Reading Life Class, a line from Henri Nouwen kept running through my head: "You can get straight A's in school and still flunk life." Or, in loyalty to the title of Pat Barker's wonderful new novel, perhaps this is more appropriate: "You can do well in the schoolroom, but the real proof of the pudding is how well you do in life class."
The lead characters in Barker's novel, whom we meet on the eve of World War I, are all deeply wounded in one way or another: Neville, the bullied boy who grows up to be a bullying man; Teresa, the femme fatale who evokes a destructive passion in her lovers; Elinor, obsessively using her art as a safe harbor from the world; and Paul, the protagonist, so traumatized in his boyhood by the insanity, physical abuse, and suicide of his mother that intimacy is difficult for him.
At the novel's outset, each of these characters is associated with the Slade school of art in London (Teresa is a model, the rest are students). They live in the safe bubble of the academy, and judge themselves and one another according to its relatively untroublesome standards. But all of them, as the novel unfolds, are propelled by the outbreak of the war into the much more challenging (and unforgiving) school of life. The upheaval of their world, the demolition of their comfortably reassuring pre-war conventions, offers them ample opportunity to face their own wounds, recognize just how their personal suffering influences their actions and relationships, and do something to heal. This is the test that they--and all humans--must pass or flunk.
At novel's end, though, only Paul--a failed student in Slade's classrooms--passes. When war erupts, both he and Neville volunteer as medical orderlies and ambulance drivers. Neville, true to form, manages to avoid danger, but returns to London society with a portmanteau of paintings that are all the rage. Paul, who'd been told by his art professor that he'd never be a decent artist until he felt deeply, is taught by the war to do precisely that. The horrible suffering of the soldiers he nurses, the violent death of his best friend, his own wounding from a fronhtline shelling, force him past the emotional frozenness that fell on him at his mother's suicide. His paintings take on a new vitality, but also a new terribleness.
Teresa disappears in the second half of the novel, the implication being that she's so ill-prepared for the school of life that her story is too uninterestingly static to continue. We do know, however, that she continues to be a successful artist's model. Elinor submerges herself more and more deeply into her art, refusing to think about the war, much less allow it to influence her painting. She prefers to live in the pristine and abstract world of the "artiste," symbolized in the novel by her becoming a part of the Bloomsburg set. At novel's end, she's working on a pastoral landscape that's as far removed from what's going on at the front--and from what Paul's experiencing and painting--as anything could be. But, like Teresa and Neville, her moderate showing in the school of life is muted by her remarkable success at the Slade, where she collects honors and scholarships for her safe paintings and drawings.
This is an extremely ambitious and thoughtful novel that encourages readers to question their values and deepest ambitions. As usual with a Barker novel, there are passages which are breath-takingly evocative, and her ability to imagine herself (and us) onto a battlefield is uncanny. Still, it's not entirely clear to me that Barker has totally pulled off what she wanted to. The two parts of the novel, for example, don't hang together as well as they might. One almost gets the impression that they're really two separate stories. Moreover, the evolution of the characters, especially Paul and Elinor, seems a bit rushed at times. But all in all, this is a story worthy of the author of the Regeneration Trilogy. Highly recommended.
on February 2, 2008
Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy is a great work, truly deserving of 5 stars (or more!). I've sent copies to family and friends, and I have copies both at home and in the office for easy rereading. Life Class takes us back to WW I, but sadly the magic of the Regeneration trilogy just isn't there. As with Regeneration, there are scenes in London and of the war (behind the front, though, at first-aid stations). Regeneration did a brilliant job of meshing real characters (Rivers, Owen, Sassoon, Graves, etc) with fictional ones (Billy). Life Class has the real character Tonks (at the Strade), but his part is minor. Owen's work "Anthem for Doomed Youth" seems to exemplify Regeneration--there's a sense of similar foreboding over the trilogy, and we know from history that Owen is indeed doomed, and Sassoon and Graves lived. Life Class doesn't have a similar feeling.
In Regeneration, the threads of Rivers, Owen, Sassoon, Graves, and Billy continue and intertwine throughout the trilogy. In Life Class, Pat Barker as Atropos has cut lots of threads short--not through death, but by having what seem like important characters disappear from the picture. Things seem shallower--there's not the depth and richness that Regeneration has.
