Life Class – Pat Barker

5 June 2009
Chapters 1-10
This is the second novel of Barker’s that I’ve read since I re-read the Regeneration trilogy. The first was Double Vision and… there are links between all of them. The most obvious link with Regeneration is the period: although Barker never actually spells it out, we gather during these chapters that they’re taking place not long before the First World War. The territory is familiar in a lot of other ways, but I’ll come back to those. The link with Double Vision is art: in that novel Kate is a sculptor in modern Britain, while in this one Paul is at the Slade and hoping to become an artist. Or, rather, he’s beginning to think he’ll never make it. But more of that later.

Every single one of these chapters is told from Paul’s point of view. (I mention this because a glance at the next chapter makes it clear that it’s told from someone else’s.) And we are completely inside his head: when the frosty professor criticises his picture; when, mortified, he takes a walk outside and finds himself putting a stop to a sordid pick-up in the park and ends up in a fight; whenever he’s in the company of women…. The territory really is familiar here: Barker pays attention to the nuances of a young man’s ever-present sexuality, even when he’s thinking about how wonderful it is that in this place, at this time, men and women can be friends. Yeh, sure. This is a life lived at a more physical level than in our cosseted age and, just as she did in Regeneration, Barker enjoys taking us to this other world.

As in the trilogy, the sex (with the troubled Theresa) is surprisingly unproblematic. Paul has only ever gone with prostitutes before, but with Theresa there is absolutely nothing to mark out his experiences as taking place in a judgmental age. There’s no soul-searching, no guilt: it’s as though Queen Victoria had been dead a century rather than a decade. In other words, I suppose, it’s a bit too straightforwardly modern… but maybe that’s how it was in the bohemian world Barker describes. As it might have been in the wartime world of the trilogy. I think I’ll shut up about it.

So what’s happened? Paul, a grammar school boy (just like Billy Prior) has come into some money and is funding his own way through art school. He meets Theresa through Elinor, the woman he is friendly with and obviously fancies. Theresa is separated from a violent husband who stalks her – yet she doesn’t seem to try to keep herself particularly safe, and there’s some evidence that the husband might not be stalking her at all: Paul discovers that she was the one who wrote the threatening letter she shows him. But Barker squashes this red herring quickly: the husband threatens Paul, then follows him and beats him up. When he beats Theresa up – again – she leaves London.

The sub-plot is to do with rich boy Neville, thrown out of the Slade a year or two previously but now making a name for himself as a modernist. Paul thinks he’s good – and is struck by the irony of the upper-class boy painting exactly the kind of scenes of working life that Paul has turned his back on. (Paul goes for conventional – i.e. middle-class – studio or landscape subjects: another irony that isn’t lost on him.) Neville wants to be Elinor’s lover, but it isn’t clear where that one’s going – in fact, it isn’t clear where any of this is going. Paul is lost, not knowing what to do about his failing muse, about Theresa, about Elinor – about what to do with his life.

How bothered are we? Not frantically, and we’re a third of the way through already. The cover of the novel shows a First World War scene, so maybe something’s about to happen. Will the trenches be a more successful school for him than the stuffy old Slade? And maybe there’ll be some answers to his tortured self-questioning about what class he belongs to.

11 June
Chapters 11-16…
…which take us to the end of Part 1. It becomes clear that war is about to be declared – and then it’s definite. The young male characters all immediately talk about enlisting, and we’re in that familiar situation of knowing the horrors these bright young things can’t even guess at. And we wonder which of them will still be alive at the end of it.

Most of the action in these six chapters takes place at Elinor’s parents’ house. She’s invited Neville (in her mind, Kit Neville) and Paul – which her mother finds a bit scandalous – and the sorts of things happen that you might expect. Sometimes we’re in Elinor’s head (that’s how Chapter 11 begins) and sometimes we’re in Paul’s or Neville’s. I’m not sure what I think about that: I like the focus on one character that we get in the first ten chapters. But I suppose Barker had no choice if she wanted to make this a real triangle: things go on between Neville and Elinor that Paul knows nothing of – such as, Neville makes a move on Elinor, but she’s not interested in either his offer of marriage or his passionate urges.

