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Unpretty Pictures

By Margaret Black

Life Class

By Pat Barker

Doubleday, 311 pages, $23.95

 

Pat Barker’s new novel brings together her major fictional concerns—sex and its ambiguities, random horrific violence, the condition of women, the British class system, World War I, and (sometimes) love—and molds them ultimately into a meditation on art.

The story, such as it is, opens in a life-drawing class at London’s Slade School of Fine Art in 1914. Paul Tarrant, a young man who is paying his tuition with a legacy left by his grasping slumlord grandmother, gets a devastating critique from a famous (real-life) teacher of drawing and slams out of the building to walk off his fury and self-doubt. He stumbles off to the Café Royal to join his artist friends; there he meets Elinor, another Slade student, who shimmers with ability and the overwhelming desire to escape her constricting middle-class family for an independent life in art. She is sitting with an exotic young model, Teresa Halliday, and a former Slade student, Kit Neville. Kit is “starting to be famous, a circumstance that some people attributed to a talent for painting and others to a talent for self-promotion.” These four—plus, eventually, Richard Lewis—are Barker’s cast of characters.

Upper-class Kit and working-class Paul both love the talented Elinor, who tends to run her men in twos in order to avoid sex or marriage. “Elinor, Our Lady of Triangles,” Kit calls her. Kit is reputed to screw everything in sight, and, despite his wealth, to never take responsibility for the consequences. Paul is also sexually attracted to the beautiful Teresa and starts an affair with her, despite the real threat that the husband she’s deserted represents. Teresa’s basement apartment reminds Paul of the industrial town where he grew up, and which he fled, whenever he could, into the countryside to draw the idyllic landscape. Kit, meanwhile, is successfully painting the hard-edged industrial subjects that Paul suspects he should be producing as well. Elinor simply paints whatever she loves, for only those things appeal to her aesthetic sense and hence are worthy of her art.

Germany invades Belgium, Britain goes to war, and everyone wants (or is heavily pressured) to serve. Kit immediately wangles a position with the Red Cross in Belgium, where he begins painting front-line subjects; Paul volunteers with the Red Cross in France, where he works as a nurse while awaiting the chance to become an ambulance driver. At first he doesn’t paint at all, but under Elinor’s urging, he finally begins to draw what he sees around him.

Paul is also given charge of a new volunteer, a Quaker named Richard Lewis, and, grudgingly on Paul’s part, the two become friends. Elinor infuriates her family by doing her level best not to feed the war monster—she seeks only to paint—and eventually swings into the orbit of Lady Ottoline Morrell and her antiwar Bloomsbury “conchie” friends.

In the romantic sweepstakes over Elinor, Paul wins her just before departing for France, but their lives and their interests keep diverging. The two continue to write—otherwise we would have no novel—but their letters become less frequent.

Life Class touches on sexual ambiguity in a variety of ways: Kit’s father is convinced Kit’s interest in art proves he’s a pansy, and Kit himself has mixed sexual interests, as is apparent in his relationship with Paul. Young Lewis clearly loves Paul, who comes to realize that he loves Lewis as well. Elinor affects an epicene androgynous appearance, partly for protection, but partly also because it reflects her desire to live a life outside of sex altogether.

The horrors and idiocies of war that Barker has developed so surely in her Regeneration trilogy find replication here, especially in the Salle d’Attente, the “waiting room” medical station where Paul works behind the lines, and in the story of the French soldier saved from his nearly successful suicide so that the authorities can later shoot him.

The passages about Teresa (to say nothing of the young drunk in the park) show our author continuing to portray everything about working-class life with a sureness that puts your foot right into the rotting vegetables at Teresa’s front door. This world and particularly its women are the bedrock of Barker’s success.

But it is the question of art that most preoccupies Paul (and, I have to think, the author as well). Can the horrific be made into art, or are there some images (as happens in Barker’s novel Double Vision) that are not art, or even necessary information, but simply a grotesque invasion of privacy? “It’s like painting a train crash,” says Elinor. But under the impact of his experiences, Paul must produce images that reflect what he cannot avoid. He knows for a certainty, moreover (having shown a drawing to his former Slade professor), that he is at last achieving something significant. So too with our author, who claims to have found her art only when she stopped telling nice sensitive short stories, her equivalent of Paul’s escapist rural landscapes, and finally wrote the gritty ugly tales of harassed working-class women in her first novel Union Street.

 


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