February 2008

Pat Barker

The suffering of others
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There is a moment in Pat Barker’s excellent new novel Life Class when Paul Tarrant, a conflicted young artist serving in France in the ambulance corps at the outbreak of World War I, stares admiringly out over the slanted village rooftops from the attic room he has rented to use as a painting studio when not on duty. It is a moment that comes vividly to mind as Pat Barker describes her own writing space.

"I write at a desk in front of the window straight onto a laptop," Barker says during a call to her home in the northern England city of Durham. "My room is on the top floor so I look out over the roofs of the houses at some trees in the distance. And although it’s not a rural, rural view, there’s a lot of greenery, and, actually, I’m extremely fond of it because of the different angles of the roofs, especially when it’s raining and the colors are brought out. It’s very beautiful in a strange kind of way. It’s very much the view that if I were a painter I would absolutely love to paint."

In normal times, Barker would sit at her desk with its beautiful view and blast out a minimum of 1,000 words a day (and often 2,000-3,000) in a very rough draft that is so "filled with typos that it doesn’t look like it’s written in English. All the right letters are there," she says with the sharp-witted humor that seems typical of her conversational self, "it’s just that all the other letters are there as well."

Unfortunately these are not normal times. Barker’s husband is gravely ill and she is his fulltime caregiver. The couple’s daughter, whose first novel was published last year, lives close by, and their son and his young family live outside Liverpool, on the other side of the Pennines. At the moment, Barker says, her writing room "is completely chaotic because it’s filled with things like disability aids." Then there is the recently discovered gift from one of her two cats—a dead rat lovingly deposited beneath her writing desk. "A decomposing rat on top of everything else is not a good thing," Barker adds wryly.

This unflinching directness revealed in her conversation also happens to be one of the many pleasures of Barker’s fiction. Her novels are slender and swift but live vividly in the mind’s eye and resound with moral force. Barker is best known for her Regeneration Trilogy, which centers on the experiences of the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon during World War I. The trilogy includes Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993) and Ghost Road, which earned Barker the Booker Prize in 1995.

In Life Class, her 11th novel, Barker seems drawn back to writing about World War I. Except that she doesn’t quite see it that way. "I feel this book is not linked to the trilogy so much as it’s linked to Double Vision," her previous novel, which is set in post-9/11 England. "One of the things Double Vision is about is how you represent real horrors in a way which isn’t exploitative, or disrespectful of people’s suffering, or damaging. While I was writing that book, I was very aware that the people I didn’t mention in earlier books were the people who painted the landscape of the Western Front. I wanted to continue with that theme. You know Susan Sontag’s book about representing the suffering of others? I’m dealing with those sorts of themes, I think, in both Double Vision and in Life Class."

The new novel focuses on the artistic and romantic entanglements of Paul Tarrant, Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville, three young students who share a life-drawing class at an art school called the Slade in the spring of 1914. As she has done in her previous novels, Barker draws deftly from the historical record and populates her fiction with real-life figures such as Lady Ottoline Morrell and Henry Tonks, "a teacher of genius" at the Slade and a doctor who would become known for his pioneering work in reconstructive surgery of facial wounds during the war.

"The essential thing if you’re going to make some of your central characters with historical figures is that you oughtn’t to know much about them," Barker says. "It gives you blank areas of the canvas in which you can project." But the projection stops "at the bedroom door. It’s as simple as that. If it’s a real person, I don’t probe into the most private areas of their lives."

With her fictional characters, however, Barker is far less constrained. Her characters live fully both in their heads and in their bodies. "The human body and specifically the male body is at the center of both parts of the novel," Barker says. "It’s the kind of hinge on which the book turns since the function of the body in the first half is so radically changed in the second half."

Barker says she remains fascinated by this generation of young artists whose lives were so dramatically altered by World War I. "It was one of these curious collections of very talented people in one place at one time. Which sometimes happens. It has to be purely coincidental, though the fact that Tonks was a great teacher also helped to establish a kind of creative ferment within the class. But you had English aristocrats and really, really dirt-poor Jewish boys from the East End of London who were there on scholarship in the same classroom. A considerable proportion of them were really talented."

In fact, Barker hopes to restore order soon to the chaos in her workroom, reclaim her beautiful view and get back to work on another novel about this period. "I don’t want it to necessarily be a second volume or a sequel," she says with renewed enthusiasm, "but, yes, some of the same characters will appear, obviously with new characters. I’m quite interested in the hospital where Tonks did his plastic surgery and in the conflicts of identity which arise with the loss of the human face."

Alden Mudge writes from Oakland.

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Life Class

Life Class

By Pat Barker
ISBN 9780385524353

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