By Stephen Henighan
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Extra resources for A Report on the Afterlife of Culture
McEwan first exaggerates the social restrictions of 1935, then opts for a soft slide into the middlebrow haze of the wartime-romance-that-lives-forever. The first three sections are narrated in the third person; the fourth section, set in 1999, consists of a first-person confession by Briony Tallis, the adolescent literary prodigy of the opening section, that she, now an aging novelist of substantial reputation, is the narrator. The novel is the story of her atonement. But for what is she atoning?
But for what is she atoning? On a simple plot level it is the offence of having precipitated a disaster in the lives of her older sister, Cecilia, and her lover, Robbie Turner, a young man of working class background whose Cambridge education has been paid for by Briony and Cecilia’s father. During the hottest day of 1935 – the motif of rising temperatures foreshadowing cresting social tensions is borrowed from The Go-Between – Robbie writes a jesting note to Cecilia, who in spite of being his Cambridge classmate remains, as his social superior, an inappropriate object of his affections.
The mythology of the black dogs that attend moments of historical disaster (a symbol that Goethe introduced into Faust as one of the forms taken by the devil) becomes a pan-European myth in which Great Britain shares. Yet, as an Englishman deeply in tune with the evolving mood of the English-speaking world, McEwan did not adhere naturally to a European conception of historical chronology. Black Dogs is one of McEwan’s most ambitious and least commercial novels; ultimately, though, its central thesis feels forced.
A Report on the Afterlife of Culture by Stephen Henighan