Meanwhile, Paul seems to be over Theresa, who’s never been in touch, Elinor‘s mother is stuck in a fossilised marriage that was never any good, Elinor’s brother revises for re-takes of his medical exams. Early on there’s one set-piece: the three of them cycle to the church to see the ‘Doom’, a magnificent medieval wall painting full of the worm-like damned and a few saved, being looked after by angels who dress their naked forms. It’s hard not to think that Barker will come back to this, because artistic epiphanies usually do in her novels. (I’m thinking of the window depicting Abraham and Isaac in one of the Regeneration novels, in which Rivers, like Owen in one of his poems, sees a terribly ironic message.) On the way back, Neville crashes his bike and is tended by Elinor… but that’s as far as it goes.

War and sex carry on alongside. Or they don‘t. Elinor is appalled by what early-20th Century marriage does to women, as represented by her mother, so she fantasises about a chaste life of art and socialising. But, just like the phoney war that’s going on in these tense weeks, it looks as if it might come to an end. Just before the end of Part 1 she fails to resist Paul’s insistent kissing in a way she never failed to with Neville. She nearly lets him take her to bed. Up to now she’s represented mind to balance Theresa, life-model and representative of the body – but a boy can hope….

I’ve made it sound as though everybody is a representative of something. It doesn’t feel as schematic as that, although the characters do balance one another neatly. We know about working class northerner Paul and his rather unsuccessful backward-looking art – as opposed to (and by) posh southerner Neville and his successful line in modernism. But if there are oppositions, the thought of war brings them together. Barker gives us some authentic-sounding social history in the story of Catherine, friend of Elinor and daughter of Germans who is badly treated in all sorts of ways. All the main characters are appalled – but it’s the upper-class Neville who head-butts the foppish idiot who flamboyantly bumps into her. He’s going to the Front to paint (it’s not very clear how he’s wangled this) but all Paul wants to do is enlist. No chance: his recent illness – sorry, didn’t I mention that? – rules him out and all he can hope for is ambulance work.

Phoney war. The whole of Part 1 hasn’t felt exactly phoney, but half-way through the novel there’s a sense of having waited a bit longer than long enough for things to start happening. Barker set herself quite a challenge: how to make life before a cataclysm feel anything but, well, a bit feeble? We know she’s setting things up for Part 2 – from the start I’ve wondered about Paul finding his muse through war, and I’ve also been wondering how the real thing will temper Neville’s gung-ho Futurist Manifesto propaganda. And what about Elinor? She’s a good artist but the war is making her think, well, it can wait ‘until it’s over’ – which is just what her brother thinks about his medical studies as he makes his way to the recruitment centre. Oh dear.

13 June
Part 2, Chapters 17-25
Life Class. I haven’t mentioned the play on words in the title because it didn’t seem necessary. But even as Paul is learning all about the horrors of war (we get the kinds of details you’d expect: a penis sliced off by shrapnel, an eye hanging down on to a cheek – the latter belonging to an attempted suicide who’ll be nursed back to health to be shot), the art world of the Slade is never far away.

It turns out I was wrong about Elinor: she has no intention of putting art on hold while she gets on with the war. She goes so far as to pretend to be a volunteer nurse – surrounded on a train by real volunteers – so she can visit Paul in Belgium. She keeps this visit a secret from everyone except Paul because she knows how self-indulgent it looks, and we think, ‘looks’? I felt better about it after Barker has her spell it out in about Chapter 24 or 25: people can’t see the point of art during wartime, but what on earth is the point of what everybody else is doing? Enlist so you can be shot to pieces? Volunteer so you can nurse people back to be shot at again? And, because we’ve had those harrowing chapters in the makeshift hospital, we’re not at all sure that she’s wrong.

