Monday, March 24, 2008

Review: Life Class by Pat Barker -- A different side of WWI

A different side of WWI
British novelist looks at war through the eyes of artists

By Pat Barker.
Doubleday, 320 pp. $23.95.

In the United States, World War I may be a mere chapter in the history books, but in the United Kingdom it is still part of everyday life. Vast monuments in nearly every town recount the names of the dead, and on Nov. 11 each year — the day the armistice was called in 1918 — people still pin red-paper poppies to their lapels in remembrance. It should come as no surprise that the Great War still commands the attention of many British novelists. Chief among these is Pat Barker.

In the 1990s Barker penned a series about the war that included Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995). They were an alternative to the "blood, mud and poppies" school of World War I writing. Instead of bogging down in the grim mayhem of the trenches, they spent more time in their characters' heads, examining their fragile psyches and emotions.

These novels were also notable for the way they translated the experiences of real-life figures into fiction. For example, Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, a well-known neurologist and anthropologist, as well as poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, take star turns in Regeneration, a book largely about efforts to heal the shell-shocked.

Barker's trilogy was widely praised for focusing on little-examined aspects of the war such as homosexuality in the military and the role of women. Some critics derided the books as revisionist exercises that cast late-20th-century values onto early 20th-century men. But the debate seemed to be settled in favor of Barker when The Ghost Road won the Booker Prize in 1995.

She returns to the Great War in Life Class, a novel that's supposedly the start of another trilogy, this time examining the conflict from the perspective of painters. So far at least, the series looks far less promising.

Life Class focuses on a pair of students at London's Slade School of Art in 1914, on the eve of the war: Paul Tarrant, a working-class man who has used the last bit of his inheritance to pursue his calling as an artist, and Elinor Brooke, the woman he loves, a fellow student and privileged daughter of a surgeon. Kit Neville, a Slade student who has gone on to win acclaim for his work, forms the third leg in a shaky love triangle that eventually collapses when both Paul and Kit volunteer to serve as front-line ambulance drivers for the Red Cross.

What Barker has done is graft two novels together in service of one big metaphor. In the first half of the book, Paul and Elinor are consumed with the innocent activities of youth. They spend their days fretting about their work, drinking in the Café Royal, strolling beneath the blued-out streetlights and having affairs, all to little consequence. In the second half, Paul experiences the war firsthand and makes the transition from naiveté to knowledge. All the while Paul and Elinor debate the merits of art during wartime. The overall effect is to render Life Class a rather dull, discursive book.

Though these characters are supposed to be "A" artists, they are strangely dispassionate. At the start of the novel, Paul's stern life-drawing teacher — in a scene-stealing cameo by real-life artist Henry Tonks — criticizes Paul for a lack of feeling in his drawing of a nude woman. Later, when Paul is serving as a triage nurse in France and aiding in amputations, he writes to Elinor that the war has left him feeling as though he's "inside a rubber glove that covers all of you, not just your hands." That may be how war leaves him feeling. It describes as well the feeling one is left with after reading this novel.

Barker is said to be working on a sequel featuring Tonks, who had an interesting life story. A surgeon who became an artist, Tonks left teaching at Slade to do a series of 69 portraits of disfigured soldiers returned from the war, documenting their progression through reconstructive surgery. Now that's a book I look forward to reading.

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