Pat Barker’s new novel is a return to the Great War, whose horrors she explored effectively in her Regeneration trilogy during the nineties. The book follows a pattern very familiar to readers of fiction about the War – in the first half we meet a group of young people during the immediate pre-war period; in the second half of the novel, these characters are tested by war.
Not that Barker’s peacetime is especially peaceful. All her characters have their secret agonies and troubled pasts. The Slade school where most of them study Art has a basement Antiques Room, full of decapitated torsoes with amputated limbs, a silent portent of later wartime horrors. In this world, fun is not fun. The Cafe Royal, which ought to be a place of artists’ conviviality, turns out to be a forum for social one-upmanship and backstabbing. The Bank Holiday fair on Hampstead Heath, traditionally presented as a scene for jolly cockney enjoyment, in Barker’s novel prefigures not just the War, but many of our twenty-first century anxieties. It is a place where “overtired children whinged, mothers snapped and slapped, fathers took refuge in the beer tents, gangs of youths roamed about braying, jeering, contemptuous, excluded”; the hero gets beaten up by an alcoholic ex-soldier. From this grim peacetime the characters drift into far grimmer war.
In C.E. Montague’s 1910 satire on journalism A Hind Let Loose, there is a war correspondent who goes “over land and ocean without rest, bent to sweeten the home-life of the Warder’s readers with all the heroic pleasures of war, unalloyed by groin wounds or enteric.” Pat Barker is the opposite of this man. In her wars nobody is heroic, and groin wounds are on open display. So are gas gangrene, horrific facial injuries and self-inflicted wounds. Pat Barker does not use euphemisms.
The descriptions are horrific, but the action can be perfunctory. Characters appear and disappear, relationships begin and then crumble. Much like life, maybe, but an awful lot seems novelistically under-developed. Characters appear just to show us something horrible happening. A German girl in Britain is an example – a flat character whose one function is to show the nastiness of British prejudice. The most intriguing character in the book is Teresa, an artist’s model whom the gloomy hero has an affair with, is pursued by her drunken soldier husband, yet might or might not be over-dramatising the situation for effect. She disappears after the first half of the novel, and we never discover any truth about her.
As for the hero himself, he is a socially uncertain Northener, escaping his background, and the trauma of his mother’s commital to a lunatic asylum by coming South to study art. Since art to him is an escape, he is no good at it, as the strict teacher Tonks lets him know. So he drifts aimlessly, and finally drifts into the War as a nursing orderly.
There is a sense that these are modern characters sent back to a 1914-18 setting, and being put through it. Commenting on her Regeneration trilogy, she once said: “I avoided the kind of language they spoke because at least on our side in the trenches there was this sort of farcical humour which would not be appreciated today. It’s terribly febrile, you just could not use that language.” Not many of the intense and serious characters who people Life Class are the sort likely to indulge in farcical humour; but the dialogue of this novel also seems to belong to a later part of the century. Mostly this is a matter of rhythms but sometimes the vocabulary jars. For instance, a character describes one of the book’s acts of violence with the sentence:“But Nev head-butted him.” The OED has no entry for “head-butted” earlier than 1972. Also someone uses the word “robot” several years before Capek added it to the world’s vocabulary in 1921.
Barker’s vision of the world is one where, however calm the surface, violence is always waiting to erupt from underneath. One sees why the First World War is such an iconic event for her, disrupting as it did all the Edwardian optimisms. Yet I sometimes feel that, for her own symbolic purposes, she wants the War to be even worse than it actually was. In a crucial episode of this book a soldier is brought in to the hospital, violently raging, with horrific facial wounds. He had attempted suicide. This conversation follows:
“What’ll happen to him?”
“He’ll be shot.”
Lewis gapes. “I don’t believe it.”
“‘Course he will, Suicide counts as desertion.”
During the War, no British troops were shot for attempting suicide. Self-inflicted wounds were a military offence, and could result in harsh sentences of penal servitude, but no British soldiers were executed under these circumstances – none are mentioned in Corns and Hughes-Wilson’s authoritative Blindfold and Alone, anyway. Barker’s soldier happens to be French. Were any Frenchmen actually executed for this offence? I’m trying to find out, but I feel doubtful.
A book that this one strongly reminds me of is Not So Quiet… (1930) by Helen Zenna Smith (Evadne Price). Like Barker, Price was reconstructing the war from the evidence of others; appalled by what she had read, she translated her own horror of the war years into a melodrama where the ghastliness was unrelieved. The tone is usually very different in actual nursing memoirs, such as Enid Bagnold’s Diary Without Dates. Like Price, Barker concentrates on the very worst, the agonies, not the cures, the medical failures, not the successes. Both want to tell us that war is terrible, and perhaps frightened that we are likely to say “Yes, we knew that already,” they are tempted into showing it as even more appalling than it was.
What is most genuinely interesting in the book is the exploration of different attitudes of artists to the War. The character Christopher Neville sort-of-is and sort-of-isn’t Christopher Nevinson. He’s given Nevinson’s Vorticist/Futurist background anyway. He is used to exemplify a macho attitude to war. He paints machinery and searchlights and so on and becomes very successful at it. (But since he isn’t quite Nevinson, Barker can avoid the more interesting question of how and why Nevinson’s style became less Vorticist the more he saw of the War.) In contrast to him is Elinor, who wants to keep working at her painting in defiance of the War. She keeps on at portraits and still-lifes, feeling that war is finally not the important thing, just an accident that has happened to her generation. Paul, the gloomy hero, meanwhile, undergoes the worst horrors of war in a makeshift field-hospital. Though shattered by the experience, he grows as a person, and finally paints a picture that can please Tonks, though it is so horrific that it cannot be publicly exhibited.
Barker presents the debate very fairly. While her own art is very much the kind that seeks out the meaning of life in wars and train-crashes, she gives Elinor the best arguments and the most steadfast character. Elinor’s art, you feel, will survive better than that of either of the two males, and her dedication as an artist is stronger, too.
Look, I’m probably the wrong person to be reviewing this book. As someone who spends a lot of his time reading the fiction actually written during or just after the Great War, I’m too aware of how other writers have tackled Barker’s themes, usually better than she has. The experiences of nurses are presented less one-dimensionally in actual memoirs; the persecution of German internees is treated more movingly by Galsworthy in his short story The Bright Side; the atmosphere of wartime London is presented far more convincingly in Arnold Bennett’s The Pretty Lady; the dilemmas of a young woman who wants to escape the atmosphere of war are better done in Rose Macaulay’s Non-Combatants and Others. And so on.
But this is a very readable novel, and I was totally absorbed in it during my train journeys to and from London on Tuesday. So do read it – but be aware that its unremitting horrors maybe tell us more about Barker’s world-view than they do about the War.