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If ‘modern sensibility (…) regards suffering as something that is a mistake or an accident or a crime,’ suffering has been throughout history an integral part of human experience and ‘war (…) the norm (…) peace the exception.’ Sontag considers a narrative ‘likely to be more effective than an image,’ narrative coherence and continuity more apt to interpret human suffering and to make us understand (cf. also Judith Butler, Frames of War, 2009). Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Atonement, here approached through two episodes which have forcefully haunted the present reader’s consciousness, suggests that both narrative and (literary) image are able to disturb and their pathos ‘does not wear out.’ ‘The scale of war’s murderousness destroys what identifies people as individuals, even as human beings.’ By creating characters such as the male protagonist Robbie Turner or the French Luc Cornet, the novelist Briony Tallis tries to retrieve these soldiers from the anonymity of death and to compensate for her awareness that ‘a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended.’ Although war’s atrocities cannot ever be erased or redressed, by nursing Cornet’s dying moments and restoring her character Robbie to life and a conventional happy ending, Briony’s narrative is a last attempt to atone for her own private crime. However cautionary a tale against the manipulative potential of fiction(s), Atonement honours the human(e) talent to remember, through art’s affective power, not only humanity’s relentless ability for atrocity but its persistently renewed gift to imagine deliverance from violence and suffering.

In: Making Sense of Suffering: Theory, Practice, Representation

Miss La Trobe stood there with her eye on her script. ‘After Vic.’ she had written, ‘try ten mins. of present time. Swallows, cows etc.’ She wanted to expose them, as it were, to douche them, with present time: reality. But something was going wrong with the experiment. ‘Reality too strong,’ she muttered. ‘Curse ’em!’ She felt everything they felt.

Between the Acts (1941), Virginia Woolf’s response to Nazism, the 2nd world war and patriarchy, is set at the very end of the period between the wars and largely written while Britain suffered the Blitz. Her reaction to (the threat of) war is a daring formal experiment, her final attempt to incorporate life in art, facing the limits of representation. While the house and the pageant provide the text with both outer and inner frames, underlining continuity, stability of place, family and history, its actual form undermines and eventually deconstructs this whole façade. The imminence of war threatens to fracture and rip apart humanity, art and culture. In such circumstances, Woolf confronts the dislocation and demolition of language, the suffering of language. In Between the Acts both everyday language and literary language are permanently tormented by means of allusions, blank spaces, (mis)quotations, spoken and unspoken words, clichés repeated over and over again, predictable narrative situations revisited and parodied, the use of verse, drama and novelistic devices subverted in a deliberate process where the general syntax of the novel is taken to pieces, dismantling former conventions and readers’ expectations. ‘The gramophone gurgled Unity – Dispersity. It gurgled Un…dis… And ceased’. Presenting the demise of civilization through the decay of language, Woolf brings the war into her text, in a characteristically ambivalent lament for tradition and celebration of its collapse.

In: Making Sense of Suffering: A Collective Attempt

Senile dementia and its problematic (un)representability, its (un)speakableness, have seldom been addressed in contemporary fiction. Going against the grain of a predominant silencing of bodily dysfunctions, Ian McEwan is among the few writers to deal with the subject, particularly in his 2005 novel Saturday. Henry Perowne, the novel’s protagonist, faces his mother’s decay and dementia, confronting through her illness the frailty and vulnerability of human beings, acknowledging that sooner or later he will be meeting his own decline. Through his mother’s bodily and mental descent, Perowne suffers the inability to communicate with her, to reach her in any meaningful way. The inexorable loss of shared meanings collides with his highly successful surgical achievements as a prestigious neurosurgeon, the inevitable decay of any aging body conflicts with his melioristic belief. And his trust in the power of science and rationality to order, control and give meaning to events is persistently undermined by her progressive fall into a void where meaninglessness is of the essence and memory, self-awareness and identity are no longer issues. Behind a novel ostensibly engaged with the overarching menace of international terrorism and the precariousness of today’s civilisation, senile dementia is an underlying theme questioning the relationships between the body, memory and identity, and through these relationships, the frailty of the human condition. The loss, through old age or disease, of any stable sense of self mirrors the vulnerability of a highly sophisticated society. Celebrating the wonders of technical progress he inhabits, Perowne comes to realize his civilisation’s inability not only to communicate and share its identity but possibly to prevent its own annihilation. By the end of the day, destruction and chaos have loomed near and the much cherished solidity of his private world has been traumatically revealed as yet another illusion.

