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Critical Review by Mark Wormald
SOURCE: "Treating War's Insanity," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4599, May 24, 1991, p. 20.
In the following highly positive review of Regeneration, Wormald praises Barker for the psychological insights into personality formation that make the book more than an excellent historical novel.
On April 12, 1917, Captain Siegfried Sassoon was wounded in action on the Hindenburg Line; ten days later, recovering at Denmark Hill Hospital in London, he wrote "The Rear-Guard", and later appended a note citing the poem's "strength" as a refutation of Edmund Gosse's idea that he "was suffering from severe shock". Readers of his War Poems are likely to side with Sassoon; they will also notice how his "Hindenburg Line Material" continued to blend, in that spring and early summer, with the experience of his convalescence, to produce a series of often savage but also revealingly consistent poetic oppositions. "The Hawthorn Tree", the sight of it blossoming in a lane the poem's persona visits daily, is "Not much to me"; but "my lad that's out in France / With fearsome things to see / Would give his eyes for just one glance" at it. And in "Supreme Sacrifice", another dialogue between the horror of the trenches and ordinary (though curiously shadowy) parental or sexual relations, it is his unidentified interlocutor whose, "tired eyes half-confessed she'd felt the shock / Of ugly war brought home".
Sassoon's next response to this shock is as much a matter of literary history as the poems themselves. In July 1917, he wrote and circulated more explicit evidence of his revulsion, as a sane and articulate man, from the insanity of the war and from the distended aims of the "warmongers" still conducting it. It is with a transcript of this cogent short prose piece, "Finished with the War: A Soldier's Declaration", that Pat Barker's fifth novel begins; and Regeneration's chronology matches that of the subsequent, apparently surprising episode in Sassoon's life. Faced with the prospect of a Court Martial for his act of defiance, he was persuaded to appear before an Army Medical Board; from there—thanks to his friend Captain Robert Graves—he was sent for four months to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, before being finally discharged back to duty in France at the end of November.
Although Graves, Sassoon and another of the hospital's patients, Wilfred Owen, all appear in Regeneration, neither they nor their poetry dominate the novel. The central character is, instead, the immensely sympathetic figure of Sassoon's psychiatrist at Craiglockhart, Captain W. H. R. Rivers, before the war an eminent Cambridge anthropologist and, as Barker portrays him, an increasingly reluctant tool of army policy.
His discomfort is neither simply moral—though he does question the morality of sending young men back to hell again—nor is it strictly professional. Rivers did state his reservations on this score in a lecture delivered to the Royal Society of Medicine ten days or so after Sassoon's discharge from Craiglockhart; the poet's endorsement of Rivers's views and methods led him to retitle a poem drafted that July. "Repression of War Experience" was encouraged and even enforced in most institutions at that time, and not just the psychiatric ones: when Rivers insisted in the course of his gentle, gradualist, conversational treatment of war neuroses that "ugly" memories and feelings should be faced rather than denied, the psychiatrist, like the poet, was
setting himself against the whole tenor of their upbringing. They'd been trained to identify emotional repression as the essence of manliness. Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men. And yet he himself was the product of the same system, even perhaps a rather extreme product. Certainly the rigorous repression of emotion and desire had been the constant theme of his adult life. In advising his young patients to abandon the attempt at repression and to let themselves feel the pity and terror their war experience inevitably evoked, he was excavating the ground he stood on.
These are Barker's words, and they have to be. The rhythms are closer to the conversational, the colloquial, than Rivers allowed his own prose to become, either in his paper (well worth reading in The Lancet of February 2, 1918) or in what Barker gives us of his professional case notes.
The novelist's resources, by contrast, provide access to the contingent, unwritten world of speech and feelings in a manner quite beyond the scope of clipped medical records, of polished poetic performances, or even of the literary historian. Where poems appear they do so in manuscript forms, which vary tellingly from the final, "stronger" versions available in the standard texts; they are worried over in the course of dialogue the dynamics of which do far more to evoke and purge the experiences they skirt than any of the contemporary "treatments" to which the reader is also exposed. The (grimly documented) form of electric shock therapy practised in London by Dr Lewis Yealland is witnessed, in silence, by a horrified Rivers.
Barker pulls no punches in her depiction of these and other horrors. They aren't hers to pull. In a novel where, as she writes in a useful Author's Note, "Fact and fiction are so interwoven", it is a useful rule of thumb to assume that the more terrible the episode recounted, the more "historical" it is. Yet it is for its subtler, less extreme processes that Regeneration deserves our admiration. Barker's research is worn lightly; the deftness with which she integrates her historically remarkable characters, all of whom have "lost [their] chance of being ordinary", back into a reality marked by sufferings we can all too readily recognize, is the more outstanding for being so unobtrusive. Doctors as well as patients, a lover as well as her soldier-sweetheart who is finding his way back to speech, are united by a landscape and a web of images and colours. They also exhibit habits of speech and thought that we have inherited. They all grope for words, for the right phrase, they all split their "Ye-es"es and their "No-o"s. When connectives and prepositions and auxiliary verbs escalate unexpectedly in the middle of a spoken sentence, it often takes a moment to decide whether the effect is deliberate or not, rhetorical or unconscious.
"What I can't understand is how somebody of Graves's intelligence can can can have such a shaky grasp of of rhetoric." [Sassoon complains to Rivers at one point.] "It suits him to attribute everything I've done to to to to … a state of mental breakdown, because then he doesn't have to ask himself any awkward questions."
It is because Pat Barker keeps such questions so convincingly before us, and so delicately explores their consequences for the cultural and psychological processes by which our personalities are formed, that Regeneration is so much more than the excellent historical novel other writers might have settled for. It is one of the most impressive novels to have appeared in recent years.
This section contains 1,156 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)