Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

Atkinson likes to have fun with her readers. Likes to play games with them. In this case, she tells the story of Juliet Armstrong who takes on a job during World War II of transcribing the conversations of British fellow travelers who think they are plotting in hehalf of Hitler, whereas the British government is actually following every move they make.

But Juliet is an unprepossessing 18-year-old who likes to poke fun at herself and at others, and she regards her assignment as a kind of lark. It is also an interesting assignment on the fringes of espionage. But when the war ends, her adventures turn much darker, and she is beseiged by unreliable protagonists on all sides. Indeed, these men are not the reliable government agents she once thought. And she becomes not the innocent teenager.

The result is a novel that confused this reader, and that confounded many a reviewer. For we, and they, were no longer reading the story we once thought we were. And we began asking ourselves if this was a legitimate way to tell a story of espionage in World War II. Because, first of all, it challenges our interpretation of the young girl through whose viewpoint we are witnessing this story. Of course, we must also admit that an espionage story by its own nature is deceptive. So we ask why can this story not be one as well?

Indeed, deception seems to be the point of this novel. Deception of and by the British government, as well as deception of the reader. And yet, despite all the deception, I found this novel to be a delight to read, not least because of Juliet’s clever, often spiteful, always provocative comments about her own unfulfilled romantic desires as well as her clever perception of the foibles of those she encounters. This also helps us to identify with her, with her cleverness. There is even a bit of adventure among upper class Nazi sympathizers when Juliet is forced into deceiving her hosts and escape being discovered by shinnying down a vine outside a bedroom window.

Our interest is further developed by three plot developments. The first comes five years after the war. Juliet’s assignment has ended, of course, and she recognizes in the street a man she once worked for; but he denies ever knowing her. Why, we are asked to ponder. The second event takes place when a Nazi woman sympathizer accidentally discovers the government’s effort to entrap her and her Nazi friends, and is brutally murdered lest she betray the plot. What will be the repercussions of that? And the last is a mysterious note to Juliet that says, in effect, ‘you will pay for what you did.” Who is it who sent the note, how threatening should Juliet take it, and what is the “it” she will be paying for?

And then we see Juliet in a whole new light, when a mysterious gentleman invades her premises at the end and reveals to us her true character. She has been too clever by half, as they say. And equally so has the author. We thus feel betrayed by both the character we have come so close to and by the author who has lead us so astray.

Which makes one ask: how legitimate are these surprise endings when they totally reverse the hero or heroine’s character? Yes, such surprises play a role in the real world of espionage, but how legitimate are they in the world of fiction?

Lisa Allardice buys into this in her review in The Observer, “Atkinson is too accomplished and careful a writer,” she says, “for [such literary maneuvering] to be sloppiness.” And “Juliet’s knowing riffs on [espionage] cliché and metaphor suggest” this. She even adds: “Terms such as ‘postmodern’ and ‘metafiction’ seem far too heavy for novels a enjoyable as Atkinson’s…[who has long] been chipping away at the fourth wall, micheviously drawing attention to her craft.” She cites as another example Atkinson’s heroine Ursula in Life After Life, who continually dies and is continually resurrected.

In an Author’s Note, Atkinson writes that the plot of this novel is based on reality. There was a real person, Eric Roberts, who pretended to be a Gestapo agent in England and who worked with British Fascists to identify Nazi sympathizers. And transcripts of his meetings with them do exist. But once the author discoveed that fact, she says,“ I went ahead and invented whatever I liked….If I had to describe the process, I would say it felt like a wrenching apart of history followed by an imaginative reconstruction.”

Allardice defends all this literary maneuvering and trickery in The Observer. “Some readers might find [this novel] slight rather than clever slight of hand, but Atkinson always puts on a damn fine show. As Juliet is told, never forget the first rule of espionage: ‘If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a good one.’”

If there is one weakness to the novel, it is in the characterizatons of the variety of Juliet’s male supervisors. It is often difficult to tell them apart, for they represent their government role in this complex story rather than become  a distinct character who ejoys human relationships. But is not that often the function of characters in an espionage novel?

The complexity of this espionage story does make me wonder about my interest in future work by this author. What will interest me is an imaginative use of structure, and the new perspective time might bring. But, please, no similar deception of the reader. (December, 2019)

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

McEwan certainly had fun writing this 2012 novel. It recalls the finale of a Christie tour de force, which I did anticipate here, but only just before the ending. Perhaps because it was the kind of ending another writer might anticipate.