It may be that we've been spoiled by Regeneration: we expect Pat Barker's other novels to rise to that standard. But few WW I novels do rise to that standard--Under Fire, Her Privates We, Paths of Glory, and not many others. I have a nagging feeling that if Pat Barker had not written Regeneration, I might perhaps have given Life Class 4 stars. It's decent, but not great, and 8-10 years from now I might reread it. But I reread Regeneration every couple of years, and I have 3-4 copies of the trilogy books--I worry about wanting to read them and not being able to find them. So Life Class is a decent read, and probably better if you aren't thinking about Regeneration as you read it.
This is a story that juxtaposes the anxieties and amusements of both the dilettantes and the talented who attend art school with the demands and savagery experienced by those on the front lines of WWI. Paul Tarrant, Elinor Brooke, Kit Neville are students or former students of the Slade school for fine arts in London. All are talented but Kit is already becoming known in the larger art world. While Elinor produces pleasant and scholarship-winning paintings, Paul seems unable to make the leap to making an artistic statement.
The first half of the book follows this threesome at a somewhat languid pace as they attempt to win favor with each other, including the possibilities of crossing the divide from friends to lovers. This idyllic world of painting and socializing is abruptly interrupted as all of London erupts in patriotic fever as England is forced to come to the rescue of the French to stop the Kaiser. Both Kit and Paul succumb to the pressures of proving manhood by volunteering to lend medical assistance to the war effort in Belgium.
The last half of the book primarily follows Paul in his duties as first an orderly in a field hospital, then as an ambulance driver to the front lines. It is truly a transformative experience for Paul, but the mud, muck, gore, and horror are balanced by the resiliency and humanity of both those hideously mangled and his fellow workers. It is in these highly chaotic and new circumstances that Elinor and Paul explore their feelings for each other. Are the foundations of love and art unaffected by this chaos and mayhem, or are they somehow redefined. Paul and Elinor are forced to grapple with such questions, though not necessarily with equal success.
The novel is interesting and enjoyable, but it doesn't reach out and grab the reader. The characters all seem reluctant and hesitant - somewhat disconnected. The plot, in exploring two vastly different worlds, has a feeling of being incomplete. Perhaps that is all that the characters will allow.
I don't readily use the word "fan" to describe myself, but I am a fan of Pat Barker. "Regeneration", "Border Crossing", and "Double Vision" are among the thirty or so most memorable novels I have read over the past two decades. So, needless to say, I bought and read her latest, LIFE CLASS, with keen anticipation. Unfortunately, it does not measure up to the uncommonly high standard she has set with many of her earlier novels. Somehow the novel does not hang together. None of the characters rings entirely true. Many themes or subjects are raised -- love (both heterosexual and homosexual), art, the horrors of war, the social burdens of the proletariat in class-bound England -- but none is developed satisfactorily or in depth. In the end, one gets the nagging sense that perhaps the novel really does not aspire to "be about" anything other than the ever-evolving relationship between the two principal characters, Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke, but since one is not led to care deeply about either Tarrant or Brooke, their relationship can't carry the novel. In many respects, LIFE CLASS has the feel of an unfinished work, something with which Barker long wrestled and finally gave up on.
I don't want to be overly harsh. Many of the scenes and episodes are finely wrought and memorable. The narrative techniques are accomplished. But LIFE CLASS is more a novel of vignettes or episodes than a coherent, persuasive work, and unlike several of Barker's other novels, it is not essential reading.
Pat Barker's sensitive exploration of the devastating effects of The Great War on a group of artists from the Slade School of Art complements her similar exploration of the Great War from the point of view of the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in her Regeneration Trilogy, for which she won the 1995 Booker Prize. Examining the lives of art students Paul Tarrant, Elinor Brooke, and Kit Neville as they learn their craft, celebrate life by partying in the days leading up to the war, and eventually make life-altering decisions when war breaks out, Barker creates three worlds, the Before, During, and After of the war.
The superficiality of life Before, the horrors of During, and the disillusionment of After develop here through the interactions of these three characters with each other as the world around them changes--war as a Life Class. When Germany invades Russia and advances on France, Neville and Paul volunteer to drive ambulances for the Belgian Red Cross, and when Richard Lewis, a Quaker recruit becomes Paul's unexpected roommate in Ypres, Paul finds a studio in town where he can draw, and gain a little privacy. Lewis is as appalled as Paul is by the fact that there is no hospital, just a series of huts built around a goods yard, where doctors and nurses have no anesthetics, medications, or disinfectant, and where men lie on straw mats.
