Regeneration, by Pat Barker
1991, 250 pp.
I would suggest that someone write a survey of modern female British writers who have an obsession with the First World War, had Terry Castle not already beat me to it in the London Review of Books. Of them Lyn Macdonald’s documentary histories are indispensable, but Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy is certainly the best known. This is the first volume, released in 1991 to great acclaim; the third volume won the Booker. With these three books Barker vaulted herself into the tiny ranks of universally admired contemporary female novelists.
Regeneration is about equal parts fact and fiction. The catalyst is a declaration written by Siegfried Sassoon protesting the continuation of the war, and his time spent at Craiglockhart mental facility as a result. Sassoon was one of Britain’s great anti-war poets, and he really did write that declaration and spend time at Craiglockhart. He really was treated by the brilliant psychiatrist named Rivers, really was friends with Robert Graves (who wrote the famous anti-war memoir Farewell to All That and several antique military historical novels of which I, Claudius is the most famous but Count Belisarius is probably the best) and really did meet Wilfred Owen while in the hospital. All of this is true, and Barker took quite a risk in adopting these famous and famously articulate men as her characters. This gambit succeeds brilliantly: indeed, for my money the book’s greatest strength is Barker’s command of her characters’ voices. Each has his own distinctive diction and tone, with never a wrong note. They sound exactly how educated, refined, sensitive people under tremendous social pressure who have been through horrible experiences and are now in psychological torment ought to sound. As you can imagine, this is quite a feat. This skill extends even to minor characters, who are drawn with speed and efficiency. Look how quickly she defines the limits of one character's world:
"In her world, men loved women as the fox loves the hare. And women loved men as the tapeworm loves the gut."
There is also a character named Prior, who is fictional, and therefore allows Barker to escape the confines of the mental facility. Prior adds a dash of romance and a female character when he meets a winsome factory worker in Edinburgh; regrettably, this affair ends with a passage which ought to have won Barker the coveted “Bad Sex in Fiction” award.
Aside from Barker’s control of voice, the sections (all too brief!) in which Sassoon and Owen collaborate on their poems are excellent, if for no other reason than that it is inherently fascinating to watch people be good at something.
Despite being a good book overall, I confess I often felt that it was one which lacked motivation. There is no conflict between Sassoon and Rivers, nor even is Sassoon particularly the main character, since Prior gets at least as much attention, and his conflict is of a very genial sort. We do get a sense of the nightmares and flashbacks these soldiers experience, but since they are well-mannered, well-spoken, and well-educated, there’s never any moments of real emotional torment. Nor is there any doubt that Sassoon is quite sane and will ultimately be sent back to the front, all of which adds up to very skillfully drawn characters having very skillful conversations but to no real emotional purpose. Even the final pages in which Sassoon is discharged lack gravitas: he wants to go back, and he does. It is not a defeat, or a death sentence. I assimilated the themes of mental anguish and slow recovery, of undercurrents of social stratification and masculinity, but themes cannot drive a narrative alone. Perhaps I expected a darker and more wrenching book. Barker certainly has a disparaging view of English society during the war, and of the platitudes that demographic produced and consumed in volume. After a prayer, for instance, she writes: "The congregation, having renounced reason, looked rather the happier for it and sat down to await the sermon." Good stuff, that, but hardly a driving fury. Regeneration is certainly good, it just didn’t particularly tell me anything about the experience of war and post-traumatic stress that hasn’t already been dealt with extensively in fiction. I wondered why Pat Barker decided to write such a calm and restrained book. Surely the only reason to write about the First World War, especially about the mental damage of the soldiers who fought in it, is due to some overwhelming passion. I felt no such passion, only considerable skill. Skill is in rather short supply these days, so it is welcome when it is found, so I therefore consider Regeneration well worth reading (indeed, I will happily read the other two books in the trilogy) but nothing more.