Paul is too busy or tired to get any art done, and at one point he’s sarcastic about the market for pictures of ‘someone pissing through the hole where his penis used to be’ (it’s hard to imagine a novel about this particular war that doesn’t go in for these fairly regular shocks), but he’s still rented himself a room in the nearest town to use as a studio. Except, of course, it’s also got a double bed and, by the point I’ve reached, it’s not art that he and Elinor have been practising at the top of the old house. Paul describes the extraordinary tattoos on one wounded soldier which, despite Elinor dismissing the idea, he considers an art-form in itself. Lewis, the Quaker volunteer, would like to be a concert pianist, or a teacher at least. This debate about the state – or status – of art during wartime isn’t going away. (Neville’s in the same part of Belgium, and Elinor keeps in touch, but we haven’t heard from him since the end of Part 1. Maybe we will, because… I‘ll tell you later.)

So what’s been happening? At the start of Part 2 Paul has been a Red Cross volunteer for a month, long enough for him and the others to stop being shocked by the awful injuries. The arrival of young Lewis shows Paul exactly how far he’s come – not that any of it is as bad as it’s going to get, of course: this is the Indian summer of November 1914 and none of them know anything yet. The nearby town carries on almost as normal – Paul wouldn’t have invited Elinor over otherwise – and there’s still a sense of it not being quite real yet. But there’s a development in Chapter 25 (it’s one of the reasons I stopped there): shells start to land in the town, and they get the first view of war as it’s to be fought in the 20th Century: those bizarre views of the interiors of houses, complete with wallpaper and pictures, that soon became commonplace.

Elinor and Paul. They’d never made love in England, but that’s what they start doing in Belgium as soon as she arrives. It’s all described very tastefully for Barker, with far more details of what’s going on in Elinor’s head than any other private places. It’s her head we’re inside during her visit, not Paul’s, and she tries to decide how she really feels about him. She always imagines his face in profile, never full-on, and she sort of decides it’s to do with the detachment she likes so much in him. Ok, but it’s not Romeo and Juliet: the most picturesque image she comes up with is of the butterfly they form as they sleep back-to-back. And she’s never told Paul she still writes, as a friend, to Neville. It’s a continuation of Part 1 in this respect: somehow it doesn’t feel like the real thing yet. And as soon as the shells start falling, Paul bundles her on to a train and she’s out of there. As she finishes packing he says, That’s it then, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

Anything else? One particular set piece. The suicidal soldier, French or Belgian, gestures for paper and a pencil. He covers pages with meaningless scrawl, and yet seems pleased when he finishes off a whole pad. Paul takes each page as it comes and folds it into his pocket. When he leaves the hospital he tears each page into tiny pieces and lets them fall to the ground where he knows they’ll be churned into the mud. Ok. Is it a comment about art? Or literature, or philosophy – the whole of western culture at this time of crisis? You tell me.

17 June
Chapter 26 to the end
Basically, nothing happens. I wonder whether Barker planned this as the first part of a trilogy – and I wonder if I’d be bothered enough to read the next bit if it came along.

Not long from the end Barker slips in the name of the nearby town. She’s decided to make it Ypres because, I suppose, that’s the one place whose name every single reader will recognise. (Famously, by the end of the war, it had been demolished so thoroughly that a man on horseback could see clear across it.) Once Elinor’s gone from there the narrative reverts entirely to Paul’s point of view. Barker gives us Elinor’s side of things via the stilted letters she writes in response to Paul‘s, which are almost as bad: this relationship doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Some chapters before the end, each of them writes about how it’s almost impossible to imagine the other. I think it’s Elinor who tells Paul that he’s little more than a ghost to her. Tactful. So we’re not a bit surprised when, back in London following an injury (tell you later), she seems a bit – what? – well, dull. I found her dull anyway.

