Pat Barker’s terrible obsession
The calamity of war has long been Pat Barker’s muse, and it looms large again in her latest novel, writes Peter Kemp
PAT Barker admits, with a rueful laugh: ‘‘ I do sometimes groan when I hear the words ‘ first world war’. In fact, I usually groan.’’ As she recognises, her acclaimed trilogy of novels about the Western Front — Regeneration ( 1991), The Eye in the Door ( 1993) and the Booker Prize- winning The Ghost Road ( 1995) — has entrenched an image of her as a writer obsessed with that period.
During the past decade, she has tried to distance herself from it by producing fiction set in the present. But with her new novel, Life Class , she returns to the era she ‘‘ never intended to write about again’’.
Why has she gone back? Because, she explains, she became fascinated by the group of talented young artists — Christopher Nevinson, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, Dora Carrington — at the Slade School of Art in London just before the war. How characters such as these would react to ‘‘ the enormous event that took over everybody’s individual lives’’ was a question that excited her.
‘‘ I didn’t have a sense of deja vu because the people involved are all very different from those in the Regeneration trilogy,’’ she says. ‘‘ They’re much younger and much more naive. They’re undamaged and unformed. They don’t bring anything to it, really, except the capacity for being shocked.’’ What shocks and changes them, and their art, is the calamitous occurrence that she seems overpoweringly impelled to write about: not World War I particularly, she stresses, but war itself.
Her intense interest in ‘‘ this tremendously important event that is almost uniquely capable of revealing what human beings are capable of when put under supreme pressure’’ is apparent everywhere in her fiction.
If imaginations had colours, you can’t help feeling Barker’s would be khaki.
Talking about her work in her bookcasecrammed home in a leafy street in Durham, England, she seems removed from the trauma and turbulence of so much of her fiction. From her early years, war impinged on her consciousness. As she is ‘‘ very much aware’’, she owes her existence to a wartime fling when her mother, Moyra, became pregnant after a drunken night out while in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. Who the father was, Moyra never knew. Differing versions (‘‘ There was a very great storytelling gene in my mother’’) inventively featured a rapist, a heartbreaking marine and a high- ranking RAF officer.
Barker, who grew up believing her father had been killed in the war, was passed off by her mother — whom she always called by her first name — as a younger sister. There were, she grins, ‘‘ a hell of a lot of sisters after the war, girls with children 18 years younger than they were, who were their sisters’’.
World War I seemed close to home, too. After her mother married and started another family, she was reared by her grandmother and stepgrandfather, who had received a bayonet wound on the Western Front.
‘‘ The bayonet was stuck in but it wasn’t twisted because his officer shot the man who was about to twist it. If you twist and withdraw, it’s a difficult wound to survive. When I was a girl, I tended to take the bayonet wound for granted; that was what happened to you if you were in the first world war. But, of course, it was actually a very rare wound,’’ she says, with typical concern for factual accuracy. ‘‘ Only 3 per cent of total wounds were bayonet wounds because close combat of that kind was comparatively rare.’’
Not that her grandfather’s wound is a mere statistic in her memory. Her recollections of it are vivid and palpable.
‘‘ I used to stick my finger into my grandfather’s side. He used to get washed when he was going out to the British Legion in the evening, get washed at the kitchen sink, which made the wound obvious. It was quite a dramatic wound, as they were, of course, because it isn’t like a surgical wound. It’s very messy.’’
What impressed her most was that her grandfather ‘‘ never talked about it at all’’. It was silence, she says, that first whetted her curiosity about war. ‘‘ All my interest in war comes from what is not said, what was not said about my father, what my grandfather didn’t say about his experience.’’ True to this, she observes: ‘‘ There are lots of speech impediments in my work, of one kind or another.’’
It’s no accident, you realise, that some of Regeneration ’ s most riveting scenes involve a man stunned into dumbness by unspeakable horrors witnessed on the Somme and a doctor brutally eager to jolt war- trauma victims out of mutism by severe electric shocks to the throat.
Barker’s novels excel at dialogue. She is an expert at conveying a keen sense of intellectual exchange, of people who not only talk but listen carefully to each other. In Regeneration , therapy sessions at Craiglockhart hospital quiver with suspense as Rivers, the army psychologist treating patients pathologically desperate to suppress and repress, watches for ‘‘ the moment when the gesture subverts what’s being said, rather than reinforcing it’’.
