We’ve met Sassoon, we’ve met Rivers…. And the world of the hospital and of 1917 has been sketched in. Sassoon’s disgust with the civilians and, even more, non-combatants in uniform, gives a perfect idea of the gulf between what is going on in France and how it is perceived in Britain. There’s enough description of the hospital and its routines; there’s enough description (for me) of Sassoon and his friendship with Graves. (The world, I realise, is that of Goodbye to All That – hardly surprising when you think about it – grey and vivid at the same time…. Having read Graves’s memoir is a help; I’m not sure how much of my picture of Sassoon is being created by Pat Barker, and how much is memory.)
We’ve had a short interlude at the end of Chapter 4: a soldier called Burns goes for a mud-caked walk and finds a tree of dead animals. When he strips off in a sort of gesture of solidarity I expected the worst… but he returns and becomes one of several illustrations of how the War has done these men’s heads in. Next up (Chapter 5): somebody else.
It turns out to be Prior the elective mute – who, when he does talk (and when his parents talk) turns out to be as mixed up about class as Sassoon is about sexuality. Blimey – all human life, as they say.
To the end of part 1
Bloody hell, Prior is me. Ok, Not exactly, but… He’s a working class bloke given ideas, according to his father, above his station (his mother’s fault). So Prior is permanently dissatisfied, used to hate his office job, hates the snobbishness of his fellow officers – oh yes, he made it that far – and it’s driven him round the bend. Ok, there might be a bit more to it than that, but… but it makes me realise how interested I still am about class. Now that, despite Melvyn Bragg’s best efforts in the Soldier’s Return trilogy, there are no more Working Class Boy Made Good novels, you have to take what’s offered. (I’ve been joking about Signs of Middle Age lately. Mourning the end of the WCBMG novel is definitely one.)
I’m not like Prior at all: he knows how to pick up women. Pat Barker is good at describing what goes on under the fumbling fingers. With her it doesn’t feel forced, more like how someone might tell it who’s not out to impress or shock. It’s one of the few things about the trilogy that I remember from the first reading, er, whenever it was: sex is just ordinary, somehow.
We’ve met Owen, who has met Sassoon. I’d forgotten that before Craiglockhart Owen hadn’t written any war poetry – or none that he was admitting to. Except… he’s just shown one to Sassoon, who is full of praise. But Owen doesn’t spend enough time getting them right, and it looks as if Sassoon has got to show him.
But the character whose head we really get inside is Rivers: thoughtful, kind, contemplative – and greatly troubled by the implications of Sassoon’s Declaration and the morality of healing men in order to send them back to what broke them in the first place.
To Chapter 15
Suddenly I’m nearly three quarters of the way through the novel. Pat Barker is excellent at keeping the different strands going. There’s Owen and Sassoon, although not as much as you might think. The most impressive bit – and I’m amazed at how I never used it when teaching Owen – has been the redrafting of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. In not many paragraphs at all Barker sketches in not only Owen’s development as a poet but also his growing personal stature in Sassoon’s eyes The implication is, of course, that they go together – and I’m happy to buy this. Meanwhile Prior is moving on: he is able to realise, with Rivers’ help, that there was no enormity that specifically caused his breakdown – and things move on sexually. So far, nothing has happened to make me change my mind that Barker gets this right better than any other writer. She doesn’t have to spell it out, and she can imply meaningful sexual fulfilment while still keeping it within the bounds of probability and practicality. There’s a realistic concern about pregnancy; there’s a realistic assessment by both partners of what the sex does and doesn’t mean; and I can completely believe that this is what men and women would have been like in 1917. (I don’t know, obviously, but this is what successful historical writing has to do: convince.)
Who else are we following? Rivers, increasingly complicated as we hear his back story and follow his particular growth. It’s come to a sort of (i.e. not quite) crisis for him. He’s been forced to have some time off – the patients aren’t the only ones showing symptoms of war neurosis, as they call it – and he’s spending some of it with Burns. This is Chapter 15, and Barker uses it to bring two strands together. There’s Burns, who so far has been almost a non-character following one of the few truly gruesome experiences described (second-hand) in the novel. He’s traumatised into childishness, and when he and Rivers arrive at Burns’ old holiday cottage in Aldeburgh he’s the helpful sixth-former: no sign of the early promise that got him promoted just before the Somme…. But then, in one of the few bits of artistic licence in the novel, there’s a big storm at night, the maroon blasts out – and Rivers finds Burns curled into a foetus next to the Martello tower. ‘Nothing can justify this, nothing, nothing, nothing!’ thinks (or shouts?) Rivers. And even though the incident shocks Burns into being able to speak a little at last about the War, Rivers is troubled by the implications of his own outburst. He’s convinced that men like Burns will never fully regain their own personalities, will never regain – what? – the self they had before.