In: New Perspectives on the Relationship between Pain, Suffering and Metaphor

In 2004, Hanif Kureishi published My Ear at His Heart: Reading My Father, a memoir of a failed author whose manuscripts never received any recognition. Rafiushan Kureishi, a writer exiled as a clerk at the Pakistani Embassy in London, was a disappointed man ‘lost in suburban restraint’, a ‘redundant man’ (as in the title of one of his rejected novels). While looking for his father in some manuscripts he has retrieved, Kureishi also confronts his own often painful and conflicted apprenticeship in writing. The suffering of his father is much more than material for writing – by addressing some of the father’s unpublished texts, Kureishi questions vital dimensions of their difficult relationship as well as trying to better understand who this man had been. The homage unquestionably paid in My Ear at his Heart may also represent, in some peculiar nostalgic way, a settling of scores with a ‘semi-broken’ man whose rivalry towards his most successful journalist brother, Omar, sometimes spilled over into his only son’s early success. Of course, Kureishi repeats and does not repeat his father – by becoming a celebrated writer he vindicates the father’s lifelong frustrated dedication to literature.

In: Narrative of Suffering: Meaning and Experience in a Transcultural Approach

Miss La Trobe stood there with her eye on her script. ‘After Vic.’ she had written, ‘try ten mins. of present time. Swallows, cows etc.’ She wanted to expose them, as it were, to douche them, with present time: reality. But something was going wrong with the experiment. ‘Reality too strong,’ she muttered. ‘Curse ’em!’ She felt everything they felt.

Between the Acts (1941), Virginia Woolf’s response to Nazism, the 2nd world war and patriarchy, is set at the very end of the period between the wars and largely written while Britain suffered the Blitz. Her reaction to (the threat of) war is a daring formal experiment, her final attempt to incorporate life in art, facing the limits of representation. While the house and the pageant provide the text with both outer and inner frames, underlining continuity, stability of place, family and history, its actual form undermines and eventually deconstructs this whole façade. The imminence of war threatens to fracture and rip apart humanity, art and culture. In such circumstances, Woolf confronts the dislocation and demolition of language, the suffering of language. In Between the Acts both everyday language and literary language are permanently tormented by means of allusions, blank spaces, (mis)quotations, spoken and unspoken words, clichés repeated over and over again, predictable narrative situations revisited and parodied, the use of verse, drama and novelistic devices subverted in a deliberate process where the general syntax of the novel is taken to pieces, dismantling former conventions and readers’ expectations. ‘The gramophone gurgled Unity – Dispersity. It gurgled Un…dis… And ceased’. Presenting the demise of civilization through the decay of language, Woolf brings the war into her text, in a characteristically ambivalent lament for tradition and celebration of its collapse.

In: Making Sense of Suffering: A Collective Attempt

War scars humanity in ways we refuse to recognize. In 2008 Doris Lessing publishes her farewell to writing, Alfred and Emily, a tribute to her parents, to the aftermath of the 1st World War and to the suffering, both seen and unseen, that is the inevitable outcome of any war. The text, an experimental hybrid of fiction, memoir and (auto) biography, is a reckoning with the past, imaginatively trying to atone for some of the irreparable losses the conflict brought about. Questioning the boundaries between the real and the fictional, Lessing creates an alternative history, inventing a world in which the war never occurred. She unmakes history, deconstructs the past, reveals what her parents’ lives might have been, had they been able to live up to their potential. After the fictive biographies, she tells their story differently. Showing them trapped by circumstances, she remembers their lifelong ordeals in the shadow of the trenches. Permanently haunted by nightmarish memories, the father, a right leg amputee with a prosthetic limb, obsessively told the same war stories again and again. The mother, nursing the wounded, mourning the military doctor she had fallen in love with and whose ship was sunk, devotedly tended to her soon-to-be husband. The war brought them together; however ill-matched a couple they turned out to be, they stuck it out. ‘(…) at times two streams of war horrors went on together, my mother’s ‘Oh, the poor boys’ like a descant to the Trenches.’ At 88, her time running out, their daughter offers them the ultimate gift – a second chance at living. ‘If I could meet Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh now, as I have written them, as they might have been had the Great War not happened, I hope they would approve the lives I have given them.’

