarcerated. Letters to keep alive those few minutes, that memory, that faint possibility, those words Cecilia uttered before the police took Robbie away, "I will wait for you. Come back to me." Robbie was released from jail on the condition of joining the army four years later, met Cecilia in a restaurant, kissed Cecilia outside the restaurant, and then what? War, more letters, Dunkirk, injury, septicemia, death. And for Cecilia, all of the above, except bereavement in lieu of septicemia before death. Do we ever resume after life, time, circumstances, limitations, situations, distance, desolation, desperation, helplessness...after all this hampers, nay, shackles us from doing so? Nobody simply resumes, no matter how attractive the notion of resuming might be. 

We say those cliched words, you know, those of us who have faced a few things that have tested us, clawed at us, or simply unfolded in front of us, as though life is just happening to us, exerting on us like an external force without our control or cooperation. We say the words, "It is like no time has passed." "We will start where we left off." "Nothing about us has changed." "We are still who and what we were x years ago." But we're not, are we? Even in the most mundane matters, how could we possibly simply resume our lives after substantial change has derailed us? For instance, I can't ever decide to be that girl I was ten years ago even if I wanted to be. I wouldn't know where to begin tracing my way back to her.  I don't even know who she was - I can't tell you one thing I know for certain about her. She was so...unremarkable...there is nothing that stands out about her, even to me - and I was her! Or maybe she was absolutely extraordinary, but it doesn't matter, because I simply cannot reach for her in my memories. She is too far away. So, how can I, using myself as an example, simply resume even if it is the easiest and most coveted direction in certain situations? 

The fact is, we don't resume. We never can. We continue to move farther and farther away from the point of divergence, from the point where we "stopped," from that point we would have to toil and scratch and dig our way back to, if at all it were possible, to resume.