Lessons in life from the school of war
Sex, power and class distinctions are the focus of a world on the verge of conflict, writes Stephen Matchett Life Class By Pat Barker Hamish Hamilton, 249pp, $ 32.95
THE British are still not ready to accept that World War I is no longer a part of the land of the living. The generation that fought the war is gone; so are most of their children. But on a summer’s day coachloads of children on school excursions visit the Somme battlefields, as do adults who know nothing of the campaign but want to see where an ancestor fought, and most likely died.
At 8pm on any evening throughout the year, Britons gather at the Menin Gate of the Flemish town of Iepers to hear buglers play the Last Post to commemorate the dead in the three battles of Ypres.
There was nothing unique about the British and imperial experience of the Western Front; the French and Germans suffered equally appalling slaughters. But it is the British who still seem caught in the web of the war as a tragedy to be mourned, not studied.
Pat Barker’s new novel demonstrates this enduring obsession and offers some hints why, of all the miseries of the 20th century, it is the industrialised killing in the trenches that endures in British memory.
Among her novels of class and gender conflict, Barker is best known for her Regeneration trilogy of the trenches, published between 1991 and 1995. While the last of the three, The Ghost Road , won her the Booker Prize in 1995, they are all parts of one work that sets out the suffering of a generation that still resonates through British popular culture.
And although this new novel is in every way a much slighter story, it adds another dimension to Barker’s meta- narrative of the way the war set off a sequence of changes that are reverberating still.
While the Regeneration trilogy is set in the later war years when the challenge for soldiers was to stay alive without going mad, Life Class sets up that story by examining the war generation at the beginning of the conflict.
The trilogy’s characters are a cross- section of officers hospitalised following nervous collapses in the trenches, notably fictionalised versions of poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
But the core character is Billy Prior, a junior officer with his roots in the working class. He has become a gentleman for the duration because of the shocking shortage of his social superiors, who had died on the Somme in 1916.
Billy demonstrates the way the war gutted the old Edwardian ideal of duty above all in pursuit of an imperial allegiance transcending class. He is brave but has no illusions about the cause he expects will end up killing him.
At best, he sees signs that the war will break down the old barriers of class and gender by empowering working- class women. And he is sexually omnivorous, with a large appetite for men and women alike. Billy does not appear in Life Class . But in Paul Tarrant, the new novel’s central character, Barker points to where Prior came from.
The novel starts in London’s Slade School of Art in the months before the war and focuses on Tarrant’s struggle with his craft and his ambiguous relationships, one with a lover, a working- class girl whose psychological stability he doubts; another with a woman whose talent and social standing are superior to his.
Like Prior, Tarrant crosses class boundaries. He is comfortable enough in the world of the Slade, but is there courtesy of a grandmother who made a fortune as a slum landlord. Like Prior, Tarrant is driven by his sexual appetites. And like Prior, Tarrant is fascinated by the war and understands that it offers him a way out of his unsatisfying peace- time life.
Unlike the Regeneration novels, Life Class ends optimistically. But this is Barker being cruel to her characters. Despite his personal happiness, in the winter of 1914 the future for young men such as Tarrant was bleak.
Barker’s fascination with the Edwardian world that ended when the British regular army was destroyed in 1915 and replaced with a vast conscript force, supported by an economy geared for total war, extends beyond matters military. Barker is at her best in Life Class when she describes the way sex and power intermingled in London life before the war.
She populates the city with people who are understandable and recognisable in contemporary terms. Perhaps too recognisable.
Certainly some of Barker’s key characters, based on real individuals — surgeon and artist Henry Tonks in Life Class, and psychiatrist Dr Rivers in the trilogy — rise above the prejudices of their era and are not entirely convincing. Anybody ready for more of the world Barker chronicled in the Regeneration trilogy will likely welcome Life Class . But readers coming to Barker for the first time may well wonder what all the fuss is about.
Because Life Class is a slight story, it is best understood as part of its author’s wider portrait of the British world of World War I. It is a novel that dates from an age when writing and reading fiction was a routine part of life, rather than the big deal marketers make of new novels by wellknown authors, and free of the expectations time- poor readers today bring to any story they pick up. In this sense, as well as its subject, Life Class is a novel from another age.