On the work of Kate Atkinson

When I was fourteen, I bought a copy of “Human Croquet” after reading about it in a magazine for girls (unexpected choice by the editor, I’ve come to realize). I had the original receipt for a while and jotted down the exact time, down to the minute, and place where the book was purchased.

I came back to that inscription in my senior year at Duke, when I was writing my (let’s face it, terrible) honors thesis on “Human Croquet.”

“Acquired at 7:33 p.m., May 17, 1998, Barnes & Noble, Arboretum, Charlotte, NC.”

There wasn’t much I understood at twenty, but I did understand why I wrote down the contents of the receipt. I was recording a life-changing moment. I met Michael Cunningham once when he came to give a talk at Duke, and he jovially discussed having his life upended by Virginia Woolf, and I was grateful for that, because it meant I wasn’t weird. Kate Atkinson just happened to split my particular atom.

Her work has changed over the years, gone both wide and deep, but some familiar themes have circled back this year: the handsome RAF pilot, the complete disaster of men and women, the cruel and lovely ambivalence of nature, the question of death and stepping sideways out of time, the tedium of children and how there’s nothing more important, Englishness (and how observing it changes it), the strange way men separate passion and love (like unspooling threads), the importance of getting on with it even when you’d rather lie down and melt back into the landscape again, lying down and melting into the landscape at a later date (though perhaps having helped someone in a way, so as to not have your existence be entirely without point), the fact that we are all so fragile as to almost be fiction. 

I am more than twice as old now as I was back in that Carolina May. It must have been beautiful – May in Carolina generally is. Reading “A God in Ruins” in a Moscow khrushchyovka that seems to literally flutter in the bitter winter wind with my sleeping son for company was supposed to have been a different experience, but it wasn’t, not really. We don’t change. We just become who we are. The most we can sometimes do is become who we want to be. At fourteen I did promise myself adventures, and I’m glad to report I kept that promise over and over again – plunging into adventures of both the grand and sleazy variety, because, well, I wouldn’t couldn’t betray that lonely, skinny, goofy teenager that still lives on inside of me, she doesn’t deserve that.

Great art is painful. I suppose it has something to do with the way it shatters and remakes us. When I became the sort of person who’d fly to London every once in a while for the sake of art, or for a man, or both (“What is the purpose of your trip today?” “To get my brains fucked out and visit a particular painting at the National Gallery”), I also became terribly belligerent with my English friends when it came to Atkinson’s place in the cannon – meaning that I frequently get into drunken arguments that end with “you people don’t appreciate her” – which is silly. She has sold too well, some insist. She is from York. She is a great artist whose words are like tentacles of night itself, indistinguishable from the general dark until they wrap themselves around the part of you that’s not meat and bone after all, and begin to squeeze.

“She is overcome by the pain of love.”

I suppose that from a great distance – be it the Atlantic Ocean or the sprawl of Europe all the way to the cold gleam of Moscow – you can see more, or see differently. “Her work is bigger than Yorkshire and post-feminism or whatever the fuck you think it is!” I’ve never been dignified in love.

The one time I spoke to Atkinson, over e-mail, while writing my (does the word “terrible” do it justice? More like “a Pauly Shore movie of an academic paper”) thesis, she mentioned that she thought “Human Croquet” to be her best work, on account of its tremendous “heart of darkness.” She’s written some great books since – Jackson Brodie is terribly under-appreciated by the friends I continue having drunken fights with – but it was with “A God In Ruins” that a kind of binary star system was created. The two books have much in common – and tracing the threads that bind them (besides the obvious thread of “Life After Life,” a terrific work without which “A God In Ruins” would not have been possible) you really do begin to *see* time, and its place in the human consciousness, which itself reworks time into a fiction (with jaws of death, or life, for that matter). An adventure of the grand variety, as opposed to the other one.

