(By Pat Barker. Doubleday; 256 pp. $23.95)
Mention Pat Barker’s name to the average reader, and you are likely to get the response, “Is that a man or a woman?” Winner of numerous prestigious literary prizes in Britain, Barker is not as well known as she should be in the United States. Her WWI trilogy, “Regeneration,” chonicles the relationship between a psychiatrist and his patients — shell-shocked army officers — and should have earned Barker the kind of cross-Atlantic reputation that Ian McEwan has.
Barker’s novels are haunted by spectral characters whose minds and bodies have been shattered by violence. Fearless in the face of all manner of violation done to human flesh or spirit, she explores the consequences of war at the front, in the trenches, inside military hospitals and behind the curtains at home.
She invents male characters every bit as convincing as her female characters, perhaps even more so. Her work is distinguished for the way in which she translates the experiences of real-life figures into fictional representations. In the “Regeneration” trilogy, for example, Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, a well-known British neurologist and anthropologist, takes turns as the central character, along with anti-war poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves.
“Life Class,” her newest novel, is partially set in the Slade School of Fine Art, in 1914, where, in pre-war London, aristocratic and working-class students mingled. Paul Tarrant, Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville form a triangle of students (under the tutelage of the real-life artist Henry Tonks) who find themselves drawn together inside and outside the classroom. All are talented, but Kit is already establishing a reputation in the larger art world. While Elinor produces pleasing, scholarship-winning paintings, Paul seems unable to make the leap to any kind of enduring originality — until he finds his subject: doom.
In Barker’s novels, there is always a schism between those who have looked at the malevolence of war and those who have not, between those who are willing to consider it as a subject for art and literature and those who adamantly believe art should serve an altogether opposite purpose. “Life Class” is no exception to her commitment to the exploration of this notion. In the first half, the trio, like a pack of lesser-known Bloomsburyites, lead a Bohemian life of painting, boozing, discussing ideas and engaging in passionate affairs.
All of this changes drastically when war becomes more than a distant rumor on the Continent. Both men enlist, while Elinor remains committed to “an iron frivolity,” determined to ignore news of the war, not only in her art but in her very consciousness. Paul ends up at the front in Belgium, working as a medic tending to the wounded, while Neville drives ambulances in a nearby town.
When Elinor visits Paul in the small town near his hospital, the two carry on equally convincing arguments about the proper role of art in wartime. Paul espouses an art that will bear witness to the wounds of war. “It’s not right their suffering should just be swept out of sight,” he says of the wounded soldiers, while Elinor declares that art should depict only things we are drawn to aesthetically, not things “imposed on us from the outside.”
Paul and Elinor’s discussions echo those between Dr. Rivers and his anti-war poet patients in Barker’s earlier works. While the conflicted characters continue to view the world through their own eyes and experience, they do not remain impervious to the vision of others. (Significantly, one of her other recent novels, recalling genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, is titled “Double Vision.”)
Here is Paul at the beginning of “Life Class,” having recently arrived in London: “The moment he walked into the Domino Room his mood lifted. The tall mirrors in which the heads of smokers, drinkers and talkers were endlessly and elaborately reflected, the laughter, the bare shoulders of the women, the pall of blue smoke above the clustered heads, the sense of witty, significant things being said by interesting people — it was a world away from his poky little rooms in St. Pancras.”
Then here is Paul, many months later,
having returned from the Belgian front, another world away: “London was drab, full of mud-colored people. As the night closed in and the street lamps were lit, their blue-painted globes seemed not so much to shed light as to make darkness visible … Paul stumbled and almost fell.”
Each of Barker’s stories is layered — with violence itself; with witnesses to violence; and, finally, with tellers of the tale of violence, the only possible source for redemption.
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