Tag Archives: Pat Barker

20: Life Class

Life Class: A NovelLife Class: A Novel by Pat Barker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

From The Book Shop in Penticton, Summer 2010:

Books from The Book Shop

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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2006 Books Read – #13

Double Vision by Pat Barker

Double Vision

The trouble was, Kate thought, Alec had always thought of himself as a good man. That made him sound smug and horrible, which he wasn’t, but he did tend to assume that in the war of good and evil he’d always be on the right side, whereas Kate couldn’t help thinking real adult life starts when you admit the other possibility. ‘We’re all a bit like that, aren’t we?’

Ah, that’s why I love Pat Barker. Even if this book had nothing else to recommend it, it would be worth reading just for that bit.

Barker’s writing is eloquent and unfussy. She’s really readable. Lovely writing, no distractions.

There are two main characters in this book: a burned-out war journalist who is grappling with the death of his photographer friend, and the photographer’s wife, a sculptor, who is not only dealing with the death of her husband, but also recovering from a bad car accident. Their lives intersect when the journalist returns home to work on a book about his experiences. A romantic relationship does develop, but not between these two characters.

It’s an absorbing story on the surface level. But it also—as is typical for a Barker novel—explores complex questions about war and violence.

This isn’t my favorite Barker book, but it’s the best book I’ve read this year.

Books Read May – December 2005

The brevity of this list reminds me of how prolific a reader I used to be. In grade seven, my teacher had us start a list of books read at the back of one of our notebooks. I think it was more of a suggestion than an assignment because I don’t remember anyone else keeping up with it. But I did, and by the end of the school year, I had read ~120 books. I remember being so thrilled when I hit 100. Anyhow, the school year being approximately 10 months, that’s about 12 books / month. Or a book every 2.5 days.

Okay, so I can still read a book in two days. Or one, even. But these days I seem to spend a lot of my time reading Stuff That Is Not Books. Like blogs. Or submissions. 🙂

  1. Saints of Big Harbour by Lynn Coady n
  2. The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy by Barbara Vine n#
  3. A Child’s Book of True Crime by Chloe Hooper n+
  4. Wide Open by Nicola Barker n+#*
  5. Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith n#
  6. Time Off for Good Behavior by Lani Diane Rich n+
  7. A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel m+
  8. Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell e+#
  9. Geographies of Home by Loida Maritza Perez n+
  10. Liza’s England by Pat Barker n#*
  11. For Rabbit, With Love & Squalor by Anne Roiphe e#
  12. Letting Loose the Hounds by Brady Udall s+#
  13. The Digital Sublime by Vincent Mosco nf+
  14. The Real World of Technology by Ursula Franklin nf+
  15. Under Technology’s Thumb by William Leiss nf+
  16. The Small Details of Life by Kathryn Carter nf+
  17. The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing by Jennifor Sinor nf+#
  18. Reading Between the Lines by Betty Jane Wylie nf+