Young men and women contemplate the vulnerable human form, first painting nudes at Slade art school, and then aiding the wounded and the dying in the ambulance corps on the Belgian front as war breaks out. It doesn't really matter that Elinor, Paul, and Neville are barely our of their teens, those are the arenas in which life's lessons are learned by young English men and women in 1914. Those lessons are quick, deep and cruel. That is, in some ways, true for anyone leaving childhood behind, but for none was is so true as for those coming of age in World War I. The world is exploding both figuratively and literally. It will never be the same and that is the lesson Pat Barker's new novel Life Class seems most adept at teaching.
She pulled the curtain aside and saw Father and Paul talking on the terrace. The bumble and rumble of male voices reached her but only a few distinct words. Germany, Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, mobilization, ultimatum, alliance, triple alliance - on and on it went. She was so bored with it.
Letting the curtain drop, she caught sight of herself in the dressing table mirror and was startled by her fugitive expression.
- I'm happy as I am.
- Are you? I don't think you are.
No, all right, I'm not. She hadn't been happy for weeks. That night in the Cafe Royal, seeing the expression on Paul's face as he stared at Teresa, she'd felt herself diminished. Neutered. Waiting for marriage was all very well, but suppose you didn't intend to marry? What were you waiting for then?...
More to the point, what was she going to wear tonight?
Barker seems to have a comic take on Elinor. She is a spoiled and young woman, sporting the flat, thin body and the short hair that seemed so anathema to her parents' generation. Elinor took up painting to bide her time until marriage could be achieved. She is idle and has no idea what to do with herself. But while war gives us new circumstances quickly, life still does go on.
I'm about two thirds of the way through the book. While much of Barker's prose on the pre-war antics of her characters reads a bit like soap opera, she sure does know how to write about the historic period in general and the war. That is the realm in which this novel really shines. It a shame we must wait over 100 pages for this novel to really begin.
But now I am done with the novel and it is fair to amend my initial take. It seems to me that what Barker is doing with these two realms - before and during the war - is trying to achieve an important contrast. Before there is a sort of aimlessness in its young artists' experiences. Then the war begins and "snap" goes the rubber band of lassitude - they are shot into a world they are not ready for but that fills their lives with necessity. Even the one character who claims to be unaffected by the war, and claims that war has no place in art, is driven by it nonetheless. The central characters of Barker's novel are artists and so, by extension, the novel is very much about the place of the artist amidst the cruelty of war and in this it excels. Barker has a very tough job to do in the novel's first hundred pages because she is trying to make interesting to us events the characters themselves do not find interesting. I have had this exact artistic problem as both an actor and director because the very things she is trying to evoke make art dull. She too is released by the war and can get to her own purpose, this discussion about the artist and art in times of war.
9/11 fell on a Tuesday, the day of the graduate acting class I taught. Classes were canceled for the rest of that week, but when we returned the following Tuesday it seemed impossible to dive back into acting exercises with the same sense of purpose without first looking at our context. I remember asking my young artists the same question as this novel - "So, what is it like to be an artist today?" The answers were as various as the people answering them. In fact, they became the subject of a piece we created that year and reprised on the one-year anniversary the following September. The final hundred pages of Barker's novel read at a break-neck pace. She ends up reaping what she sowed in the beginning and the book is finally thoughtful and touching on how the things that give our lives value change in the context of war.