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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

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.

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Il­lus­tra­tion: Eric Lobbecke

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