The beginning of Chapter 16
Rivers is in two minds (at least): as Craiglockhart settles heavily on his shoulders… will he/won’t he take the London job he’s been offered? He’s already decided he will, but… but this is what he’s for, this work is what he’s here to do.
To the end…
…but I haven’t got time to write now. Headings: Sassoon (and Owen); Rivers’ road(s) part-way to Damascus, and his realisation that he largely agrees with Sassoon; sexuality, esp. Graves’ childhood friend (and Rivers?); Prior – Billy Prior – and Sarah… and Sarah’s no-nonsense mum; Yelland’s brutal (sadistic?) methods in London.
And… how good is this novel anyway? All the way through I’ve been telling people how it’s the best of the WW1 books – i.e. compared with Faulk’s Birdsong and Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. (And what about An Ice-Cream War by William Boyd 20-odd years ago? You know, the one I can’t remember anything about except the bit about being caught in a swarm of bullets like bees.) Pat Barker is incredibly good at almost everything I like novels for: thoughtfulness, sex and violence, insights into motivation, development of character, evocation of place and time…. Unfortunately she doesn’t do drama. Not in this novel anyway. So…
…when Rivers finally realises that, yes, he does hate the war, that he’s sending young men back to their deaths, well… didn’t he know that anyway? And he doesn’t do anything to try to stop it; he just goes to work somewhere where he hopes to be more fulfilled as a researcher. He’s a hugely likeable character, but we take any crisis he’s had in our stride: there’s no gut-wrenching, no ‘gulp!’ moment. Same for Sassoon? His crisis comes and, well, goes. And so does he, back to France.
But I had a list of stuff to write. Sassoon and Owen. I’d noticed a novelistic thing Barker does: even when Owen’s not directly in the frame, other characters reach similar conclusions to his. There’s Rivers, looking at the stained glass in the church he attended as a child; as ever, he looks at the self-satisfied expression of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac – and we’re in that Owen poem (though Barker doesn’t mention it) in which Abraham turns down the offer of the ram and just carries on with the slaughter. And there’s Sarah in the amputees’ ward by mistake; suddenly she’s in role as the pretty girl in ‘Disabled’, feeling what these men, so recently able-bodied, are feeling.
Sexuality. Have I said everything I want to? ‘Realism’ is a slippery idea, but Barker is good at depicting sex without all the angels singing, like Faulks, or an almost cynical anti-romanticism. I’m thinking of McEwan in connection with the latter, particularly in On Chesil Beach. But, well, how different is it really from the sex in Regeneration? Don’t know. But McEwan always seems smartarse, because he always has an agenda. In On Chesil Beach he is determined to persuade us of the feasibility of what he describes: the end of a relationship, as recently as the 1960s, through sexual ineptitude. Barker just gives the impression – and this is the art – of telling it as it is. It’s something I know I’ll have to come back to in The Eye in the Door, which has as much sex in the first two chapters as the whole of Regeneration. And that really is to do with sexuality, not just sex…. But, reader, you’ll have to wait.
Anything else? Class and medical ethics, sometimes at the same time. Class: well, we know about Prior’s problematic relationship with the class he’s been promoted to… but we also get Sarah and her mother. Barker gives us a pragmatic working-class take on what is going on between Sarah and Prior, and it sounds good to me. I can’t think of many arthouse authors who can be that bothered about what goes on among people who are neither rich nor university educated. Hairy Melvyn did it in The Soldier’s Return, which was one of the main reasons I really rate that book. Otherwise…. Can’t think of any English authors who do it. (Sam the valet and his young lady in French Lieutenant’s Woman don’t count: that’s just social history. The small-time crims in Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith don’t count for nearly the same reason: working class as genre study.)
Medical ethics: we get a harrowing chapter of Dr Yelland combining medical sadism with 1917 attitudes. It’s the social history of the War in microcosm: the older man with the power browbeats the younger man into submission – but Yelland has at his disposal powerful electric shocks, not just social pressure. (Mind you, he does a fine line in gung-ho talk about bravery and duty.) He’s Abraham from Owen’s poem: he shows so little mercy even Rivers, merely observing, is in shock.