Life Class

by Pat Barker

The start of this story mystifies me. Paul Tarrant leaves the life class at the Slade, where he is failing to achieve his ambition as an artist. He observes a drunk young girl in the park, and an older, more smartly dressed man who is apparently pursuing her. He accosts the man and manages to put him off the scent.

There is no obvious connection between this incident and the rest of the story. Perhaps it serves to tell us something about Paul’s character: upholding what he believes is right, asserting himself, physically agile.

The remainder of the book is in two parts. The first part shows us the characters of Paul, Kit Neville, Elinor and Teresa, living in London. They suffer few restrictions on their movements (the women in particular are quite independent compared to many young women of the time). They hang out at the Café Royal, go to the fair, visit each other’s homes. Paul and Teresa’s relationship is sexual from the start.

Paul comes across as emotionally detached. He is not sure whether to believe Teresa’s story about her estranged, violent husband who is stalking her. Even when Paul himself is abused by Harrison, he seems disengaged. Teresa’s departure upsets him for a while, but he quickly transfers his attention to Elinor.

In Paul’s relationship with Elinor, in both parts of the novel, his rivalry with Neville seems more tangible than any real love for Elinor. He isn’t sure that he loves her – and this becomes a theme throughout part two, when the two of them do get together.

Part two is set in Belgium in the early months of the First World War. We learn towards the end of the book that the nearby town, where Paul rents a room to paint in and where he spends his free time, is in fact Ypres. The wartime action, because it is not attached to a specific location in the narrative, is less predictable. There is never a sense that this is a story about the war. It is about people and relationships. Another character who appears as abruptly as Teresa leaves is Lewis, a Quaker orderly who joins the hospital about a month after Paul, and whom Paul is expected to mentor.

The few scenes of the wartime hospital and the road to the front are vividly drawn, and the reader is pulled in to Paul’s response to the horror and physical deprivation. This response is, on the whole, to detach himself. We already know Paul to be capable of detaching himself from intense emotional experience. We surmise that this may be attributable to his having lost his mother, who was taken to an asylum and then committed suicide while Paul was still a child.

Elinor is an independent-minded young woman, who seems wholly devoted to art and perhaps misses the point about the war. But the author manages to cleverly juxtapose her dismissal of the war with Paul’s (typically male) attitude to the war as something significant, not to be missed, and relevant to art. Elinor’s approach may have been popular with artists of the time, but I feel that she also displays the female view that war cannot be justified and is always a waste. That this view was not popular in 1914-15 is made very clear, with references to bullying families and persuasive poster campaigns. Paul, though able to see things analytically, goes along with the war. Elinor tries to ignore it. Her association with the Bloomsbury set is an act of defiance towards her family and towards Paul.

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Read in December 2009