When Elinor naively decides to visit Paul, she arrives in Ypres only to have a sudden bombardment send her scurrying back home. In her first letter to Paul after her return home, she urges Paul to take a leave and return to England. "It would be lovely...to go for a meal or [have] toasted crumpets by the fire."
Barker's imagery is vibrant and affecting, and her ability to show the reactions of callow young people to the horrors they see is memorable. Because she shows the same characters at three stages of their lives from 1914 through the war, the reader shares their changes and, in most cases, growth. The limitation of the book, however, may be that some readers will not care about the main characters as much as they want to, simply because the characters are so shallow and so young. The lives they lead in England are superficial lives, and the horrors of Ypres are so horrific that in many ways the young characters do not seem to comprehend them fully. Compartmentalizing is one thing, necessary for survival, but the long-term postwar effects on the characters who return are not examined fully, and those effects might have been the bigger story here. n Mary Whipple
The Eye in the Door
The Ghost Road
Another World: A Novel
on May 26, 2014
There’s no better year to read “Life Class” than the 100th anniversary of its setting, 1914. Booker Prize-winner Pat Barker returns to the theme of her “Regeneration” trilogy—how art helps make sense of the trauma of the Great War. “Life Class,” with its double-meaning title, deepens her investigation into the war’s ineradicable scars. As in the Regeneration books, based largely in a mental rehab hospital, in “Life Class” Barker positions her characters in an institution presided over by a demanding, insightful individual. In this case, it’s the real-life Slade School of Fine Art (and teacher Henry Tonks), where a fictional trio of would-be artists and a model meet in the last year before the war. Like Paul Nash, whose paintings documented the stark cruelty of the war, Barker’s hero, also named Paul, sputters as an artist until he finds his subject on the battlefield. He and his fellow artist Elinor try to sustain a love affair, but the war pulls Paul back in and pushes Elinor away. The war goes on, unresolved, and the book stops, irresolute in a trench of conflicting feelings. A second take on the story is now available, “Toby’s Room”—perhaps leading to a third?
on February 23, 2015
BORING! I had to drag myself through this book which was a requirement for an english class i took. I had other books to read and this was by far one of the mos boring and uninteresting. the ending makes no sense and though the author roughly uses real people as her characters, they aren't very realistic...I think the author tries to make a very interesting, modern, unique, unpredictable book, but it turned out to be a bunch of nagging students who don't know what they want in life.
on February 12, 2008
LIFE CLASS begins with a glimpse over the shoulder of Paul Tarrant, a student at the famous London art school, the Slade. He is struggling to draw a nude model (you know it's nearly 100 years ago because the women and men have separate sessions), awash in feelings familiar to anybody who attempts art: self-doubt, frustration and a looming fear of professorial comments that nail a wrongness of proportion or clumsiness of line.
The professor in this instance is Henry Tonks, who was a real person --- a doctor-turned-artist who, in the wake of World War I, worked with a plastic surgeon to document the repair of soldiers' mutilated faces. Here again is The Great War, the scene of Pat Barker's deservedly famous Regeneration trilogy (one of the volumes won the Man Booker Prize), and here too is her penchant for mixing actual and invented individuals. Other recognizable characters include the extravagant society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell and the artist Augustus John. But in LIFE CLASS she focuses on the nexus between war and art, and brings an artist's eye to her descriptions of a midnight picnic ("In the moonlight...the poppies looked black and the corn was silver") or the devastation at the Belgian front, where "the land on either side of the road is ruined --- pockmarked, blighted, craters filled with foul water, splintered trees, hedges and fields gouged out...."
Barker hadn't planned to go back to World War I, she told the (British) Sunday Times, but she was stirred by the artists of that period (if you saw the film Carrington, you may remember Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington's stormy suitor before she settled on Lytton Strachey as the love of her life). There may have been a proper gender division in life-drawing classes, but outside the studio these iconoclastic circles were known for sexual as well as aesthetic rebellion, and the first part of LIFE CLASS --- while the war is still looming --- is very much occupied with love triangles. Paul has a brief, torrid affair with Teresa Halliday, an artist's model, and is stalked by her abusive husband. He is more profoundly drawn, however, to a fellow student named Elinor Brooke, who apparently wishes to be no more than friends with him or his chief rival, Kit Neville, a privileged chap whose canvases, ironically, focus on scenes of urban industrial life that are straight out of Paul's working-class background.
