Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy

Pat Barker's novel Regeneration was shortlisted for the Booker Prize but it was the third novel in the trilogy, The Ghost Road, which won the Booker Prize the year it was published.  Sometimes this can smell like a consolation prize for not winning earlier but in this case I think the right novel won. If, of course, only one novel was going to win.  All three are wonderful works. But, in my opinion, The Ghost Road packed more of an emotional wallop than the other two and I believe Barker was able to create that wallop because she created a fictional character.

That may sound odd because novels are, by their very nature fictional.  But historical novels, in particular, often have real life characters in them.  I find that I tend to like historical novels where the real life characters are peripheral to the main action.  And the Regeneration Trilogy has many real life characters. 

In the first novel,  Regeneration, Barker used real life World War I poet, Siegfried Sassoon, as one of the central characters.  Sassoon is an interesting person.   He was a decorated hero who grew to believe that the War was wrong.  When he spoke out he was placed in a mental institution where men suffering from shell shock were treated - he was put there mostly for PR purposes because it was easier for the authorities to claim that he was out of his mind than to take action against a decorated officer for speaking out against the War.  His friend, the poet Robert Graves (of I Claudius fame), was instrumental in convincing him to go along with the institutional route. But, in the end, Sassoon chose to go back to the front and he survived the War.  The tension between his feelings about the War and his sense of duty to his men and the others who were still there fighting is one of the stronger parts of the novel. 

But ultimately Sassoon's story, interesting though it is, is bounded by the facts of his real life.  And there are other real life characters.  While in the mental hospital Sassoon formed a close relationship with his treating physician, Dr. Rivers, whose job it is to rehabilitate men so that they can go back but who knows there is nothing really wrong with Sassoon.  Rivers is a principal character in all three novels and he, too, was a real life person.  Sassoon also became a mentor to young Wilfred Owen who would ultimately become perhaps the most famous World War I poet and who would not survive the War.  Too much knowledge about the fate of the characters can detract a bit from the usual dramatic tension of a novel where the reader wants to know what happens.  If the reader knows the fate of Sassoon and Owen right from the beginning, the author needs to find some other hook

In Regeneration Barker ultimately makes the Sassoon story a novel of the mind in which the varying perceptions of the War are debated.  Sassoon is against the War but is not a pacifist.   He ultimately returns to the War on his own volition but not because he has changed his mind, ultimately, about the War.  This tension in his character is what Barker explores and, while it is fascinating, I'm not sure she really explained it to me.  The anti-war sentiment of Sassoon is easy to understand when you understand the slaughter that was going on in Europe.  I had a harder time understanding why his anti-war feelings seemed to be based on the ultimate purpose of the war.  He believed that the British people were being lied to.

And probably they were being lied to in many cases.  ]Most wars are fought for monied interests and not the altruistic reasons that are given to the public.  Propaganda is a part of every War and it is good to try to spot it.  But in the case of World War I, notwithstanding the propaganda there was an actual invading force to fight.  Did Sassoon really think that the people of Belgium, France and, perhaps ultimately, Britain should live under German domination?  He thought that peace should be made but Barker gives no evidence that anyone really thought it was possible at that particular point in the War to make peace without simply caving into German will.  That is what makes the debate particularly interesting but ultimately unsatisfying as a core component of a novel.

It seemed to me that the War was a travesty on the Allied side not particularly because of its purpose but because the people running the War were either inept and/or unable to match tactics to modern weaponry. To refuse to condone the War for that reason seems reasonable to me.  I remember reading that at one point the French soldiers refused to advance because they were simply being slaughtered.  On the other hand, they didn't walk off the field - they didn't want to allow the Germans into France they just didn't want to move an inch forward.   The cost of advance was too high but the cost of defense was still supportable. If Sassoon were a fictional character Barker might have been able to have brought some of that into his reason for opposing the War.  But since he was a real person who wrote an actual manifesto against the War she was stuck with using what he actually stated were his reasons for opposition.  And those reasons didn't seem particularly coherent to me.   And the reasons he went back weren't particularly coherent to me.