The year, meanwhile, is in ruins. Russia is lumbering toward another Apocalypse. Ukraine might be too. The blue gas flowers still bloom on the oven in the long nights and that must count for something – warmth, life, the idea that the great big pipes one of my grandfathers had a hand in working on are still serviceable – but one of these days they’ll wither. Certainly will wither in this khrushchyovka. These carton-like, panel buildings are being torn down all over the place, and soon the one we stay in in Moscow will also be gutted, and nobody will even stop by and say, “There was the kitchen where she fought with Alyosha and made him lemon chicken soup,” “Here were the cheap Christmas lights that little Lev delightedly helped string up every December.” He likes the bell-shaped lights especially. “For whom do they toll, do you suppose?” I ask him. But such questions don’t really concern him yet.

My late great aunt (or was she technically my mother’s great aunt? Does it matter?) told me that the English were the coldest men she’d ever met. I know they still turned their heads for her, because who didn’t, in those days. “They’ll turn for you too, and you’ll have to decide what to do with that” (nothing good, as it turned out). Her first fiance was a pilot. Burned to death. Plummeted like a comet. Reborn as what or whom? Because everything in the universe is connected, we can be reborn as anything, I suppose. Even as a fictional character called Teddy, but that would be too farfetched.

My great aunt, or whoever she was, really, told me that I’d marry a Russian. She had been a translator, a redhead, and possibly a spy – but for whom? “Russians are great, I married five of them!” That fiance – what aircraft did he fly? Did it have a name? Was he even real? The beautiful redhead is dead and I’ve no one left to ask. Margaret are you grieving / Over loverboy unleaving. My mother insists that he was real and that the redhead never really loved anyone like she loved him. If he had survived, would it all be different? Would the dark flat on the Moskva River embankment be full of grandchildren, and noise, and light, instead of tattered wallpaper sliding down like loose skin? I’ve tried to do right by the those who were never born. Conceived my son on a mattress in a corner of that haunted apartment after a doctor told me I could do no such thing, so that was something.

I keep a picture of the redhead next to the picture of my other grandfather, the general, nowadays (in another fictional universe, they would have become a couple). My grandfather fought. Hand to hand combat. Good career, but too smart and sensitive to be truly happy afterwards, I think. Survival, Atkinson’s work has taught me, isn’t everything, even in fiction. My grandfather did go on to save me, much as Teddy saves (or “saves” them, as the case may be) his grandkids, and this is the part when my husband asks me why I’m crying. I’m crying because he survived, and I’m here, and I can’t even thank him anymore.

“Bertie loved her grandfather. Her grandfather loved Bertie. It was the simplest arrangement.”

When I grew up, men always sustained my work as a writer – whether by inspiring me by their violence and/or indifference, or by giving me critical advice. I didn’t *really* marry my husband because he is Russian, I married him because he saw me for what I was (he’s also great in bed, but it’s expected of me to point that out, isn’t it?). He sees the world for what it is too – it’s hidden dimensions its, yes, heart of darkness. “Human Croquet” did set me on a certain path, with a number of scary turns (which haven’t, apparently, run out? But then when they do run out, what will I do with myself?), and sometimes I think I would have had a different life had I not read the book and recognized myself in it, which sounds like a sad thing, but isn’t, really, my crazy Russian husband agrees. “It was a woman who led me to you,” I tell him.

The year’s in ruins, my career is likewise. What is going to happen to us now? I’ve always been the dependable one, but it turns out my dependability is a finite resource. “Go to bed,” Alyosha whispers to me harshly on these very long nights. “One more chapter,” I tell him. I tell him about the RAF, Teddy, Gordon, Carolina in May. He understands. Great art makes and unmakes our relationships in equal measure. The art we share with those we love, or try to love, is important. A painting at the National Gallery (High Renaissance, easy to overlook these days), a play by a pretty Ukrainian writer who lets me have showers at her place when I’m in town and the water is inevitably cut off (21st century my ass), the books of Kate Atkinson. “Some women need to be taught how to feel, I needed to be taught how to get on with it,” I tell him. He understands, he always understands. Everything above our heads is as illimitable as fiction. And I am a terrible critic, but there it is.

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