This is the story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) an innocent young graduate who has an affair with a married college tutor named Tony Canning, a suitor who jilts her but recommends her for a job with the domestic counterintelligence unit, MI5. The main portion of the novel is about that job, in which she is assigned to work with a writer friendly to the Western allies, Tom Haley, a writer that MI5 agrees to support financially without his knowledge in the hope that this writer will create works sympathetic to the English cause. The project is given the name of Sweet Tooth, presumably because such money is so tantalizing, but it also reflects for me the artificiality and lack of substance behind this novel.

The novel’s momentum begins on the very first page when Serena confesses that, “Almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”

The secret mission to support the writer takes place in the early 1970s, when English politics was in turmoil, there was unrest in Ireland and a Suez crisis, and the Arabs threatened the economy by raising the cost of oil. But while this political environment adds texture to the novel, it has no impact on Serena’s mission.

We read, however, to learn how that mission by Serena turned into a love affair. And it is a measure of McEwan’s craft that he makes her reaction to Tom believable. For Serena is never sure of her future, or of her professionalism, when she is drawn emotionally to this client, and never sure of him if she should tell him her role in providing money. In fact, she is ordered not to tell him. Not until the very end, however, do we realize how significant is that forty-year gap between the events being described and the publication of what we are reading.

The complications of Serena falling in love with the innocent Tom, and being ordered not to tell him why she has entered his life, introduces the main theme of this novel. This is the complexity that results from deceit and hypocrisy—especially when the deceit and hypocrisy has an honorable purpose. Indeed, such honorable purposes go back to Canning’s initial betrayal, as well as to Serena’s potential betrayal of Tom and his eventual betrayal of her. And, of course, to McEwan’s betrayal, in a sense, of the reader.

As I was reading this novel, it seemed to be a lightweight entry in the McEwan canon. It simply offered the complexity of a love affair against an espionage background. Would she or wouldn’t she, reveal to him her true role in MI5? And would he or wouldn’t he, accept her love as real? I was also bothered by the extensive descriptions of Tom’s shorter fiction. What was the purpose of this? For the examples were not that interesting. But I had underestimated McEwan. The answer would come in his surprise ending.

This work truly captures the infighting that takes place within governmental departments, in this case among counterintelligence people whose job is to create artificial worlds in order to deceive others. And who encourage betrayal in order to achieve their own ends. The virtues of truth vs. the benefits of deceit. But it also exposes such hypocrisy, and it presents people on both sides of the issue. It is reminiscent of LeCarre’s portrait of the espionage business.

While Kakutani’s review in the Times is more negative than mine is, she does have a point when she writes: “McEwan seems to want to make the reader think about the lines between life and art, and the similarities between spying and writing.” In other words, that life is a creation just as is art, a creation by ourselves of our own life; and that there is also deception in both writing and spying, in the creation of worlds that are not factually real.

My reaction is that making this point through a love affair is not giving the crux of Serena’s dilemma enough substance. Destroying one’s own love affair is no match for destroying the lives of other human beings. As an aside, I would also note that Kakutani has tended recently to summarize a book’s content rather than truly analyze it—simply conveying her evaluation in a few telling phrases, such as using “a clever but annoying novel” and “self-conscious contrivance,” to describe this work.

Serena’s character certainly reflects this novel’s approach to artificial reality. She reads a lot of fiction, which is an artificial world. She also says she reacts to characters rather than to themes or descriptions. And this novel’s style also reflects that. A political atmosphere, yes, it does have. But this work is primarily based on the nuances of character, such as in her emotional reactions to the men she meets, to Canning, to her bosses in MI5, and, eventually, to Tom, the man she loves.

On another level of her character, she prefers Jacqueline Susann to Jane Austin, which challenges the reader’s perception of her as a reliable judge of fiction, especially Tom’s fiction, which, as I said, McEwan later explains. But this serves primarily to cap off the metafictional aspect of this novel. For critics have noted that Tom’s fiction often mirrors the early fiction of McEwan himself. Which might be taken as self-criticism, but also, perhaps, of laziness by McEwan.

While disappointing overall, this novel does not turn me off McEwan’s future fiction. I simply would hope that he selects a more significant theme and probes more deeply into it. He can still deal with fiction and reality, but on the level of Atonement, not of Sweet Tooth. I am also not a fan of metafiction, unless it serves to convey an interpretation of mankind, rather then, as here, an O’Henry surprise. (February, 2016)