12 March 2008
So far we’re following Billy Prior in the odd chapters, Rivers in the evens. With Prior it’s the medical board to decide whether he’ll return to France (turns out he will); paid-for sex – which reminds him of Prior: The Rent-boy Years; and unpaid-for sex, in Sarah’s mother’s house, with more desperation and fumbling than he’d like. With Rivers it’s new patients: a case of hysterical paralysis – which he cures, only to have the man attempt suicide; a man who murdered a German POW and now smells death emanating from himself; and a lot of back story. We hear about Rivers’ sister, idolised by Charles Dodgson during their stay in their childhood home and now – what? – unable or unwilling to form relationships with men. Rivers wonders about her, tries to imagine what it would be like as a child to know that an adult has a crush on you. And he thinks about himself as a child, crushed by Dodgson’s pronouncements about the uselessness of boys. We get his memories of Melanesia, including the efficacy or otherwise of witch-doctors and the unforgettable skull-houses he saw.
It’s starting quite slowly, and I’m wondering if that’s for the benefit of readers who aren’t familiar with the first two books. Prior has sex that is as unceremonious – and as unceremoniously described – as the sex in the earlier books… and he’s still irritated by the officer class he isn’t quite a part of. But he isn’t so bloody-minded now, and while he’s still in England (he’s on the way to London before leaving for France) he suffers no blackouts or rages. He seems almost normal, despite some toe-curling childhood memories – of sex with Father Mackenzie (!) and his precocious realisation then that people would be willing to pay for the use of his body. There’s some historical scene-setting stuff: a séance in which the gullible (in Prior’s view) are told what they want to hear; Victorian attitudes, as personified by Sarah’s mother Ada; the soldiers’ disdain for the smugness of civilians.
With Rivers… well, I’ve said. New patients, new insights into his childhood, his stammering etc. The link with Billy Prior, of course, is to do with how adults fuck you up. Or just fuck you.
29 May 2010
I’ve re-read these chapters because the rest of the journal got deleted and needs to be re-done. In the intervening two years I’ve read a couple more Barkers, neither of which is as good as this one, and written journals on about 60 books by other authors. I put more detail into them now.
What I haven’t really mentioned so far is the physicality of some of the descriptions when Barker is writing from certain characters’ points of view. The opening of the novel, with Prior strolling around near the London hospital where he is about to be assessed for fitness, is full of the sights, sounds and smells of a different world – to say nothing of how sensual it is to be inside this man’s head. And body. (In Life Class, a recent novel, Barker has her main character strolling outside the Slade School of Art a few years before Prior, and I noticed then how Barker pays attention to the nuances of a young man’s ever-present sexuality.) As we go through Prior’s chapters this continues. I’ve said enough about the sex – Barker is the most down-to-earth writer I know – but there are all the smells of hospitals, army camps, women who squat down in the street to piss and carry a faint whiff of urine around with them.
The Rivers chapters are less sensual in every way, even when he remembers the extraordinary trip to Melanesia. It’s as though he is closed where Prior is open. The only moment of near-sensuality is when he allows Njiru, the witch-doctor, to demonstrate a massage on him – and his conclusions are medical and anthropological rather than anything else. And the memories of Charles Dodgson, so closed-up nobody will ever open him, start to give us a clue about what’s going on. The way that both of them are fucked up by the men they encountered in childhood is a Booker trope Barker might have invented, as I’ve remarked elsewhere, beating Roy’s The God of Small Things by a couple of years and Enright’s The Gathering by over a decade.]
Chapter 6 – to the end of Part 1
Before he gets on the boat to France Prior gets a meeting with Rivers. Fair enough: it gives Barker the chance to look back, in what feels a bit like an epilogue, on their relationship. It hasn’t been easy, obviously – but more interesting than the reminder we get is the added dimension to the sexual sparring we’ve seen between them in the previous novels. We’ve been hearing comments made by Rivers’ sister – the one with ‘neurasthenia’ that hasn’t found an outlet in the way that his own has – about how he always escaped from the girls his mother brought home for him, and we’ve been inside his own head. Prior doubtlessly knows: we’ve heard his thoughts about, for instance, the preferences of the vicar that Ada likes the look of – he’s always sarcastic about other men’s homosexuality – and Rivers won’t have fooled him. So Barker is raising the stakes for Rivers….
Left on his own, Rivers is in charge of a set-piece metaphor to finish off Part 1. The paradox of the whole trilogy is the way he heals men in order to send them back to their probable deaths, and he remembers two things. The first is the Melanesian approach to any orphaned boy: he is adopted by a man who becomes his surrogate father. At puberty the boy faces a rite of passage: he has to lead a boar to be sacrificed by the adopted father – and as he arrives in the ritual circle, with the villagers looking on approvingly, the boy himself is the one who is sacrificed. Or, as Barker puts it, gets his skull smashed in.
