Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, January 27, 2008
By Pat Barker
Doubleday. 311 pp. $23.95
The title of Pat Barker's stirring new novel refers to a course that her characters are taking in a London art school as Europe stumbles toward World War I. But the title also refers to the educational nature of their experiences, the "life class" thrust upon them every day with its unforeseeable curriculum and its deadly final exam. The young men and women whom Barker follows through school and into the horrors of battle must somehow figure out how to live amid the incongruity of beauty and carnage, art and destruction. It's a challenge none of them can prepare for, of course, but Barker records their struggles with such discerning insight that the dimensions of that challenge seem a little clearer for us in a time of war.
When the novel opens, in 1914, Paul is a discouraged second-year art student working alongside some of the country's most promising painters. He's quickly running through his inheritance from his grandmother, and he's not good enough to justify the expense. His stern professor, the real-life surgeon and art teacher Henry Tonks, tells him, "There's no feeling. . . . You seem to have nothing to say." That brutal critique startles Paul into realizing that for him, "art had always been Somewhere Else," something idealized and removed from daily experience. But he can't imagine an alternative until later, when everything beautiful has been stripped away.
Barker has constructed this novel with a daringly languid plot. That the story remains so engaging is a testament to her elegant style and psychological acuity. The first half almost seems to drift as it follows Paul's fading efforts to paint and his equally doomed affair with a married art model, who is really just a substitute for the woman he loves, Elinor, one of the school's most promising artists. The tension accumulates slowly in a fascinating romantic triangle that involves Paul and another suitor for Elinor's heart, a braggart named Kit Neville, who is already selling his paintings successfully in London.
Theirs are frustrating relationships, and Barker turns them over and over to flesh out subtle, conflicted emotions. Paul considers Neville spoiled and bitter, and yet looking at one of Neville's landscapes, he can see that "in comparison with this his own work was immature." Swimming with him on a cool afternoon, Paul realizes, "It wasn't friendship, though a friendship might develop; it wasn't rivalry either. Neville was too far ahead of him for that."
Paul's feelings for Elinor are similarly ambivalent. He loves her even as he realizes she's needy and manipulative. A mutual friend tells him, "If you love anybody, you love Elinor, and you only love her because you know she won't have you." It's a jarring diagnosis, as upsetting as Neville's statement a few months later that "for Elinor men come in twos." When he makes a toast to "Our Lady of Triangles," Paul doesn't know what to say, his "thoughts were scattered across the table like spilled pins, every one of them sharp enough to hurt."
As war grows closer and England falls into fits of patriotism and paranoia, Barker draws a particularly sharp portrait of Elinor's predicament. Painting seems largely irrelevant in the face of the German menace, and a woman painter is even more dubious. "Everybody doing important war work, except me," she writes to Paul in one of many wonderful letters in the novel. "I alone preserve an iron frivolity." Even her male friends don't realize how they marginalize her by declaring that "virility was the essence of great art; effeminacy had to be extirpated at all costs." She wonders, "Where did that leave her? Counting the hairs on her chest?" In the competition for her heart, both Neville and Paul vow to respect her talent, but she knows how quickly that promise would break under the pressures of domestic life. "I don't like being sexless," she thinks, but sex seems to come with trappings that threaten to suffocate her career.
Barker won the Booker Prize in 1995 for The Ghost Road , the final novel in a trilogy about World War I, and the same sure talent is evident in the second half of Life Class when Paul becomes an orderly and ambulance driver in Belgium. The experience burns away everything about his previous life. The listless art student becomes "a column of blood, bone and nerves encased in a sheath of cold, sweaty skin." Barker knows just how to suggest the wide sweep of destruction and unutterable despair with a few searing images: a dying horse shrieking, the face of an astonished survivor, a man "lying on the ground cradling his intestines in his arms as tenderly as a woman nursing a sick child."
What interests her particularly in Life Class, though, is the revelatory effect of this experience on her characters' aesthetics: What should be the subjects for art in a time of war? Elinor refuses to join the war effort and tries as much as possible to "ignore it." "It's been imposed on us from the outside," she tells Paul. "It's unchosen, it's passive, and I don't think that's the proper subject for art." For her, painting is an act of affirmation and redemption that should portray "the things we choose to love."
But for Paul the war provides the essential subject, material that finally matters. Between exhausting sessions in the hospital, he steals away to a private room to paint "the worst aspect of his duties as an orderly": cleansing infected injuries, wrapping fresh stumps, tying raving men to gurneys. Let Elinor think he'd created "an arty freak show"; he's determined to paint what he's sees. "It's not right their suffering should just be swept out of sight," he tells her, almost willfully misrepresenting her argument to make his own self-righteous point.
Barker never pushes the contemporary allusions here, but these are questions with tragic relevance for us. At a time when we're encouraged to go on with our lives and photographers are banned from showing coffins returning from Iraq, what images of war and its ravages are appropriate? The lessons in Life Class aren't easy, but they're deeply affecting and necessary. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.