A Backdoor into the Present
An interview with Pat Barker,
one of Britain’s most successful novelists
She has a wary look, almost shy, as if she cannot understand the interest in her. However Pat Barker is one of Britain’s most important contemporary writers. And since she won the Booker Prize in 1995 for her novel “Ghost Road”, she has also become known to the international public. At that time “The Guardian” described her as “The woman who understood war”. This could not be more apt because in her main work, a trilogy of novels on the First World War, which she ended with “Ghost Road”, she achieves something extraordinary: She opens a new perspective to the subject, about which everything has been said and written – war.
“The trilogy is trying to tell something about the parts of war that don’t get into the official accounts”, Pat Barker says. “One of the things that impresses me is that two things happen to soldiers in war: a) they get killed or b) they come back more or less alright. It’s really focussing on the people who do come back but don’t come back alright, they are either physically disabled or mentally traumatised.” The focus of the three novels “Regeneration”, “The Eye in the Door” and “Ghost Road”, is not the battlefields of the First World War but the psychological disturbance of the soldiers at the front and the efforts of a psychiatrist to cure men who have suffered from shell shocks.
The first volume “Regeneration” takes place in a Scottish military hospital in 1917. The patients of Williams Rivers suffer terribly. They either stutter or are mute, they suffer from paralysis or continuous vomiting, hallucination and hysteria. Instead of treating them with the usual electric shocks, Rivers decides on conversations. Only a step-by-step remembrance of the horror can in his opinion lead to healing. “Rivers is one of the real characters” explains Pat Barker, who for her trilogy spent years researching libraries, “he was a psychiatrist who joined the army in 1915, as soon as he could. He was an anthropologist before the war, but he had a medical degree, so he went back to practising medicine for the duration of the war. And he was a very humane, a very compassionate person who was tormented really by the suffering he saw, and very sceptical about the war, but at the same time he didn’t feel he could go the whole way and say no, stop.”
Rivers is a sort of “male mother”, he really manages with his respectful concern to allow the soldiers to slowly regenerate. Barker describes with humour and sensitivity the intellectual debates, the psychological developments and the sexual undertones of this masculine world. Nevertheless Rivers embodies not only a modern psychological perspective but also a timeless moral dilemma, as he works for the army and cures his men in order to finally send them back to the madness. A conflict which gets so critical in “Ghost Road”, that the psychiatrist is close to a nervous breakdown himself. In feverish dreams he remembers his anthropological research under head-hunters in Melanesia and longs for rituals, in order to chase away the awful spirits of the war. However the war continues. And Rivers’ patients die one by one at the front.
The mother of all wars
Why did Pat Barker, who was educated at the London School of Economics and has been a teacher of history and politics, choose the First World War? “I chose the First World War because it’s come to stand in for other wars, the sort of idealism of the young people in August 1914 in Germany and in England, it was a very idealistic response. They really felt this was the start of a better world. And the disillusionment, the horror and the pain that followed that. I think because of that it’s come to stand for the pain of all wars.” The mother of all wars? She is laughing, “yes, yes, much more so than the Gulf War was.”
Barker has written historical novels, however the ideological background of this war does not arise in the trilogy: “I think what is still relevant today is the attitudes of people to the war and to the suffering the war costs, whereas the ideology of the time seems so dated. There were four Empires desperately trying to maintain their status in the world. And to go into the politics of that would not be of any interest for the people of today, when we all accept that imperialism is a bad idea anyway.” With her psychological and anthropological approach the author has redefined the literature about war and created a modern approach to the historical material.
“The historical novel really forces you to ask yourself all the time what is there in human nature that doesn’t change, because that is what you have to write about because otherwise nobody is interested in reading what you have written anyway.” It is the question on how people can survive after having been traumatised that interests Pat Barker. With Rivers she shares the conviction that remembrance is the prerequisite for continuous healing, for the processing and forgetting of the trauma. However remembering is painful and only takes place long time afterwards. “It appears a lot later, I think that is true for all wars” Pat Barker says. “In the First World War the highest rate of breakdown in England was in 1929, about ten years afterwards. And there just seem to be this pattern where after the war is over people don’t want to talk about it or think about it for a long long time. And then gradually the silence is broken and people do start talking about it and that unleashes all the dimension really and it has to be done at the same time.”