Ah, yes --- class. It stretches through the book like a high-tension wire. Paul's grandmother, an East End slumlord, left him enough money to go to the Slade; becoming an artist is, for him, a way of getting out of "the shadow of the ironworks that gobbled men up at the start of a shift and regurgitated them twelve hours later fit for nothing but booze and sleep." In seeing Teresa he is returning to his "common" origins; with Elinor and Neville he is transgressing them. Entering the Café Royal, a student hangout that isn't exactly Starbucks, he comments on how "sleek and glossy" the patrons are "compared to the creatures who lived in the streets around his lodgings, scurrying about in their soot-laden drizzle, the women so tightly wrapped they seemed to be bundles of clothes walking. This was another England, and passing between the two, he was aware of a moment's dislocation, not unlike vertigo." Paul is a man straddling two worlds, and through him Barker seems to suggest that social hierarchies were being blasted away --- both by the self-conscious bohemianism of the artistic subculture and the leveling impact of the battlefield.
The war is a way for LIFE CLASS to wrestle with questions about the purpose of art (given massive death and destruction, what are mere pictures good for?), echoing Paul's memory of his skeptical Gran: "Art! It's not for people like us...." Each character reacts differently to the prospect of battle. Paul, turned down for active service because of a weak chest, goes to the front lines as a medical orderly and ambulance driver, and his painting, forged in a world of death, finally starts to come alive. Even Professor Tonks approves. From the start Neville sees war as a proper subject for art and makes a career of it, so much so that when the fighting ends he predicts his work will no longer draw attention ("Nobody wants to look at a nightmare once they've woken up").
Elinor is more complicated. Although a gifted artist who, thanks to her gender, is able to continue to work while her male admirers are at the front, I don't get a strong sense of her inner life. Her proto-feminist resistance to marriage ("No man was ever going to entice her into a cage....") seems a bit of an assumed role (she bobs her hair, but still wears stays). And her determination to ignore the war as much as possible, while admirably honest ("Of course...it matters that people are dying," she says. "I just don't think that's what art should be about. It's like painting a train crash"), makes her a cool, rather distant character.
The crux of the book, it seems to me, is the way war divorces people from their former lives, which Barker communicates through a series of letters between Elinor and Paul (which, by the way, are so beautifully written that one wonders why they didn't become novelists rather than artists). He begins by wanting to think of her carrying on a more-or-less normal life back home, but as the violence mounts, he realizes that he now inhabits an entirely different world and has been inalterably changed by the experience. She cannot share it, even though their relationship is physically consummated when she visits Paul at the front.
The real intimacy in LIFE CLASS (though not in a sexual sense) is between Paul and Richard Lewis, the Quaker volunteer who shares his tent. This subtly drawn friendship is the most touching of the entire book, and the purest --- worshipful but chaste on Lewis's side, ruefully affectionate on Paul's. Elinor and Paul, on the other hand, seem permanently trapped in bleak ambiguity. With the war a chasm between them, love is no longer enough. Wounded and on leave in London, Paul thinks longingly of the front: "The sooner he was out there again the better.... He didn't belong here." The divide between peacetime life and the kill-or-be-killed starkness of battle --- between those who have lived and painted in safety and those who have risked (and witnessed) everything --- is as horrifyingly relevant today as it was then. I'm afraid it will be with us as long as there is war.
--- Reviewed by Kathy Weissman
on October 23, 2013
Like Pat Barker, I have an obsession with WW1. And what I love about her work is her ability to immerse the reader in the intensity and horror of war, without making judgements. However,this novel didn't seem to me to be as good as some of her others. This may have been because I found the changes in points of view a little disconcerting, or it may have been because the first half of the book, which takes place in pre-war London, doesn't cement my relationship with the three main protagonists. Part two makes up for this, but I felt a little cheated, as though there were some large part of the story missing. I imagine that the next volume in this series will help round out the picture
on June 5, 2016
Pat Barker writes about how war affects everyone, wether or not they are in the front lines. I think her books should be required reading for high school students. This book is relevant to today because it covers the anti immigrant kind of nationalism that we are currently experiencing and reflects our own history regarding the internment of Japanese Americans. It also mentions in passing the propaganda that is necessary to make people enlist and fight even when it's not in their own interest. As in previous novels the horrors of war, the needless waste of young lives, both soldier and civilian are frankly portrayed.