This section contains 2,386 words
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Critical Review by Claudia Roth Pierpont
SOURCE: "English Lessons," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVIII, No. 25, August 10, 1992, pp. 74-9.
In the following excerpt from a review in which she also discusses Caryl Phillips's novel Cambridge (1992), Pierpont favorably assesses Regeneration.
"My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity," Wilfred Owen wrote, in 1918, in an introduction he planned for his first collected volume. The lines eventually appeared in a slim edition of Owen's poems selected and published by friends in 1920, two years after his death, at age twenty-five, by German machine-gun fire during the week before the Armistice. Owen had begun his introduction with the warning "This book is not about heroes"—a hard-won lesson that, unthinkable in 1914, was largely taken for granted by 1920. From a writer, the lesson demanded the abandonment of England's long-ingrained pastoral-isle rhetoric. But the spareness and the irony with which Owen altered his work didn't come at once, in immediate response to the terror and squalor of the trenches. The disillusion found expression only afterward, under the tutelage of another poet-soldier, Siegfried Sassoon, in sessions of ardent reading and rewriting which took place during the brief months of their acquaintance, as fellow-patients at Craiglockhart War Hospital, a military psychiatric facility outside Edinburgh.
Craiglockhart, with a population of Royal Army officers consigned to it with the diverse symptoms of what was hesitantly and still suspiciously termed "shell shock," is the primary setting for Pat Barker's absorbing historical novel Regeneration. The story is taken up as Sassoon is admitted there, in mid-1917, with the war verging on the muddy destructions of Passchendaele, and with no one in command able to articulate the principles that separated one side from the other. Sassoon, an early volunteer, decorated for bravery, had issued a public declaration "of wilful defiance of military authority," in which he denounced his country's political motives and refused to return to service. Speaking as a soldier and for the sake of soldiers, he called for a clarification of England's war aims, and wrote that he hoped to destroy "the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize."
Sassoon's statement, reproduced whole, leads off Barker's first page, and her novel is a tracing of its consequences, which were neither as public nor as clear as its valiant author had wished. Seeking to rescue Sassoon from himself ("I could see at once it wouldn't do any good, nobody would follow his example"), his friend Robert Graves had interfered with the Army Medical Board, providing evidence—true but irrelevant—that Sassoon was suffering from nervous exhaustion. Anticipating a court-martial and imprisonment, and a swelling of outrage and of support for his position, Sassoon was instead shipped off to the place he at once dubbed Dottyville. But there was never any doubt; his protest was his illness.
To label Regeneration an anti-war novel—which it is, in part—suggests a didacticism that figures no more than it should in this richly storied and peopled amplification of events. Nor is the book a dark journey into Bedlam, despite the evident pain and potential horror of the subject. The animated and diverting life of Craiglockhart—"that living museum of tics and twitches"—contains comedy as well as tragedy, and it is not the chill black comedy of the Joseph Heller tradition (or, indeed, of the Siegfried Sassoon tradition, which is its distant ancestor) but, rather, comedy flushed with warmth. For, as Sassoon discovers on passing through the hospital portals, he has entered into a carefully delimited arena of emotional exploration and nurturance which is not only the antithesis of his war experience but a reversal of all the mores of traditional English manhood. Shattered men may be rebuilt here, but not necessarily along the lines of their original construction.
Few historical novelists can have had such ample and minutely detailed sources to draw upon as Barker: Sassoon went on to publish six autobiographical volumes, chronicling his years up to and through the war, and, along with Graves and Edmund Blunden, he makes up a trio that Paul Fussell christened the war's "classic memoirists." Barker depends on all three, and more besides, and it is perhaps ironic, given the degree of self-confessed fiction present in the memoirs, that only in Barker's novel are the real names of all the principal figures restored. In episode and in observation, Barker adheres scrupulously to the facts: even the camaraderie of Owen and Sassoon conspiring over Owen's work derives, as Barker informs us in an endnote, from Sassoon's annotations on Owen's manuscript. But it may or may not be relevant that the novel is so factually secure, for Barker's whole creation breathes. "Real" characters rub shoulders in the long corridors with a host of equally tangible fictions, or with documented symptoms made flesh: Anderson, the Army surgeon, who breaks down at a drop of blood from a shaving cut; Prior, the "bad boy" from the North of England slums, who arrives unable to speak and makes the nurses wish at times that he'd never recovered; Fothersgill, who speaks only in mock medieval English: "lots of 'Yea Verilys' and 'forsooths'—as if his brief exposure to French horrors had frightened him into a sort of terminal facetiousness." But the steadying sympathy that holds the place together, and also presides over the book, is that of the good doctor whose task it is to cure these men, to mediate between the private violations of sanity which have sent them to his care and the public ones to which they must be returned.
That rarest thing in modern fiction (as, perhaps, in modern life), a man of utterly convincing higher moral instincts, Dr. W. H. R. Rivers was a figure as real (if not as well known) as Owen or Graves or Sassoon, and he is, historically, nearly as well delineated, by his words and by theirs. An anthropologist and a neurologist, and also a leading proponent of Freudian analysis in England (even before the pathologies produced by the war irrefutably demonstrated, as he saw, subterranean channels of pain and repression), Rivers was at this time over fifty and unmarried, entirely devoted to his work and to the men in his care, and he was in the midst of a crisis. As an official healer for the Royal Army Medical Corps, a physician in uniform, he had feared, in the words of his own memoir cum clinical record, "the situation that would arise if my task of converting a patient from his 'pacifist errors' to the conventional attitude should have as its result my own conversion to his point of view." This situation was not hypothetical. Sassoon was the patient to whom Rivers referred, and in Barker's book the two are paired as noble, loving antagonists—a mutually idealizing father and son locked in a battle of words, even of dreams, for each other's souls. It is Rivers' duty to make the renegade understand and share his own sense of honor and obligation; it is Sassoon's nature to make Rivers understand, and, finally, share his.