Pat Barker who is now 57, began to write relatively late in life. Angela Carter encouraged her and recommended to choose material from areas that she knew very well. And what Pat Barker knew best, was the world of the Northern English working-class women, single mothers, who try to survive with their children through factory jobs, women who run fish and chips shops, do cleaning jobs or work as prostitutes. For thirteen years she tried in vain to sell her manuscripts. Then finally in 1982 her first novel “Union Street” was published by the feminist publisher Virago. This was a novel, which in 1989 was filmed under the title “Stanley and Iris”, with Robert de Niro and Jane Fonda. In subsequent novels the focus was also on working-class women, protagonists who usually play no prominent role in English literature. Based on her subjects and due to the fact that Barker did not hail from the British Establishment, she was not taken seriously by literary critics, the eternal question was “but can she do men?”. An ignorant remark which made her angry “as if men were some kind of Everest” and which she replied to in the “Regeneration-trilogy”.
Her language which is direct and unsentimental, names in all her novels the significance of gender, class and sexuality and describes them in all their facets. In the “Regeneration-trilogy” these dimensions are at their most evident in the fictive figure of Billy Prior. Prior is a Lieutenant, who has been allowed by the war to rise up from a poor background and who now finds himself faced with the arrogance of the Upper Class officers. He is bisexual, provocative and in many aspects the complete opposite of Rivers.
Is it not difficult to describe sexuality from a male perspective? “I found Prior a delight to write about!” Pat Barker says, “and his sexuality is part of this. There was certainly in England at that time a sense among the upper classes that sex was something you did with the lower classes because it belongs to the animal side of your own nature. And Prior is very aware of this and plays on it and plays up to it. But at the same time he very deeply despises it, he refers to working class youths and for a certain kind of man they are a seminal-spittoon.” And she laughs. Pat Barkers frankness is extraordinary, she is extremely direct and does not shy away from taboos. Through her frank speech she wants to create an understanding for the conflicts within her figures.
“In the Regeneration-trilogy I avoided the kind of language they spoke because at least on our side in the trenches there was this sort of farcical humour which would not be appreciated today. It’s terrible febrile, you just could not use that language” she says. “I think you have to be historically accurate but very very careful not to put people off by any obviously archaic expression which makes them feel that this person who is speaking is somebody very different from me because the truth is he probably is not very different from you.” Pat Barker has a modern and very British sense of humour which is brilliantly developed in numerous dialogues. “It’s a black humour, a sort of trench humour. Yes, there is a kind of black laughter, laughter on the other side of the despair.”
This black humour is also typical of the female figures in the trilogy, who Pat Barker takes great care to portray, even though they do not represent the main protagonists. “In a lot of books about war by men the women are totally silenced. The men go off and fight and the women stay at home and cry basically, this is the typical feature. And the women in the trilogy are always deeply significant, and whatever they say in whatever language they say it in, it is always meant to be listened to very carefully.” The women in the trilogy organise life on the home front and they are aware that they are involved in an absurd and contradictory manner in the logics of war. “There is a group of women in an armaments factory, where one of the women has tried to get an abortion of an unwanted baby, and the doctor who copes with her after she had this abortion is very hostile to her: ‘You have destroyed a human live, you wicked, terrible women!’ And these women are talking about that sitting around the table in which they are threading machine gun bullets into machine gun belts. This mass slaughter is alright, one child down the drain all wrong.”
Despite the huge success of the trilogy, Pat Barker has not changed her lifestyle. She seems uncomfortable in the limelight and lives a secluded life with her husband in Durham, in the North of England. It is here that she wrote “Another World” and another novel which is due to be released soon. With her latest novels Pat Barker has gone back to contemporary plots. She does envisage writing historical novels again in the future: “I think there is a lot to be said for writing about history, because you can sometimes deal with contemporary dilemmas in a way people are more open to because it is presented in this unfamiliar guys, they don’t automatically know what they think about it, whereas if you are writing about a contemporary issue on the nose, sometimes all you do is activate peoples prejudices. I think the historical novel can be a backdoor into the present which is very valuable.”
Union Street (1982),
Blow your House Down (1984),
The Century’s Daughter, now titled: Liz’s England (1984),
The Man Who Wasn’t There (1989),
The Eye in the Door (1993),
The Ghost Road (1995),
Another World (1998).
For more information on Pat Barker
Wera Reusch is a free lance journalist and anthropologist who lives in Cologne, Germany.
Translated from German into English by Heather Batchelor