Barker also created a few fictional characters in Regeneration who I thought were in some ways more successful than Sassoon as characters. One of them was Billy Prior who was rendered mute by what he had experienced at the front.  Dr. Rivers eventually helped him get his speech back.  Prior wanted to go back to the front but Rivers discovered that he had asthma and the medical board denied his request to return the front, assigning him to home duties.

Prior is the one of the main characters of the second and third novels.  In The Eye in the Window he is working for the War Department and in The Ghost Road he finally convinces them to send him back to the Front.  Sassoon makes another appearance in The Ghost Road as does Wilfred Owen.  And Dr. Rivers is in every novel, moving from the suburbs of Edinburgh down to a London hospital where he continues to treat men suffering from shell shock.   The main intent of his treatments is to be able to send them back to fight and what is surprising in the novel is how many of them do want to go back to the Front.

Billy Prior isn't always a particularly likeable character but he seems much more coherent to me as a character than Sassoon or even Rivers.  I think that is because Barker created him and could make of him what he needed to be for the novel.  Although hindsight is 20/20, when writing an historical novel it seems useful to use that hindsight to good purpose.  The real characters like Sassoon and Owen must do whatever they actually did and think whatever the historical records indicates they thought.  Billy Prior can do and think things that possibly no one could actually verbalize at the time - only with 20/20 hindsight can certain things be said.  That is useful.

There was so much in these novels that made me think that the world just hasn't changed much.  The men back from the Front, especially Billy Prior, find it incredibly difficult to be around civilians whom they find particularly out of touch.  But of course civilians "at home" are always out of touch - it isn't really possible to understand war unless you've been there.  And for the men who do come home, they find a world far removed from the world they left.  Things have moved on without them.  In World War I, especially, there were great social upheavals - women going to work in factories and doing urban jobs that, previously, only men did was a huge social change. 

Billy Prior says:

'You know if you were writing about ... oh, I don't know, enclosures, or the coming of the railways, you wouldn't have people standing round saying ... ' He put a theatrical hand to his brow.  '"Oh dear me, we are living through a period of terribly rapid social change, aren't we?"  Because nobody'd believe people would be so ... aware.  But here we are, living through just such a period, and everybody's bloody well aware of it. I've heard nothing else since I came home. Not the words, of course, but the awareness. And I just wondered whether there aren't periods when people do become aware of what's happening, and they look back at their previous unconscious selves and it seems like decades ago. Another life.'
Of course people can look back over a five or ten or fifty year period and marvel how much life has changed.  My Grandma would occasionally do that.  But when you are living through an upheaval like World War I, perhaps you are aware of it minute by minute.  Wondering where your old life went.  Not sure you necessarily like the new life.  In some ways I think 2001 through about 2005 was a time of hyper awareness here in the States but it was nothing compared to what WWI would have been like.

It is hard to know if the words that come of Barker's characters mouths are representative of what someone would have said or felt at that time or if they are more representative of the times we live in.  Or maybe things just don't change.  As an anti-war character says, talking about her anti-war mother who also would help women who wanted to terminate pregnancies:

You know, killing a baby when it's mother's two month's gone, that's a terrible crime.  But wait twenty years and blow the same kid's head off, that's all right. 
That could be said then.  That could be said now.

In the end I liked The Ghost Road the best because, while it was just as much an "intellectual" book as Regeneration, it was also more personal and brought the cost of the War much more into focus. The novel ends at the beginning of November, just days before what we know will be Armistice Day and the end of the War.  It ends with an insignificant battle over a canal that, in the end, will be irrelevant.  Insignificant, that is, for everyone except the men who die in it.  And their families and loved ones who will live with those deaths.  With 20/20 hindsight we can say that it was insignificant to the course of the War because we know what happened a few days later.   All I kept thinking was ... what a waste.  What a terrible waste.

I'm not sure this series ultimately sated me on WWI novels.  I wouldn't mind reading more.  But I also feel ready to move into other universes too.