Although Regeneration is essentially a moral drama, it is never static, never weighty. Barker is an energetic writer who achieves much of her purpose through swift and easy dialogue and the bold etching of personality—effects so apparently simple and forthright that the complications of feeling which arise seem to do so unbidden. The vivid immediacy of her style is perhaps better suited to situation and speech than to the processes of thought, however; the shifting interior lights by which doctor and patient gradually adjust their positions are a little too clearly outlined, too artificially legible. The author herself may have felt some unease about her ability to convey these sheerly intellectual developments: a scene of high melodrama placed late in the story, in which Rivers pursues his most desperately ill patient into a situation that, by chance, duplicates the conditions of a French battlefield—a beach at night, a wild storm, a watchtower, explosions—is contrived and murky, unlike anything else in the book. Rivers' on-the-spot revelation as he drags the stricken man to safety—"Nothing justifies this. Nothing nothing nothing"—seems a thought that this extraordinarily empathetic individual, trapped in a pointless war, should have come to long before. But, in a way, even this failure is a sign of Barker's exceptional gift for character: one rejects the scene in part because one knows the man so well.
It has been Pat Barker's accomplishment to enlarge the scope of the contemporary English novel. A woman of working-class background from the industrial North, she was educated in London but has kept to her roots. At its best—as in the sweetly raunchy scenes here between Lieutenant Prior and his munitions-worker girlfriend, or in the instantly compelling vignettes of the other women in the munitions factory—her work makes many of the currently efflorescent novels of manners, such as those by Anita Brookner and David Lodge, seem uncomfortably narcissistic or pert. The documentary realism of Barker's first novel, Union Street, a harshly elemental book about the interwoven lives of a group of extremely poor women, won from the British press the honorific—or the brand—of "working-class masterpiece." Set amid unemployment and scrimping and alcohol and pride in a Northern coalmining city devastated by the policies of Thatcherism, Union Street is an unsparing book, and its scenes of the imperative biology of these women's lives—sex, childbirth, abortion—are fully as harrowing as the men's traumas of war recounted in Regeneration. Indeed, this seems to be part of Barker's point: the two subjects are counterparts. Rivers comes to understand of his patients' psychosomatic illnesses that "it was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors," and that "any explanation of war neurosis must account for the fact that this apparently intensely masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace." As for the "perpetually harried expression" on the faces of the young officers—boys who at twenty feel like fathers to the men they command—Rivers has seen that look in only one other place: "in the public wards of hospitals, on the faces of women who were bringing up large families on very low incomes, women who, in their early thirties, could easily be taken for fifty or more." He recognizes it as "the look of people who are totally responsible for lives they have no power to save." These are the people on whom Barker lavishes her precise and unsentimental care: deadbroke mothers, half-grown soldiers—those living outside the pale of societal comfort and illusion.
Barker's second novel, Blow Your House Down, was a deliberately blunt and even brutal work about a group of prostitutes stalked by a killer in an actual nineteen-seventies case in England. In an interview that followed its publication, Barker replied to a question about her evident concern with violence against women by suggesting that what was needed was for "gentle men" to become more involved in the upbringing of their sons, to release male children from the need "to find their maleness by rejecting what is feminine." The wise and saintly Rivers in Regeneration is certainly the quintessential "gentle" man, everybody's ideal father (the adoring reader's not least), and access to gentleness—permitting it, acknowledging it—is his lesson for the young and damaged patients who are his children. Accused by a particularly troubling patient of being not so much a father as a "male mother," Rivers bridles at "the implication that nurturing, even when done by a man, remains female, as if the ability were in some way borrowed, or even stolen, from women—a sort of moral equivalent of the couvade," and reflects that "if that were true, then there was really very little hope."
It is perhaps to secure Rivers' point—which is also Barker's point, and more the thematic center of the book than any statement about war—and to retain the powerful example of male tenderness free from the stigma of effeminacy that Barker plays so lightly on the unmistakable erotic element here. There are allusions to the fact of Sassoon's having come to terms with his homosexuality during the course of his "cure" with Rivers (who, as a doctor, departed from Freud on the centrality and meaning of sexuality) and to Owen's attraction—he was also homosexual—to Sassoon. ("I knew about the hero-worship but I'm beginning to think it was rather more than that," Sassoon says, worrying over a letter from the younger poet.) There is some intimation, too, that Rivers, a generation older, may have once experienced what these men are going through, but this is so delicately imparted that it is almost impossible to hold on to—a matter of a book he once read, a cultural openness, a solitary resignation. Rivers seems at times a genteel and beardless Whitman nursing the wounded of mind. And his lessons are not without risks, even to himself:
In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of tenderness for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself against the whole tenor of their up-bringing…. And yet he himself was a product of the same system, even perhaps a rather extreme product…. 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.
There are many battles being fought in Regeneration, and the war, for some, may not always be the hardest to face. Preparing to return to his regiment, Sassoon feels cheerful: "Exactly the same feeling he had had on board ship going to France, watching England slide away into the mist. No doubts, no scruples, no agonizing, just a straightforward, headlong retreat towards the front." Barker does not follow her characters to their separate fates; it is the moment of mutual touch and transformation which concerns her. Regeneration is an inspiriting book that balances conscience and the vitality of change against a collapsing world—a book about voyages out.
This section contains 2,386 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)