Life Class: A Novel by Pat Barker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
From The Book Shop in Penticton, Summer 2010:
And… Pat Barker reminds me why she is the best.
Previously on The Remainder Table, I read Liza’s England and wrote about Double Vision. Have I really not read a Pat Barker book since 2006? Yikes. That’s crazypants. *Checks Wikipedia* Ok, so not entirely my fault. Looks like she didn’t publish anything between Life Class and Toby’s Room, which came out this year, and I’ve read everything else except her first two novels (Union Street & Blow Your House Down). Her husband died in 2009; I expect that has something to do with the longer-than-usual gap between books.
With Life Class, Barker returns to World War I. This time the main characters are art students studying at the Slade. The Slade is real, as is Henry Tonks, one of the professors who appears in the story. If Madeleine L’Engle’s trademark is her crossover characters, Pat Barker’s is her use of real people as characters in her fiction.
When the story starts, it’s the summer of 1914. The main characters are Paul, Elinor, and Neville. Elinor’s already an accomplished artist, winning prizes for her work, but her family doesn’t take her painting seriously because she’s a woman. To them, painting is a nice hobby for a woman to have; it’s not work. Neville’s also producing good work, but he’s a bit avant-garde for pre-war tastes. Paul is struggling. He’s starting to think he’s wasting his money taking classes because he doesn’t seem to be making any progress. He goes to Tonks to talk about quitting. Tonks tells him he should stick out the semester and that he is improving technically. Then he says:
“Most people who come here are bursting with something they want to say, and the trouble I have with some of them is that they can’t be bothered to learn the language to say it in. Whereas with you it’s almost the opposite.”
Paul would have like to defend himself but didn’t know how. This wasn’t the criticism he’s been expecting.
“I do have a problem with life drawing. I know that. But I thought my landscapes were … Well. A bit better.”
“There’s no feeling.”
“Perhaps I’m not managing to express it, but—”
“I don’t get any feeling that they’re yours. You seem to have nothing to say.”
“I see. No, yes, I do see.”
“Well, then.” Tonks spread both hands on his desk, preparatory to rising. “I wish I could tell you what to do about it, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to thrash this one out on your own.”
“I don’t now what to do.”
“Why don’t you start by asking yourself: Do I want to paint? Or do I want ‘to be an artist’? Because they’re two very different things. And try to be honest with yourself. It’s not any easy question.”
Life Class (36-37)
Any of this hitting home, writers?
—Do I want to write? Or do I want ‘to be a writer’?
So the question then becomes ‘will Paul find something to say?’
When war is declared, all the men in the story plan to participate, but their motivations vary. Neville sees the war as a painting opportunity, and signs up with the Red Cross (partly because he’d never pass the army physical and partly because this will get him to the front lines faster). Toby, Elinor’s brother, seems to think it’s something he has to do (for duty/honor/country), even though everyone seems to agree with their father that he’d be of more use if he completed his medical studies first. Paul also doesn’t question enlisting, but the army rejects him. Like Neville, he signs up to work with the Red Cross. He starts out in a field “hospital” in Belgium.
There’s a lot of conflict/contradiction within Paul. He clearly doesn’t buy into any of the romantic notions of war. He’s tortured by what he sees. And yet… he’s compelled to be there. He can’t not be there.
Meanwhile, Elinor is being pressured to go into nursing (a “real” job) but she keeps resisting, even though she is made to feel that she is being frivolous by continuing to paint. For Elinor, her real work is painting.
I read some reviews that called Elinor unsympathetic. Reactions like that are exactly why the Elinor character is important. Essentially—
reader reaction : Elinor-the-character :: community reaction : Elinor in the story
It takes strength not to cave to that kind of pressure. In some ways, Elinor is stronger than any of the male characters. None of them were able to resist societal pressure to go along with the war in some respect, even though none of them were enthusiastic (ok, maybe Neville, who saw his opportunity for fame and fortune). Even Lewis, a Quaker, ends up at the same field hospital as Paul. Of course, you could argue Elinor has her head in the sand. But, then again, if everyone refused to participate, it wouldn’t make for much of a war, would it?
Along with the themes of war/love/class, which Barker keeps returning to, there are interesting questions explored here about the nature of work and what subjects are acceptable as art. What is the place of artwork that makes the viewer avert their eyes, turn away?
We might ask the same questions of writing.
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