War in all its blatant and subtle horror is evoked in Pat Barker’s latest novel. DAVID WHETSTONE spoke to one of the country’s foremost writers of fiction
COINCIDENTALLY, I’m talking to Pat Barker on the day the Booker Prize winner is to be announced. The Durham novelist won it in 1995 for The Ghost Road and has been a rightly revered figure in fiction ever since.
You sense it has been a mixed blessing. With each subsequent novel have come mounting promotional duties ... interview requests or guest appearances.
“It’s difficult to get into a book,” says Pat, the frustration evident.
But then, easing my guilt at having increased her burden, she adds: “You can’t complain because so many writers would give their right arm to get publicity for their work or have been dropped by publishers because they didn’t take off after the first couple of books.”
Those who think any publicity is good might smile – as I sense we both do (this being a phone interview) – at the memory of Pat’s first published novel, Union Street, set in a tough Teesside community in the 1970s.
Hollywood picked up the 1982 novel and (supposedly) adapted it for the screen. It was released in 1990 as Stanley & Iris with the action transplanted to Connecticut, Robert De Niro playing Stanley and Pat’s solid, salt-of-the-earth Iris King transformed – in a way cosmetic surgery could never hope to match – into Jane Fonda, svelte personification of Tinseltown glam.
Since then Pat’s work has been treated with rather more respect, notably her early 1990s Regeneration trilogy set during the First World War and culminating in that Booker winner.
Pat tells me that the BBC is looking to adapt the three books – Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road – into a flagship drama series for 2014, the centenary of the start of the First World War.
After the widely-acclaimed Regeneration trilogy, Pat moved away from the trenches, writing three more novels in which war, if it featured at all, did so obliquely.
Then in 2007 came Life Class, taking us back to 1914-18 and introducing us to a group of budding artists learning their craft at London’s famous Slade School of Fine Art under the formidable surgeon-turned-artist Henry Tonks.
More than a decade lay between The Ghost Road and Life Class.
“It was a long time but I felt I’d left it long enough to have new things I wanted to say,” explains Pat.
“I wouldn’t have done it if I thought I’d be repeating myself.”
It was the artists that intrigued her this time. Paradoxically the First World War saw a flowering of great art and literature while cutting short the lives of many of those responsible.
Pat’s attention was drawn in particular to Tonks and the watercolour portraits he made of soldiers undergoing pioneering treatment for terrible facial injuries. Some of the portraits, held by the Royal College of Surgeons, were exhibited in Durham earlier this year, showing patients before and after surgery.
This would have confounded Tonks who believed the paintings could never be shown in public. But as Pat says, his watercolours went beyond mere medical illustration, paying heed to what the patients were thinking as well as their obvious and horrifying wounds.
Tonks is an important real-life character – though not a central character, points out Pat, as psychiatrist William Rivers was in Regeneration – in Life Class and also in its sequel, Toby’s Room, which was published in the summer and about which Pat will be talking at Durham Book Festival.
A five-year gap separates Life Class and Toby’s Room but I read them together and almost at a sitting. They are beautifully written, with some searing and insightful descriptions of war and its terrible effects.
Pat’s leading characters are young and vivid, their aspirations and relationships coloured by the enveloping European tragedy. Elinor Brooke, who ruthlessly chops off her long hair as an expression of her independence of spirit, brattish and cocksure Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant – quiet, Northern, working class and initially unsure of his abilities – drive the action in both books.
As well as evoking the mood of wartime, the novels crackle with sexuality. Some activities may have been halted “for the duration” but lust, it seems, could not be contained. The protagonists are young and may not live to be old. Indeed, it is the mysterious death at the Front of Elinor’s older brother Toby that lies at the heart of Toby’s Room.
“You don’t read anything about people’s individual doubts and cares in history books, which is what fiction has to give to history,” says Pat.
“History tends to be about the people at the top, the people with influence, whereas the role of most young people is to have things happen to them rather than to make things happen.
“I do like writing about young people simply because everything is fresh and happening for the first time and they’re feeling it so deeply.”
She adds that while the complex Elinor and her friends are fictional, they have, or had, real-life counterparts, as in the Slade student Dora Carrington who sported a dashing bob and was in love with the homosexual writer Lytton Strachey. Authenticity oozes off every page.
Initially, says Pat, she didn’t plan a sequel to Life Class. “I tried to finish it off and tie up all the ends and then realised I couldn’t. I think what swayed it was the Tonks portraits. I got fascinated by him and the conditions under which they were produced and the whole process of telling the truth about war.
“I think there’ll be a third book with some of the characters but I want to project them quite a long way forward, actually into the Second World War, because that generation was made to feel it had dropped the catch, that somehow it should have finished it in a way that made the rise of Hitler impossible.
“There were the next generation, their sons and daughters and nieces and nephews, having to do it all over again. I’ve got a couple of chapters written but I’m at the stage of feeling my way into it.”
At the minute, however, there are the promotional activities to contend with, along with the requests to address audiences about current conflicts. War hasn’t gone away, young people are dying or being horribly injured in Afghanistan and are we really any the wiser?
Even today, says Pat, casualties of war are benefiting from the pioneering work of the First World War surgeons, as depicted by Henry Tonks. “The worst effects of roadside bombs, which cause terrible injuries, we don’t see at all.
“You don’t want to invade people’s privacy but at the same time I think we get a very sanitised view of what war is like.”
Perhaps this is why Henry Tonks’s portraits can still shock and Pat Barker’s fiction jolt you into an understanding of a dark reality.
Pat Barker will talk about Toby’s Room (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) at Durham Town Hall on Saturday at 5.30pm. Tickets: 0191 332 4041.