Pat Barker (birthday – 8th May)
Like Pat Barker’s hugely successful Regeneration trilogy ‘Life Class’ is set just before and during the First World War. As the novel opens Paul Tarrant an art student studying at the Slade School of art takes his place in the life drawing class tutored by the difficult Henry Tonks. Paul has a tough time under Tonks, leading him to even question his talent in his frustration. Paul and his artistic friends spend many evenings at the Café Royal, where he is introduced to Teresa, a beautiful troubled young woman, who Paul soon becomes involved with. In the background however, is Elinor Brooke another Slade student who is admired by both Paul and fellow artist Kit Neville. Paul is a lesser artist than Kit and Elinor, both of whom seem to be teetering on the brink of brilliance.
As tensions in Europe rise, Elinor invites both Paul and Kit to spend some time with her family at their home, but Elinor is reticent of getting too involved with Kit who wants to marry her, and knows that Paul is also attracted to her – but she keeps them both at arm’s length. Elinor is a modern young woman, shockingly short haired she is unconventional in many ways and doesn’t dream of the traditional role of wife and mother that other young women content themselves with. For Elinior is serious about her art, and anxious not to end up like her mother and sister. When war comes Elinor wants only to continue with her art, she prefers to ignore the war as much as possible, despite her brother Toby enlisting and going off to France.
With the outbreak of hostilities, and unable to serve in the army, both Paul and Kit Neville find themselves in Belgium, as Red Cross volunteers. Here Paul works with men dreadfully injured, many of whom don’t survive their injuries. Paul and the people he works alongside have an impossible task – by the time the injured arrive at their station their wounds are already infected – they are in fact fighting their own losing battle. There is a soldier so desperate he tries to shoot himself, failing to kill himself, he is patched up, so that later he can be shot for desertion. A frustrated and enraged surgeon kicks an amputated limb across the operating room. These are not pretty images, but they are powerful. Pat Barker’s writing about World War I is uncompromising and unforgettable.
“But then, that’s the question. Should you even pause to consider your own reactions? These men suffer so much more than he does, more than he can imagine. In the face of their suffering, isn’t it self-indulgent to think about his own feelings? He has nobody to talk to about such things and blunders his way through as best he can. If you feel nothing -this is what he comes back to time and time again -you might just as well be a machine, and machines aren’t very good at caring for people. There’s something machine-like about a lot of the professional nurses here. Even Sister Byrd, whom he admires, he looks at her sometimes and sees an automaton. Well, lucky for her, perhaps. It’s probably more efficient to be like that. Certainly less painful.”
When new recruit Lewis arrives, without the matter of fact cynicism that Paul has acquired, he is accommodated in Paul’s hut, and therefore under his wing. Paul finds this responsibility irritating, and the sharing of his space difficult – wanting somewhere where he could at least theoretically paint on his days off. Paul rents a room in the small nearby town, and invites Elinor to stay, for a short time. Here their relationship naturally moves on a pace. However the war encroaches and Elinor must leave suddenly – and return to the safety of England.
The longer Paul stays in Belgium, tending to the horribly injured, later driving ambulances – leaving injured men he cannot accommodate in the road, even dealing with piles of dead bodies – the more of himself he seems to lose. The distance between he and Elinor seems greater as her letters become less frequent, and the world he once inhabited seems a long way away. Back in London Elinor has joined a group of pacifists and conscientious objectors led by society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell. As letters pass between the two lovers it becomes apparent that neither can fully understand the world of the other.
After the bombardment of Ypres, Paul begins to see the world very differently, on his return to London, Paul must determine whether his experiences have changed him completely – and where, if anywhere, he now fits.
I found Life Class a compelling and powerful novel, Pat Barkers descriptions of injured men, and the bombardment of Ypres transport the reader to Belgium in the early days of World War I. The novel’s opening in the months before the outbreak of war, the frivolity, flirting and possibilities that life offers these young people contrast starkly with what comes later. I now cannot wait to read the sequel Toby’s Room which I have on my kindle.