Friday, April 3, 2009

Title Twenty Six: Life Class by Pat Barker

No one does WWI fiction better than Pat Barker. Her Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road) is probably the definitive example of how to create fiction about a war that almost no one ever thinks about. It's true; we remember the Revolutionary War, the Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression, depending on your side of the Mason-Dixon line), WWII, and Vietnam. How often do you think of that little skirmish in the second decade of the twentieth century? America didn't really get involved until the end was near, so it doesn't have the same impact in our history as it does in those of England, Canada, and France, to name a few.

In Life Class, Paul and Elinor meet as art students at the Slade School of Art and have an attraction to one another, but are involved with other people. The first part of the novel is full of blather about art and "the work" and coffee houses and bars and sexual tension, but it's really just filler for the war that is already beginning to cast a shadow on the fringes of student life. As Paul and Elinor turn towards each other, the fighting begins in earnest and Paul, ineligible for service due to problems with his lungs after an illness, volunteers with the Belgian Red Cross. This is where Barker finds her familiar and formidable rhythm, as she describes the conditions of the men, the reports of battle, and the havoc that war wreaks on the mind. Regeneration dealt with the phenomenon of "shell shock" and the beginning stages of its validity as a clinical diagnosis at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland; that novel is based in large part on real events and people (including the famed poet Wilfred Owen, who died only days before the armistice). Although Life Class is completely fictional, there are parts of it that are achingly real and heartwrenching. Barker uses words like the finest strokes of a paintbrush to create the image of a soldier's gangrenous pelvic wound; it's revolting but stunning at the same time. She captures the struggle between the war and home fronts, both turned mad, in Paul and Elinor's letters to each other. Moreover, she uses the concept of art as a medium for what we cannot say to perfection - it's only in Belgium that Paul feels that he can really put himself into his work, although his subject matter is clearly disturbing - it is the only way that Paul can rid himself of the horror of the broken and torn human beings around him. His work, which was never very good at school, is transformed into something more real and honest. It only took the most terrifying circumstances to make it possible.

That said, the story ends rather weakly, with an injured but recovering Paul and a drifting Elinor stumbling towards the end of the love affair that they consummated over a few days while the latter came to visit in the early days of the war. Neither of the main characters could be called likeable, and I didn't really care what happened to them. I think that the real strength of the book rests in the war, but unfortunately the book is meant to encompass more than that and it falls rather flat.

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