Dialogue, Barker declares, is ‘‘ absolutely essential’’ to her as a novelist: ‘‘ If the dialogue isn’t working, the characters are not working either.’’ One peculiarity, she says, is that ‘‘ all my internal speech is always northern working- class, no matter who the character’’.
When reading the starchy upper- class enunciations in Life Class (‘‘ As for inviting two young men for the weekend . . . You know, you can only flout convention so far before you start to get a reputation’’), it’s interesting to note they first make themselves heard in a Tyneside accent.
In her early years, she remembers, ‘‘ we were poor as church mice; we were living on National Assistance. ‘ On the pancrack’, as my grandmother called it.’’ Even in those circumstances, thanks to her grandmother — who steered her through grammar school and doughtily tried to keep pace with her, learning French and reading Shakespeare — there was ‘‘ never the slightest feeling that you were only a girl, ‘ You won’t go to university, you’ll only get married’.’’
University was the London School of Economics, where Barker studied international history, with an emphasis on diplomatic history. This wasn’t, she says, smiling, entirely to her taste because ‘‘ the thing about diplomatic history, of course, is that you do tend to leave out the wars’’.
Her big break came when Angela Carter, her tutor on a writing course, showed Union Street ( 1982) to Virago. It published this and several subsequent works, including a novel about a working- class woman, Liza’s England ( which it insisted on renaming The Century’s Daughter after its Scottish representative said the original title would deter buyers north of the border).
Winning the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road in 1995 made ‘‘ a gigantic difference’’, greatly boosting Barker’s book sales and reputation, though after it, she remarks, you are ‘‘ writing in the shadow of your own success’’.
Set in contemporary Newcastle, Another World ( 1998) was a novel she found ‘‘ very difficult to write’’. Her next two novels, Border Crossing ( 2001) and Double Vision ( 2003), cured her of wanting to pursue what she calls ‘‘ a certain kind of contemporary relevance’’.
‘‘ In many respects, it’s easier to write innovative and original and startling things about the past,’’ she says. ‘‘ And it’s not just a matter of the writer being more capable of doing it. It’s that people are more capable of receiving it.’’
Written in accord with this belief, Life Class seems to have been struggling to emerge even as
she worked on Double Vision , whose theme is ‘‘ the extent to which atrocity can be shown’’ and whose epigraph, from Goya’s Disasters of War, is: ‘‘ One cannot look at this. I saw it. This is the truth.’’ While exploring modern dilemmas about the ethics and aesthetics of portraying war damage, she was ‘‘ all the time aware of the Western Front artists, like Nash or Nevinson, and the limitations on what they could show. I wanted to go further with that theme.’’
While it would ‘‘ be leading people the wrong way to look for actual historical equivalents’’, she says, characters in the foreground of Life Class share unmistakable traits with Nash, Carrington and their circle. In particular, a progressive painter, Kit Neville, is reminiscent of Nevinson, an artist Barker finds intriguing.
‘‘ He was doing these machine- led paintings from about 1910 onward, and he got his vision of the first world war faster than anyone else because he was already painting people dominated by machines and industrial landscapes. He was preadapted.’’ One real- life figure in the book is Henry Tonks, the professor at the Slade whom Barker admires not just for his inspirational teaching but because of wartime plastic surgery.
A surgeon before he became an artist, Tonks recorded the differing stages of pioneering reconstructive facial surgery in a remarkable series of drawings and pastels that he felt could never be publicly displayed because they were too horrific and would violate the privacy of the mutilated soldiers who were his subjects.
‘‘ That interests me because it asks fundamental questions,’’ Barker says. ‘‘ It’s that fundamental thing about art, that it’s about getting the truth for yourself rather than thinking about any even possible audience.’’
She has already completed several chapters of a sequel to Life Class , in which its characters will be confronted with war’s personal and artistic challenges. And there’s no doubt she will continue writing in this vein.
‘‘ I enjoy doing it. I enjoy creating other people. I enjoy asking myself questions about the world and answering them in this particular form.’’ The bugle won’t be sounding just yet on her distinguished literary engagement with war.