Feb/Mar 2008

Chums of War

Pat Barker revisits the trauma of World War I

Richard Locke


After more than a dozen years and three other novels, Pat Barker's World War I trilogy––Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995)—remains a notable example of scrupulous historical realism quite happily unencumbered by postmodernist prejudices. In a 2003 interview in Bookforum, she was blunt: "What fiction has to offer is, above all, characterization. If this makes me a tremendously old-fashioned novelist, I don't care." How she has practiced her "tremendously old-fashioned" art deserves attention now that she is publishing her eleventh book, which returns to World War I.

Barker's first three novels—Union Street (1982), Blow Your House Down (1984), and Liza's England (1986; originally published as The Century's Daughter)—portrayed the lives of urban working-class women in Yorkshire with a memorable intensity of physical description and dialogue. The novels were often full of feeling, violent, and sordid, but never exploitative or sensationalistic, and rarely sentimental. They conveyed a dense but swiftly moving world of women that was filled with vigor, urgent need, resentment, and generous companionship. The characters ranged from toddlers to prostitutes to an eighty-four-year-old widow killed by a gang of housing-project kids. The focal length was at once historical and vividly specific about sensory and psychological details—you were inside these women's skins in a way that prevented you from retreating into the usual aesthetic and political clichés of feminism or social realism.

But after the third book, Barker said, in a 1992 interview, "I felt I had got myself into a box where I was strongly typecast as a northern, regional, working-class feminist—label, label, label—novelist. It's not a matter so much of objecting to the labels, but you do get to a point where people are reading the labels instead of the books." After a surprisingly awkward transitional novel—The Man Who Wasn't There (1989)—about a lower-class latchkey kid in the mid-'50s who plays out his longing for a father by fantasizing a melodramatic World War II action film, Barker abandoned this very mild flirtation with postmodernism and devoted herself to historical fiction.

"In many respects it's easier to write innovative and original and startling things about the past," Barker said in an interview in the London Sunday Times last year. "If you are writing about the contemporary scene, at some level, people know what they think about it . . . and you get almost a knee-jerk reaction. Whereas they don't know enough about the past to know what they think, and so you get a far more open mind." In 1998, she said, "There is in my work the feeling that the most important thing any human being can do is to be as objective as possible about the past, that this is the only thing on which a secure identity—individual or society—can be based. And linked to this is the feeling that doing it is a virtual impossibility. Because the moment you try, all the forces of delusion, self-aggrandizement, guilt, brainwashing by public perceptions, conspire to distort the past almost as soon as it has happened."

Paul Nash, Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917, 1918, oil on canvas.

What makes Barker most unusual is not only her unabashed belief in the possibility of objectivity but the great conservative skill with which she constructs and animates her historical fictions. They are all built on dialogue, characters in verbal action. In 1998, she noted the "overlap" between the novelist, the historian, and the medium: "My grandfather was a medium, you know. . . . He communicated with the dead in the interests of the living. . . . The ghost is a perfectly acceptable metaphor for the prevailing influence of the dead, which is not a nonsense, but which is a daily reality that we all experience. Because the past is not the past. The dead do not lie down."

The real and imagined dead certainly move through the trilogy: Not only the fictional lower-class, bisexual trickster Billy Prior and his friends and lovers but such actual figures as the poets Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Wilfred Owen and the psychiatrist, neurologist, and social anthropologist W. H. R. Rivers, a great and good man (as Sassoon described him), whose successful treatment of shell shock—judiciously based on Freud—was an affront to Victorian masculine ideals. Barker's extended accounts of Rivers's anthropological fieldwork among headhunters in Melanesia greatly enlarge and enrich the whole. Throughout the trilogy, all manner of questions about race, class, gender, politics, art, and medicine are dramatized (without resort to fashionable ideologies), and though the architecture is certainly not flawless or the ideas developed with unflagging authority, the structure is grand and the characters are palpably alive.

It was disappointing that in her next three novels—Another World (1998), Border Crossing (2001), and Double Vision (2003)—Barker turned to often too-familiar subjects in contemporary life and gave us middle-class family disasters, psychologists, social workers, a burned-out war correspondent, an injured lady sculptor working on a large statue of Christ, and the recurrent figure of a Billy Prior–like lower-class, seductive, late-adolescent manipulator. All this is efficient, if at times a bit sentimental. These novels were certainly more serious and accomplished than most (the family in meltdown in Another World is impressive), but they left us with a question: Do we need Barker to tell us this in this way? Aren't Ian McEwan and Martin Amis masters of this field? In the trilogy, she'd seemed so much more a necessary, countervailing, imaginative force.

So it's welcome that in her eleventh novel, Life Class, Barker has returned to World War I both in London and the south of England, as the war begins in the summer of 1914, and in Ypres, on the Belgium front, the following winter. She has concentrated her attention on three young students at the Slade School of Art, who play out the grand themes of war, love, medicine, and art within the structure of a conservative novel of an artist's education. Though there are fleeting appearances by such historical figures as Ottoline Morrell, Augustus John, and the artist, teacher, and surgeon Henry Tonks, there are no central organizing figures like the trilogy's Sassoon and Rivers. Barker said in the Sunday Times interview that when she was working on Life Class, she "didn't have a sense of déjà vu because the people involved are all very different from those in the Regeneration trilogy. They're much younger and much more naïve. They're undamaged and unformed. They don't bring anything to it really, except the capacity for being shocked." And I'm afraid that here she's identified a weakness in the book. As expertly rendered as their voices, sensory perceptions, thoughts, and manners are, the three central characters are insufficiently resonant—they don't vividly or complexly embody the life of art in conflict with the demands of war.

