Life Class Paperback – 5 Jul 2007
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Praise for the works of Pat Barker "Calls to mind such early moderns as Hemingway and Fitzgerald...some of the most powerful antiwar literature in modern English fiction." --"The Boston Globe" "Pat Barker understands the dynamics of psychic trauma and shutdown as well as any living writer." --Sven Birkerts, "Esquire"
About the Author
Pat Barker was born in 1943 and educated at LSE. She has published several novels including her highly acclaimed REGENERATION TRILOGY. THE EYE IN THE DOOR was winner of the 1993 Guardian Fiction Prize, and THE GHOST ROAD, winner of the 1995 Booker Prize for Fiction. Pat Barker is married and lives in Durham.
Top customer reviews
When WW1 breaks out, Paul tries to enlist in the army but is refused on health grounds, and instead joins the Belgian Red Cross as an orderly, where he is exposed to the horrors of war and where "everything stinks: creosote, bleach, disinfectant, soil, blood, gangrene." After a short period as an ambulance driver, Kit Neville, who is proficient in the German language, is put in charge of wounded Germans - but, like Paul, is trying to paint whenever he can. Elinor stays on at the Slade, trying to shut out the war and focusing on her painting - which she is aware is of little significance when compared with the horrors of Paul's existence, but something she needs to cling onto. When writing to Elinor, Paul tells her that she should never feel afraid of telling him about her work, or the parties she goes to, as the thought that there are some people out there still painting, and still thinking that art matters more than anything, is one of the few things that keep him going. After the area around the hospital where Paul is working is heavily bombed, Elinor writes to Paul: "I wish you would take leave. It would be lovely to see you here and just sit in Lockhart's having coffee … or go back home for toasted crumpets by the fire." And, as we read on, we learn how the war affects and shapes the lives of these three young artists and those around them, and of how their art helps them to cope with experiences that none of them would ever have imagined were in store for them.
Pat Barker's writing is direct and insightful; her descriptions of the injuries incurred by the soldiers at the front are stark and vivid, but she also writes descriptively well of pre-war life when she shows the three friends and their cohort spending time at the Café Royal and, later, the author's comparisons of Elinor's wartime partying with Lady Ottoline Morrell, whilst Paul is surrounded by devastation and carnage, make for interesting reading. Ms Barker has researched her subject well - she lists several biographies of painters (including Paul Nash, Mark Gertler and C.R.W.Nevinson) in her acknowledgements section (and Elinor bears more than a passing resemblance to the painter Dora Carrington) - and I found this an engrossing and worthwhile read. I can also recommend 'Toby's Room' which follows on from 'Life Class' and which I think is perhaps an even better read.
Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road are also among some of the finest examples of novels set during the Great War.
I have to admit that I did not enjoy the first part of ‘Life Class’ very much at all. I found the characters unappealing. It was difficult to like any of the students; self-centred and self-seeking as they all seemed to be. I had some empathy with Elinor and her struggles as a woman in an environment where the male perspective overshadows almost every area of life. I kept going though, knowing what a great writer Pat Barker is and how much I have enjoyed many of her books.
The second part – once the principal characters are involved in war – was much more engaging. Choosing the Red Cross and medical sectors, rather than focusing exclusively on trenches and battlegrounds made this different. Paul, the male principal character in the romance element, began to interest me more. The relationship between Paul and Elinor does not develop predictably, although it is central to the story, and that increased my admiration of the book.
Pat Barker based some of her characters, to a greater or lesser degree, on real-life figures. One such is Henry Tonks who teaches at the Slade in this book. He was a former surgeon and drew portraits, long withheld from public view, of the maimed and disfigured by war.
What I will remember from ‘Life Class’ is the work of the Belgian Red Cross in appalling conditions and dealing with unimaginable numbers. It is right that the end of the novel does not come to any definitive conclusions about how people – especially that very youthful generation – were changed.
As to the Art aspect, the challenge of presenting the uglier aspects of life, as opposed to images which are attractive and entertaining, is still an issue, at least in conceptual Art. Even though we have jumped through the hoops of a myriad of movements since then, money and status in the exchange of works through auctions probably dominates more than aesthetics.
I read this book quite quickly and it has lingered in my mind. That is proof enough of a good read.
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