In: Blunt Traumas: Negotiating Suffering and Death

If ‘modern sensibility (…) regards suffering as something that is a mistake or an accident or a crime,’ suffering has been throughout history an integral part of human experience and ‘war (…) the norm (…) peace the exception.’ Sontag considers a narrative ‘likely to be more effective than an image,’ narrative coherence and continuity more apt to interpret human suffering and to make us understand (cf. also Judith Butler, Frames of War, 2009). Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Atonement, here approached through two episodes which have forcefully haunted the present reader’s consciousness, suggests that both narrative and (literary) image are able to disturb and their pathos ‘does not wear out.’ ‘The scale of war’s murderousness destroys what identifies people as individuals, even as human beings.’ By creating characters such as the male protagonist Robbie Turner or the French Luc Cornet, the novelist Briony Tallis tries to retrieve these soldiers from the anonymity of death and to compensate for her awareness that ‘a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended.’ Although war’s atrocities cannot ever be erased or redressed, by nursing Cornet’s dying moments and restoring her character Robbie to life and a conventional happy ending, Briony’s narrative is a last attempt to atone for her own private crime. However cautionary a tale against the manipulative potential of fiction(s), Atonement honours the human(e) talent to remember, through art’s affective power, not only humanity’s relentless ability for atrocity but its persistently renewed gift to imagine deliverance from violence and suffering.

In: Making Sense of Suffering: Theory, Practice, Representation

‘When a court determines any question with respect to (…) the upbringing of a child (…) the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.’ By choosing as the epigraph for his short 2014 novel the very first clause of the 1989 Children Act, Ian McEwan immediately states one of this fiction’s central themes. Fiona Maye, on duty High Court Judge, Family Division, is called on a vital matter. She has to rule on an urgent hospital request to transfuse a seventeen year old Jehovah’s Witness, Adam Henry, who, resolute on following his parents’ and his own creed, is refusing treatment that may give him a reasonable chance of cure. It is the doctors’ duty to keep him alive. Only an adult patient has the choice of refusing treatment. In this case the judge is bound by the law to enforce the Act and decide in the young man’s best interests. Fiona knows that ‘it was no business of the secular court to decide between religious beliefs or theological differences.’ The judge has to consider how mature he really is, how the sanctity of life the Act aims at protecting intersects with Adam’s declared eagerness to offer his life as a martyr for his faith. The (underlying) conflict between the lay courts and genuinely held religious belief is yet another instance of McEwan’s persistent fictional handling of key contemporary issues in which public and private lives and interests (seem to) collide. The conscientious experienced judge is, once again, confronting a tremendously difficult moral equation, to give judgement she will have to make ‘the intimate intervention of the secular court’. While creating this fiction McEwan persistently addresses transhistorical ethical issues. And, at fifty-nine, Fiona eventually learns that life can be far messier than she had ever realized.

In: Care, Loss and the End of Life

‘When a court determines any question with respect to (…) the upbringing of a child (…) the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.’ By choosing as the epigraph for his short 2014 novel the very first clause of the 1989 Children Act, Ian McEwan immediately states one of this fiction’s central themes. Fiona Maye, on duty High Court Judge, Family Division, is called on a vital matter. She has to rule on an urgent hospital request to transfuse a seventeen year old Jehovah’s Witness, Adam Henry, who, resolute on following his parents’ and his own creed, is refusing treatment that may give him a reasonable chance of cure. It is the doctors’ duty to keep him alive. Only an adult patient has the choice of refusing treatment. In this case the judge is bound by the law to enforce the Act and decide in the young man’s best interests. Fiona knows that ‘it was no business of the secular court to decide between religious beliefs or theological differences.’ The judge has to consider how mature he really is, how the sanctity of life the Act aims at protecting intersects with Adam’s declared eagerness to offer his life as a martyr for his faith. The (underlying) conflict between the lay courts and genuinely held religious belief is yet another instance of McEwan’s persistent fictional handling of key contemporary issues in which public and private lives and interests (seem to) collide. The conscientious experienced judge is, once again, confronting a tremendously difficult moral equation, to give judgement she will have to make ‘the intimate intervention of the secular court’. While creating this fiction McEwan persistently addresses transhistorical ethical issues. And, at fifty-nine, Fiona eventually learns that life can be far messier than she had ever realized.

In: Care, Loss and the End of Life