Sunday, January 27, 2008

World War I hits home in Britain

A trio of British students is changed by the Great War

Pat Barker has dealt with the Great War with considerable gusto in her Regeneration trilogy. With Life Class she returns to familiar territory, with a group of art students juggling the personal and political as they pass through a landmark time.

Paul Tarrant, Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville are painters, the former two students of professor Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Art. Paul is disheartened at the less than enthusiastic responses Tonks reserves for his paintings, which force him to question his ability as a painter.

World War I does not intrude until well into the book, when a telephone call interrupts dinner and Dr. Brooke, Elinor's father, announces: "We've been asked to clear the beds. Postpone non-urgent operations." A "gloomy start" to the dinner, but "nobody mentioned the European crisis again."

There is a clamor on the part of the young to join the war effort. Paul and Toby, Elinor's brother, stake their claims on letting the war shape their future. Toby, whose father wishes him to become a doctor, too, is enthused about going to war because, as Elinor writes to Paul, "Toby doesn't want to miss the fun, he's got the rest of his life to be a doctor."

Barker builds this nonchalant attitude toward the war in the first part, only to contrast it with its vile degradations in the second.

Paul volunteers his services as a medic in the Belgian Red Cross, and ironically it is the scenes of the wounded, the harrowing stories of the war-returned, that propel his art into another territory. Kit also employs the war to further his career, but unlike Paul's, his efforts are contrived.

The really touching tragedy is that of Elinor, who maintains a fierce passion for her art despite an unrelenting sense that her work is not useful while everybody around her is busy in some way with the war. With Elinor's dilemma, Barker portrays a commitment to art not as inaction, or worse cowardice, but as a hope for the triumph of imagination over intelligence.

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