Although the Yorkshire student Paul Tarrant is enraged when his Slade professor tells him he has no feeling and nothing to say, we seldom see him looking at or thinking about art—even later, when his all-­consuming experience in a Belgian field hospital has enabled him to paint what's asserted to be a genuinely horrific and authentic work of art depicting a "white-swaddled mummy intent on causing pain. The patient was nothing: merely a blob of tortured nerves." Although the wealthy London student Kit Neville is well drawn as an anxious, narcissistic careerist who also happens to have real talent and produces what are again asserted to be powerfully grim paintings and drawings, we sense his sexual frustration and competitive drive far more than his virtuosity. And although Paul and Kit's common love interest, Elinor Brooke, is a convincing Georgian middle-class ingenue, a wealthy doctor's daughter declaring her independence by bobbing her hair, playing both boys off against each other, and earnestly working away at art school, it's hard to credit her repeated pronouncements that her art is all she cares for and that art must have nothing to do with the war. And it's even harder from the few accounts of her to believe that she's a deservedly successful young artist.

Of course, it's not that fictional artists have to articulate their aesthetic ideas or describe their works in critically convincing detail, but (in an unironic presentation such as this) they do have to express themselves with a particularity that conveys the distinct ways they experience their lives. In Barker's trilogy, the scenes of Owen and Sassoon discussing and editing their poetry are excellent. But in Life Class, Paul is more convincing in his lust for a painter's model and in his rivalry with her violent husband than he is as an art student. The sex scenes—as usual with Barker—are extremely well done, and the Hitchcockian subplot of the husband stalking and attacking Paul is adroit if predictable. Elinor's anxious sexual froideur is clearly connected to her increasingly independent life as a free modern woman, and her transformative journey to meet Paul in Ypres and become his lover is accomplished, if psychologically a little thin (as is their subsequent slow estrangement and ultimate qualified reconciliation).

But this conventional love story pales in comparison with the descriptions of war—the shambles of an operating theater, the makeshift nursing wards, the town of Ypres under bombardment, the ambulance drive to the trenches, the experience of being under fire. In her representation of the field hospital, Barker can be as strong as ever:

In bad weather, as now, the rain pelts down on the corrugated-iron roof with the rattle of machine-gun fire. At the moment it's a real downpour. Waking from their half-sleep, the bundles in the blankets began to stir and cry out in fear. One of the head wounds throws off his blanket, clambers to his feet and, naked, runs between the rows of beds. Two of the orderlies give chase and eventually grab hold of him, one by each arm, and hold him like that, his arms outstretched, a blood-soaked bandage slipping down across one eye. They soothe him, stroke his arms, tell him there's nothing to be frightened of, it's the rain, only the rain, no guns here, and perhaps he believes them, but more probably he doesn't understand a word, only the tone of voice and the touch. But he lets himself be led along, the strength that terror gave him ebbing with every step, until, by the time they reach his bed, he's walking with the slow, shuffling steps of a very old man.

Throughout her career, in her best work, Barker has never glamorized violence or squalor or resorted to mere local color or historical background. She never exploits her war material. She achieves an unself-conscious and wholly dramatized inter­play of physical sensation, psychological inward­ness, and social, political, and historical detail, and an unflinching moral seriousness that is far more specific than any senti­mental generalized compassion. But sad to say, in comparison with the trilogy, Life Class is undercharacterized and its themes undeveloped.

For example, in an opening scene, Paul has been copying the plaster casts of classical and Renaissance sculpture in the Antiquities Room of the Slade. "He'd spent whole mornings copying them, whole days when he first started, except for an hour at the end of the afternoon session when they were allowed to troop down the corridor to join the life class. On benches at the far end were smaller pieces: decapitated heads, limbless torsos, amputated arms and legs. Like an abattoir without the blood." Elinor enters and says, "I heard you'd walked out of the life class." "I needed a bit of fresh air," he replies. When she leaves, "he opened the door for her and watched her walk away down the corridor. With her cropped hair and straight shoulders she looked like a young soldier striding along, and for a moment he saw something in her, something of the person she might be when she was alone, not adapting in that sinuous way of hers to other people, not turning herself into a mirror to magnify whatever qualities he—it was generally he—fancied himself to possess. He'd have liked to know her, that secret person, but the mirror was also a shield and she'd be in no hurry to put it down."

The emphatic foreshadowing in all this veers between adroit and clumsy. The connections between dead art and dead soldiers, and between Paul's perception of Elinor as a soldier and his desire to know her when she's alone and not holding a flattering mirror up to a man like a shield, promise an ambitious if somewhat heavy-handed Lawrencian drama, but little is done to develop them.

In the preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', Joseph Conrad famously proclaimed (with awkward sincerity), "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything." It's not. Conrad's greatest novels are animated by a dramatic, inquiring, patterned intelligence that expresses itself by breathing moral thought into picturesque or sordid description. In the Regeneration Trilogy, Barker is a faithful daughter of Conrad and Lawrence, of early Hemingway and the Orwell of Homage to Catalonia. But in this first volume of what may well become another sequence of novels (several chapters of a successor are apparently completed), she has yet to go beyond making us see to making us think novelistically. There's no doubt that she aspires to this goal. In the Bookforum interview, she declared, "There's no other form of human thinking that emphasizes the unique individual, the unrepeatable event, to the same extent [as the novel] or that, in presenting that character and their dilemmas, calls on you to both think about the dilemma and feel deeply for the character—which is why fiction is absolutely irreplaceable." The Regeneration Trilogy makes darkness visible and comprehensible as only the novel can. And it's there that Barker seems to be reviving—quite unfashionably, quite unsentimentally—Lawrence's bold and touching claim that the novel is "the one bright book of life."

Richard Locke is professor of writing and director of nonfiction at the Columbia University School of the Arts. He is currently working on a book about the literary uses of children from Dickens to the present.

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