In her award-winning Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker concentrated on the experiences of the WWI poets. In Life Class she has turned her attention to the experiences of the artists of the same era, specifically the artists who are being tutored by Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Art in the spring/summer of 1914.
It was a lazy , Edwardian summer, a time of frivolity, an assertion of independence and meaningless love affairs. Paul Tarrant’s biggest crisis is determining whether he has sufficient artistic talent:
Paul looked at his drawing. If he’d been dissatisfied before he was dismayed now. As Tonks drew closer, his drawing became mysteriously weaker. Not only had he failed to “explicate the form”, but he’d also tried to cover up the failure with all the techniques he’d learned before coming to the Slade: shading, cross-hatching, variations in tone, even, now and then, a little discreet smudging of the line. In the process, he’d produced the kind of drawing that at school – and even, later, in night classes – had evoked oohs and ahs of admiration. Once, not so long ago, he’d have been pleased with this work; now, he saw its deficiencies only too clearly. Not only was the drawing bad, it was bad in exactly the way Tonks most despised. More than just a failure, it was a dishonest failure.
He took a deep breath. A second later Tonks’s shadow fell across the age, though he immediately moved a little to one side os that the full awfulness could be revealed. A long puase. Then he said, conversationally, as if he were really interested in the answer, “Is this really the best you can do?”
“Then why do it?”
Why indeed? For Paul and his fellow students are mere months away from being pitched into the maelstrom of the great war. Thanks to a fortuitously timed bout of pneumonia, Paul cannot fight. Instead he finds himself serving as an untrained medical orderly. Pat Barker’s view is that, while the official pictures of WWI feature the devastation of the landscape, WWI was a war fought on the human body and the unfllinching graphic images she presents vividly depict that war; the carnage inflicted by battle, the pain resulting from often ineffective medical procedure, the heartbreaking reaction of a mother whose young son has lost his limbs, the robotic manoevres of the medical staff as they seek to preserve their sanity in the midst of the greatest insanity of all.
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 bludners 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. 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 a robot. Well, lucky for her, perhaps. It’s probably more efficient to be like that. Certainly less painful.
While Paul is supporting the war (although disagreeing with it), his fellow student and lover, Elinor is not. Her viewpoint is not that of conscientious objection,but that the war is irrelevant and she chooses to ignore it. Asserting her independence (a pattern established pre-war), she refuses to support it in any way. She will not even knit a sock. She certainly is not going to be badgered into becoming a nurse. She wishes to continue working i.e painting beautiful landscapes.. At times Elinor can appear selfish, superficial and fey. In response to one of Paul’s letters, a letter in which he has described his latest mind-numbing, horrific twelve-hour shift, she asks “Have you done any work?” The nearest the war touches Elinor is the way in which her friend, Catherine, is treated. For Catherine’s father is German and interned at the beginning of the war. Hard times descend upon his daughter and it is the true friendship extended to Catherine that defends Elinor’s character from accusations of selfish superficiality.
The life classes given to both Paul and Elinor during 1914/1915 separate them physically and mentally. Elinor maintains her view that art should depict only the beautiful. When asked by Paul how she would depict the war, should her brother be killed she replies that she would depict the places they enjoyed together; the places filled with happy memories; certainly not the reality of what had become of him. Paul, on the other hand, begins to document the war on the human boda. On a trip home he shows his drawings to his tutor, Tonks
Tonks took the drawing to the window. It was of a young man who had had the whole of his lower jaw blown off by a shell. It was several minutes before Tonks turned to face Paul again. “I don’t see how you could ever show that anywhere.”
And that is the argument at the core of this novel. Should depictions of horrific war injuries be made public? Barker obviously believes they should be. At the Edinburgh Book Festival she stated that it is only a true record of the cost of war that enable us to determine whether the price is worth paying. My take on that is that is is not an argument relevant only to WWI. In the C21st we see the body bags returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but how many visual images are there of the walking wounded?
Serious considerations? Indeed. Yet Barker’s novel wears its intellectualism and its research lightly. Written in her down-to-earth, yet vivid prose, it is easily read in 2 to 3 sittings. Though a historical novel, the language is not of a pseudo-historical nature, Indeed for some it may be too modern. (Was “You’re looking good, sis!” really an Edwardian idiom?). Another quibble is the abruptness of the ending. Paul and Elinor are still together in a sexual sense, the sense of their parting is inevitable. Yet does life have further lessons to teach them before this happens? We may find out for Barker confirmed yesterday that she is working on a sequel ….
…. which is very good news indeed.