We can see where this is going. Rivers again remembers the window in his father’s church that we first hear about in Regeneration, the one depicting Abraham, about to sacrifice his own son, having his hand stayed by an angel. It’s what distinguishes us, in our own complacent view, from the savages. Except… Barker doesn’t refer to it, but Wilfred Owen – who we’ve met, probably for the last time, in Chapter 1 – wrote a poem called ‘The Parable of the Old Men and the Young’ in which Abraham ignores the angel and carries on with what he started. He ‘slew his son / And half the seed of Europe one by one.’ Barker doesn’t cite the poem as Rivers thinks uneasily about the message in the window. She doesn’t need to.
Part 2: Chapters 7-13
Having brought Prior and Rivers together for a few pages near the end of Part 1, Barker has pulled them completely apart again. Part 2 has its own conventions: Prior’s return to France written mainly in the form of his diary entries; Rivers’ memories of Melanesia coming to him in the compulsive spurts of fever. And Barker has taken her cue from Rivers’ uncomfortable contemplation of Abraham and Isaac at the end of Book 1: the behaviour of the Melanesians is constantly finding echoes in the way the civilised West is treating its young. ‘But he’s only a boy!’ someone protests when an officer just out of training gets it wrong. Well, yeh.
Prior and a group of other officers, most of whom we’ve met already, get to France and… nothing. During beautiful days (weeks?) in September they are comfortably set up in a petit bourgeois villa in what turns out to be Amiens. One of them discovers the joys of lying still in an ornamental pond with its little fish startled by this intrusion, and it finds an echo from a different universe in Rivers’ memory of swimming out to sea accompanied by shoals in Melanesia.
Most of the echoes are harsher. By the final chapters of Part 2 we’ve had Barker’s most graphic description yet of the pitilessness of the injuries suffered by soldiers in this industrial war: Hallett, the officer who was bathing in the fishpond is gurgling out in no-man’s land, but seems ok when Prior and a couple of others go out to him. Until they see the other side of his head…. Later, Prior wonders if his ability to retain his equanimity with the idea of this man’s brains on his hands is proof that this war is changing human beings forever. Meanwhile, in Rivers’ fevered mind there’s a different kind of pitilessness. The only way a widow’s vigil can be ended is if an enemy head is placed between her dead husband’s feet. The Empire has outlawed head-hunting expeditions, obviously, but… a party returns anyway with a creature in a bag, which turns out to be a four-year-old boy at a stage beyond terror. The ethnologists don’t know what to do.
I’m jumping the gun. These horrors come at the end of the section, and other things have come out before this. Prior’s diary moves inexorably through 1918: September, October …. We get to know these men, including the ones who’ve never been at the Front before. In the Amiens house, one of them – I think it’s Hallett, the fishpond man – remarks that maybe they’ve been forgotten about. Oh dear. This starts a ticking clock for Prior, and anyway, we all know at least one of the company’s going to get it by 11 November – it’s what everybody knows about Owen. We haven’t reached November yet, but Hallett has had his appalling head wound, Prior’s servant Longstaff, the superstitious actor, has got that surprised look on his face as a red hole appears in his forehead… the usual sort of things that happen in novels about this war. And all Prior can do is muse about his own state of mind. What would Rivers say?
Rivers isn’t saying anything. In his head he’s on the other side of the globe discovering different kinds of parallels between his world and the Melanesians’. Barker spends time on the language barrier – and on how, somehow, the close understanding between the doctor and the witch doctor transcends it. At one stage, after the second (and more significant) of the deaths, he finds himself next to Njiru in a cave full of roosting bats, which suddenly erupt towards them…. As the bats and their inexorable noise fill the air Rivers contemplates how his identity is peeled away – no, compressed into its essential core (or something)… and realises he is holding Njiru’s hand. My, they get close. (Prior doesn’t get close to anybody in this section. But he notices Hallett’s cock as he lies in the pond and various ‘fuckable arses’, thinks about how Father McKenzie probably felt genuine love for Him. Hmm. Who is Rivers more distant from, the Melanesian Njiru or this uncompromisingly sensual fellow-officer?)
And all the time, on the Melanesian island as much as in France, there’s death. Sometimes it seems almost routine – the first death rite we witness ends with the unceremonious dumping of the body, in its sitting position, into the sea – but important men have important deaths: their skulls, Rivers assumes, must be the ones that get into the skull-houses. It’s one of these deaths that leads to the widow’s vigil, and to what the British men dread. Whatever ritual sacrifice is going to happen in Part 3, whether on the other side of the world or closer to home, we know it isn’t going to be easy for anybody.
