Barker and Borden

Mary Borden, with an ambulance of wounded soldiers.
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When I read Pat Barker’s Life Class a while back, I was sceptical about a horrific episode set in a hospital near the front line. A French soldier is brought in, in pain and raging, with horrific facial wounds resulting from attempted suicide. The characters discuss him:

“What’ll happen to him?”
“He’ll be shot.”
Lewis gapes. “I don’t believe’ it.”
“’Course he will, Suicide counts as desertion.”

At the time I tried to do a bit of detective work to see if something like this might actually have happened. Some French soldiers were indeed shot for self-mutilation, in an attempt to discourage others, but I suspected Barker of exaggerating the horrors, since, so far as I could tell from the literature, the “mutilés volontaires” who were executed were ones who had given themselves slight wounds, usually in the hand. They had not blown off half their faces.
Now I’ve come across Barker’s source – and I should have done so before, since it is a book she lists in her acknowledgement pages (and one that I’d read most of before – but not this actual story).
Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone is a rather remarkable collection of sketches, stories and poems. It was published in 1929, but some of the pieces, such as the poems, had actually been published during wartime. The story ‛Rosa’ is set in a hospital near the front line. A patient is brought in on a stretcher, and the female narrator gradually realises that his wound is self-inflicted – he shot himself through the mouth, and the bullet is lodged in the brain.
There follows this dialogue (in short sentences, rather like Barker’s):

“And he will live?”
“And what then?”
“He’ll be court-martialled and shot, Madame, for attempted suicide.”

Like Barker’s self-mutilator, Borden’s is angry and raving; the furious life force within him is compared to that of a baited bull, and his fist shoots out, knocking over bottles and basins. Borden’s narrator, like Barker’s Lewis, is deeply disturbed both by the man’s condition, and by the fate awaiting him.
Large parts of ‛Rosa’ have been assimilated by Barker for her own purposes, much as Ian McEwan used Lucilla Andrews’ nursing memoir to provide authentic background and anecdotes for his Atonement. It’s what novelists do these days, apparently. Interestingly, the most significant thing Barker did not lift from Borden’s story is its twist – that the man had probably not attempted suicide because of combat stress, but because of a letter from a woman at home.
So is Borden’s text documentary evidence that proves Barker was not exaggerating when she included such an horrific episode in her novel? It would be, if we could be sure that Borden was providing straight reporting, but what exactly is the status of ‛Rosa’?
The preface to The Forbidden Zone tells us:

I have not invented anything in this book. The sketches and poems were written between 1914 and 1918, during four years of hospital work with the French Army. The five stories I have written recently from memory; they recount true episodes that I cannot forget.

That seems decisive, yet the stories are labelled ‛stories’, and they are therefore marked as different in kind from the sketches. So how much has experience been moulded into a story shape…?
Researching war literature has taught me to be wary of the word ‘true’. In different cases it can mean:

  • Carefully accurate depiction of the actual facts.
  • Carefully accurate depiction of the actual facts, but with details changed to disguise identities, or for personal reasons.
  • Depiction as accurate as can be managed after ten years, during which memory has been working on the story.
  • Based on an actual incident, but neatened into a story-shape.
  • A made-up story that is ‛true’ in that it fits the background and the emotions of the time.
  • A made-up story that is the objective correlative of the author’s strong emotions (whose ‛truth’ is proved by their intensity).
  • or any combination of the above

Which of these descriptions applies to Borden’s ‘Rosa’? I’ll try to find out.

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