Kate Atkinson’s recently published novel “Transcription” is a very good minor novel. A major novel, for its part, is when an author invites his readers to enter a social world slightly skewed (or more so) from the world with which they are familiar and thereby to observe the lives of people who are slightly skewed (or more so) from people with whom they are familiar in the “real” world. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and James Joyce are major novelists. Minor novels, on the other hand, are plays on generic types of novels where the author adds a touch of style or insight that distinguishes the novel from others of its type. Kate Atkinson has adapted the spy novel for these purposes. She is less interested in character than is John Le Carre and less interested in the turns history can take than is Alan Faust, and doesn’t pretend to the deep and dark seriousness of Joseph Conrad. She most reminds me of a novelist of a previous generation, Muriel Spark, who also had a light, fey touch in dealing with metaphysical metaphors, although Spark’s frame was never, as I remember, a spy story.
The first third of Atkinson’s novel is dominated by the long familiar image of the looking glass character of the spy world, handled here so that it is piquant in its literalness. Two flats have been set up next to one another. In one, which has been microphoned by British intelligence, the German sympathizers meet regularly to compare notes on what they have learned, not knowing that their handler is a British agent playing a covert role. The other flat contains those who transcribe the talk in the other rooms. That is the domain of British intelligence. And so the observed and the observers go about their business, one thinking they are dealing with the real thing, which is a conduit to the Fatherland, and the other knowing themselves to be the real thing, which is those who are manipulating the traitors to tell everything they know. There is a world of reality and a world of illusion and the reader is supposed to think that which is which is clear.
In the midst of this, Juliet, the main protagonist and heroine, is developing as a spy and as a person. She learns tradecraft and is promoted from the typing pool to being a transcriber of these meetings and then into a role as a spy herself, attending meetings with a different group of Nazi sympathizers. She gets these promotions because she is self-possessed as well as extremely clever, having avoided a scholarship to Oxcam because doing something for the war effort seemed tempting to a girl who had just lost her mother. At first, all this intrigue seems very tame, more playing at war with low level informants, than taking a real part in it, but soon enough she gets involved in consequential matters and is not sure how to handle them. She begins as a naive person, sexually and otherwise, who gets to learn what happens in life.
Juliet’s literary nature allows her to drop numerous allusions and one of Atkinson’s tricks is to allow the allusions to do the work of supplying meaning without further explanation. Juliet observes that her situation of having to evaluate the motives of her fellow spies and their informants is like the obscure later Henry James but the reader takes note that most of the characters are ciphers or stereotypes and that only Juliet has any depth. All the others are pieces to be moved along in the drama of finding out what is going on. The reader also senses that Juliet is both distancing and willing to take direction, something true of all of us, though in Juliet’s ever self-critical way that means she is likely to remain, throughout her life, an isolated and untrusting figure, whether that tendency was the result of her time as a spy or preceded it.
The reference that dominates the second third of the book, which is set in 1950, is Jean Paul Sartre, who stands in for nihilism, which is what befalls Juliet as she tries to piece things together: who is following her, and from which side? She clings to the spycraft saw that there are no coincidences and confronts the paradox of that insight: madness is in wait for someone who suspects everyone of following her, and yet there has to be some storyline that ties disparate events together. The hope in life is that you can find a single story line. Juliet’s life is caught between the BBC, whose job it is to manufacture so many stories that you can’t keep up, and the world of spying, where you have to pick the one thread of story that makes sense and stick with it. Life and fiction are like both of those.
Kate Atkinson does not disappoint her readers. In the third part of her novel, she does indeed tie all the strands together and give “real” explanations for the events that have puzzled Juliet. Moreover, there are enough surprises, quickly revealed, that make a reader think he has gotten his money’s worth. Nor is this novel a case where the reader would have suspected who had done what to whom. This is not a mystery where there are enough clues so that the reader can solve the puzzle. I am not going to give away the multiple endings that Atkinson has earned for herself other than to say that some brought a tear to my eye and made clear just how desperate was the condition of England at the time of Dunkirk. What happens to the people of the novel is not very significant in the face of what is happening on the world’s stage.
What Atkinson accomplishes, more than that, is what every good spy story does. It makes you stand back and wonder if the world is not a set of intrigues within intrigues, stories wrapped in other stories, and so leaving a reader uncertain as to what is the significance of what is in any day’s newspaper: is the story a cover up or the straight poop? How can one ever tell? Imagining the possibilities is grounds for a headache. I feel that way with regard to the stories swirling around Brett Kavanaugh. That may seem a very topical reference but just think of his story and those of Dr. Ford and of his friends as being an example of how easy it is to dissemble in the clear of day and how the obvious becomes so hidden that the determination of what would seem very straightforward facts becomes a matter of speculation and so left to one’s political inclinations rather than any sense of truth. Less topically, everyone has to cope with the spy’s dilemma, which is the everyday metaphysics of deciding when a role is an identity and which of our identities is the real one, and even whether there can only be one real identity. So nihilism rules the day even if there is such a thing as truth that can be found out and so we are all in a spy novel.
A word about the title. I don’t think I am giving too much away when I say that the content of the transcriptions Juliet makes of the Nazi sympathizers conversing next door do not hold a key to the plot, though many a spy novelist might well have had the plot turn on what was said and overheard being said. Mostly, the conversations had to do with innocuous gossip and perhaps not at all innocuous discussions of where RAF planes were being housed. (Britain was, after all, on the brink of being invaded, however much Atkinson deliberately keeps the events she portrays as a sideshow to the great events of the day.) The significance of the title, I take it, is that all of our lives are somewhat garbled and insufficient accounts of what we really say and do and so there is noone to put together an accurate transcription, that just being the nature of life. All in all, Atkinson’s is a solid performance: many metaphors; much food for thought.