Charlotte Reads Classics

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Tag: Pat Barker

A Return to War With Pat Barker

The other day I realized – this is going to sound really mad – what I really think, deep down, is that the dead are only dead for the duration. When it’s over they’ll all come back and it’ll be just the same as it was before.                      – Toby’s Room

Lessons learned from reading Toby’s Room and Life Class by Pat Barker: read them in the right order. I didn’t. So a word to the wise: Life Class comes first. The two books combined follow a group of art students from 1912 until 1917. As in Regeneration there is a mix of medicine and art, this time focusing on Henry Tonks’ medical drawings of facially wounded soldiers. I enjoyed the two books together, much more than I liked each one separately. There are quite a range of topics covered in the two books but the parts I found most interesting were clashes between the changing attitudes between the younger generation and their parents.

A few Sundays ago I went to see Pat Barker speak at the Imperial War Museum and I’ve tried to remember all the interesting parts!

On History

Barker was always drawn to the First World War because she was brought up by her grandparents. Her Grandfather had a bayonet wound which although she thought was something every Grandfather had is actually very rare, only accounting for about 3% of injuries. She would see this wound every weekend whilst he was washing before going to the British Legion social club. She said it wasn’t pretty, or smoothly healed like a scar from an operation might be. It made such a big impact on her when she was young because he would never speak about it: “best way to get an author inspired – keep silent”.

She was asked about why she writes about real people, and whether it was difficult to speak for them. She replied that using real people as in her novels meant that she had to be as accurate as possible and not say anything damaging to their reputation. Incidentally her favourite character is a real person too – Dr. Rivers.

The best part of writing about real people is how they react to her fictional characters. For example, in Regeneration everyone in the hospital (including Sassoon and Owen) idolised Rivers and the work he was doing to treat psychological war wounds. Therefore she needed Billy Prior to be the fictional difficult patient. He was a way to force Rivers to expose parts of his personality and psychology that he wouldn’t normally reveal.

On Feminism

Someone asked Barker whether she was still the gritty northern feminist that wrote her earlier novels like Union Street. The answer was yes – but only as far as she ever was. She said that because she was originally published by Virago this persona was slightly enforced. She would call herself a feminist but her feminism doesn’t exclude men – hence the focus on male characters in her writing today.

On Writing

Her philosophy is to just ‘keep on going until the end’ because there is no point polishing and polishing a couple of paragraphs if you don’t have anything else to work on. What I found most interesting was something she said about writing a vivid atmosphere. She started by explaining that the Author has to act as the reader’s five senses. Furthermore, when you are writing more often than not you are in the mind of one of your characters. To give a sense of place you should pick out the one detail that your character would notice. The example she gave was that a couple with infertility problems might go into a house and immediately notice a toy lying under a sofa. The challenge is to work out what your character would see.

Had I never read a Pat Barker book I would have been won over – she came across as clever, interesting and secretly shy. The only downside is that she says she doesn’t read WWI fiction: I was hoping to get some recommendations for my reading list, but alas I will just have to read more of her books instead.

The News Where You Are

I am so pleased to be able to say in this update that on Sunday evening I finished Parade’s End! As good as it was, I couldn’t concentrate on it any longer. Look out for a proper post about it later this week, along with an update on my original War Books project (hint: it is a much bigger list than when I started).

So my enthusiasm for re-reading Anna Karenina has not gone to waste – I’m just starting the second part this evening. All the comments on my last post made me look forward to reading it even more and so far it is just as great as I remember.

Yesterday evening I went to a talk called Dickens and the House of Fallen Women which was set in the most amazing library I’ve ever been in. Think of hundreds and hundreds of old leatherbound books on dark wooden bookcases, cracked leather armchairs, fireplaces, a ‘polite literature’ section – it was the stuff of a book lover’s dreams. The talk was good too, which was much needed because I haven’t read a Dickens novel in ages and am planning on Martin Chuzzlewit next month. I’ll give you the two most interesting snippets of the evening:

  • Dickens’ morality runs through all his stories, as he judges which characters are deserving of punishment. Generally speaking they are either female characters who ‘fall’ or male characters who treat women badly. These are always the characters who die. The characters that are able to be saved – i.e. re-establish themselves in society – live.
  • A nature of writing for serial publication was that Dickens often had to drastically change characters or storylines according to readership figures. Now I know why people say Dickens would be writing for soaps if he was writing today!

This afternoon I bought some new books:

On a war theme:

  • Toby’s Room and Life Class by Pat Barker
  • The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston by Siegfried Sassoon which includes Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man – which I have wanted to read ever since I read Rachel’s post back in April, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress

I’ve also picked out:

  • The Charmers by Stella Gibbons
  • The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

I’m really excited to read my first Émile Zola – I’ve picked The Ladies’ Paradise because of the imminent BBC drama and thought a trip to nineteenth century Paris would be the thing, but my hype is really down to Fleur and o‘s posts recently.

Hope you are having a great literary week too.

Regeneration: War Books [7/15]

So, I’m back to war! I actually finished this book just before starting Ulysses but didn’t get around to writing about it until now – I’m currently finding my opinions of Ulysses too difficult to summarise! Regeneration is a fantastic book and I’ll definitely read the rest of the trilogy when I allow myself to buy some more books. Surprisingly, a lot of the same people from Goodbye To All That  appeared as characters in this book which was a nice link – Graves himself, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen being a few.

The story revolves around Sassoon and his decisions to write his Soldier’s Declaration, which was a kind of open letter that stated why he didn’t want to fight in the war anymore. Sassoon didn’t object to soldiering in principle, but he disagreed with what he saw as the prolonging of war and needless sacrifice of young lives. He is sent to a military hospital called Craiglockhart (which was a real hospital) specialising in healing soldiers with mental traumas like shell shock, loss of speech, and psychological distress. It raised lots of interesting questions about what a ‘normal’ reaction to the horrors of war would be, and why some soldiers couldn’t carry on when others did. It was moving to read about how much the survivors were suffering, but they were only being recuperated so they could be sent back to die.

I enjoyed the mix of historical fact and fiction and liked the emphasis Barker placed on war as a psychologically damaging experience, which is something Louisa Young did with My Dear I Wanted To Tell You. Is healing more of a modern preoccupation? The books I have read recently that have been published in the last twenty years or so have tried to continue the story past the end of the war, which I have found fascinating.

I bought this book from a charity shop a couple of weeks ago, and when I picked it up to start reading I found an old photograph inside. If finds like this aren’t a good reason to buy second-hand books, I don’t know what are. I’m slightly obsessed with wanting to find out when the photo was taken, and who the boy is, who left it in the book and why.