Barker doesn’t spell it out, but Paul has moved a lot further than she has. He’s gently sarcastic about her new friends in the Augustus John/Bloomsbury sets. She’s determined to ignore the War, the big Bully as she calls it, and focus on what she chooses. Yes, well. There are things she says that are incontrovertible about how art doesn’t have to focus on what the War says it must, but… but we know she’s going to get nowhere with that. And Barker seems to have decided the issue: it’s Paul’s halting steps towards finding his own artistic voice she focuses on, and we’re pleased for him. Elinor’s picture of the hill outside her family home in the snow sounds like what Paul would have done before he knew anything, and she assumes when he tells her he’s ‘working’ again that he’ll still be producing gentle pastorals. We know what she’s been too remote to see: he’s been attending his own personal – wait for it – life class. Ok, Barker doesn‘t ever use the phrase, but only because she doesn‘t need to.

(There are other art references here and there. One of Elinor’s friends gets work doing designs on teapots and cushions, and you can guess what she thinks of that. Paul sees propaganda posters in London, and wonders what Tonks, the Slade professor, would make of them. But these are like the reference to tattoos early in Part 2: inconclusive, little more than background chatter.)

I started by saying nothing happens. Not true, obviously… but whatever does happen seems small-scale, hardly significant. Paul gets a cut and becomes terribly ill, dreaming that the first decent picture he’s ever painted has come to life. He can’t work out why the image of a masked medical orderly should become horrific. And neither can I. Later he bumps into Neville, who is drunkenly rather rude about Elinor. (He might or might not know she’s been to see Paul. It doesn’t matter much either way.) He makes friends with a prostitute over some days or weeks, then has paid sex with her. Unsurprisingly, the experience doesn’t stop the visions he has of a British corpse he’s uncovered in a mass grave of foreign soldiers. Er….

Not far from the end, and not at all unexpectedly (as soon as he gets out of the ambulance to find out about the problem on the road ahead we can see it coming), Lewis gets killed. As far as the novel is concerned, the main consequence of this event comes later, when Paul is in London with Elinor. He tells her how Lewis’s death has made him realise he loved him, and this gives her the opportunity to say that Paul will never be able to love a woman. But Barker opens up this seam only to close it off again. If there really is some obstacle in Paul’s emotional core, well, we don’t know what it is. To be honest, he seems ok to me. We know from earlier in the novel that his mother killed herself…. So? Whatever, Elinor does not accept his offer of marriage when he makes it. We’re not surprised, and we’re not surprised that he doesn’t seem bothered.

And at the end I’m left with the feeling I first had well before the end of Part 1: nothing’s really started yet. All we’ve had is people getting ready for something big that is yet to come. As she always does, Barker does what the film buffs call mise en scène brilliantly well. In Belgium there’s Ypres before (and just after) the first bombardment, the landscape suddenly and ominously emptied of marching troops as they all take synchronised breaks, the countryside away from the Front, pastoral-seeming but with the corn still standing in November. In London there’s the blue lamplight that turns everyone into a phantom – and a more troubling unreality, the complete lack of understanding of what is going on a few hundred miles away….

But whether this is or isn’t the first part of a trilogy, I think it’s ultimately unsatisfactory. Some issues of greater or lesser interest have been laid out for us to wander around for a while, and… really, it all seems a bit drab.

4 Responses to Life Class – Pat Barker

  1. Blighty says:

    Just found this review, having finished Toby’s Room, and wanting to remind myself of what happened in Life Class. Brilliant, brilliant review, so much detail! Thank you so much. And am so glad to have found your blog, am now off to explore it further.

    • wecanreadit says:

      Thank you for your kind comment – your visit to the site is for the exact purpose Wecanreadit has in mind! Let your friends know about it – there might be half-remembered books in their lives they might revisit. Or unread books they could get an impression of….

  2. Gill says:

    Thanks for your review — I also felt disappointed by the novel. It’s the first and (so far) only Pat Barker novel I’ve read, and I was expecting something more. The word ‘potboiler’ came to mind …

    • wecanreadit says:

      I think ‘potboiler’ is a bit harsh – but this isn’t Pat Barker’s best novel. Don’t give up on her, because the Regeneration trilogy is superb. You can see what I’ve written about those novels by clicking on the links.

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