Part 3 – Chapters 14-16
Part 3 is fairly short – not that these three chapters cover it all – and it’s starting to feel like a culmination. Rivers has just about recovered from his fever, so his chapters aren’t exclusively set inside his head, and inside his memories of Melanesia. At other times he’s engaging with the men we met in Part 1, who seem to be doing well. The one who smells death emanating from him seems to be over that hallucination – but he still meets the apparition every night, and Rivers suggests some common-sense-sounding strategies. Why not have a chat? (Ok, he doesn’t quite say that.) Another man, whose nightmare was of body parts exploding towards him is seeing them reassemble night by night, and the rotting face that breathes over him seems to have put a bit of flesh on. These chapters are about recovery – he even remembers Sassoon’s own, once he’d decided to go back to France – but then… Hallett arrives. So he wasn’t killed after all, but as we’ve gathered from the bits of his brain that ended up on Prior, things aren’t looking brilliant. How much recovery can there be for him?
In Melanesia… well, at least we know that unlike a lot of the men in France, Rivers is going to survive. He and the other Brit aren’t too sure they will, now they’ve witnessed the capture of the four-year-old boy – and now that someone’s left an axe on Rivers’ pillow. But, reader – again unlike in France – the little boy is safe. Njiru rises further than ever in Rivers’ esteem as he tells him that the boy is to be trained as the next keeper of the skull-houses. Ok, he’s not necessarily safe forever, as the Melanesians have a habit of keeping a ‘larder’ of foreign heads for special occasions, but it’s a lot better than the Brits expected.
And meanwhile, in France, the ticking clock of Prior’s diary carries on through mid-October. There’s another lull, as each day is spent on exercises and drills – and the men are warned not to talk about peace, whatever they read in the papers. So there’s an eerie mixture of hope – maybe they really have made it through – and realism, especially when they are called back up to the line. (In his chapter with Hallett, Rivers wonders if he knew Prior – but even if he had done, what would he be able to say now? And besides, nearly three weeks have passed, and Rivers can’t help wondering about the men he’s worked with.)
The other thread, of course, is sex. Or the lack of it. Prior marvels at the explicit letters one man writes to his wife, despite knowing Prior will be reading them. Rivers wonders about Njiru, unmarried in a culture in which there is no place for celibacy. Rivers himself…? He’s gone quiet about it for now. Fair enough.
Chapters 17-18 – to the end
Aaugh…. Prior’s diary reaches November and it really is a ticking bomb – and burning some of the more embarrassing pages isn’t going to stop it. The final push – the one in which he sees Owen being killed while his own life drains away – is one of those pointless exercises we all know about. The man in charge, Marshall of the Ten Wounds (unexpectedly, one of the novel’s historically real characters), knows it’s going to be awful. Prior himself explains that it’s going to be either the Somme, where the enemy lines were left intact so the Brits walked into machine-gun fire, or Passchendaele, where too much bombardment led to impassable morasses of mud. It’s the Somme, Prior tells us before advancing towards the death which, as soon as it happens, we realise was always inevitable.
Before all this, Pat Barker lets Prior have the dubious consolation of the most sordid sex of the whole novel (squeamish readers look away now): a knee-trembler in a wood with a 16-year-old lad. The boy is in charge of the local farm’s pigs – which turns out to be far less squalid fact than what Prior imagines of all the German bits and pieces that have previously been fitting into this well-practised arse. Rivers, on the other hand – once we’re into the last chapter, Barker allows the alternation of their separate strands to become far more rapid, sometimes amounting to only a few paragraphs – Rivers’ contemplation of sex seems to be over for the duration. The nearest he comes to it – not near at all, in fact – is contemplating the life Hallett won’t be having with the fiancée sitting, embarrassed and appalled, by his bed.
What I referred to as a culmination really is reached in this final chapter. In France we get the deaths we always get in novels about the First World War. (I can only think of one exception.) In London we get the family’s awful vigil by Hallett’s bedside. In fact, the awfulness of that is nothing compared to his final words, not words at all but a desperate howled repetition of what sounds meaningless at first. Then Rivers realises, aghast, that what he’s trying to shout is ‘It’s not worth it!’ and that all the other patients understand. Gulp.
So, the two threads come to an end more or less simultaneously, and they are equally horrible. The only thing that isn’t vile is a (regrettably implausibe) vision of Njiru, advancing down the ward with his shadowy retinue, as though to remind Rivers that if you want to do death properly, do it the Melanesian way. Is that too glib? Maybe, but it’s nice to catch a final glimpse of one of our favourite three characters before he fades into the early dawn light.
I love this book. Stupidly, once I’d finished a couple of hours ago, I found a blog about it and the writer was incredibly snooty about it. I’m not sure why. Barker doesn’t offer glib answers – she never seriously pretends Njiru and his people have got it right, or suggests the Abrahams of Europe sacrificing their Isaacs could learn from them – but she does take us to some interesting places. And I think Prior is one of my favourite characters in modern fiction. The working class boy finding it hard to adjust to the higher status his education has brought him is a pretty rare breed in the art-house fiction of the past 15 or 20 years, and I like the way that Barker never stops showing him as awkward and manipulative. And Rivers…. What’s not to like about this dedicated and thoughtful man who seems able to help everybody except himself?