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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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