Keeping fiction in the past

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Pat Barker’s talent for old wars does not adapt well to new ones. This failure to find power in the present stands as a core failure in British literary fiction

Prospect, August 2003


What kind of people make interesting fictional characters? This ought perhaps not to be a question that needs to be asked. What matters, as E. M. Forster pointed out in Aspects of the Novel, is not who they are but that they are convincing, in the sense that we feel the novelist has not ‘designed’ them but created them. Yet reading the novels of Pat Barker, it is a question that again and again obtrudes. To answer it in a general way, you would have to say ‘People who think’. Even in the case of her most physically active characters – her infantrymen of the Ghost Road trilogy, or the sculptor and foreign correspondent of her latest novel – thinking, or a kind of intellectual dexterity, seems to be their most eligible quality.

She is not alone in this. Since C. P. Snow, Aldous Huxley and Iris Murdoch, ‘thinking’ characters have been privileged in serious British fiction. In the last two decades A.S. Byatt, Ian McEwan, David Lodge have institutionalised thought – practically privatised it – as the province of the universities. (McEwan’s protagonist in Enduring Love is a scientific journalist whose partner is an academic; Lodge’s comic world unfolds almost entirely within the walls of the academy; in Possession the only people who think are academics.) The British ‘literary’ novel of the last 20 years has become, in a sense, more – and less – than a way of fictionally making variations on our experience. It has become an outlet for our fundamental cognitive activity (to the extent that, while praising this cleverness, one can sometimes have the depressing impression that one has sub-contracted the whole business of thinking to invented characters with the proper credentials for it).

If this is true, then it is at least clear that in the novels we read we will want thinkers we can respect. Barker’s Ghost Road trilogy – Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road – offered both action and thought in a radical way, stirring First World War fact and fiction together so thoroughly that, as she suggested in her Author’s Note to Regeneration, ‘it may help the reader to know what is historical and what is not’. The Ghost Road had a flavour and a fascination to its treatment of war which was to do with the source material, particularly in the first novel, Regeneration. The backbone of that novel was the factual meeting that took place in 1917 between Siegfried Sassoon and the anthropologist and neurologist W. H. R. Rivers, and Sassoon’s friendship with Wilfred Owen while he was under Rivers’ care. The second and third novels did not have quite the same urgency and authority, simultaneously prosaic and vivid, of that material, and Barker’s bisexual fictional hero Billy Prior, though promising in some way (comic? sexual? vernacular? one was never absolutely sure), seemed an insufficiently profound part of the story, especially in the makeweight romance he conducted with his fiancée Sarah Lumb. This is a common problem of the novel compounded of documented greatness and pathos and their fictional counterparts. Fact in a novel, given half a chance, will charm the reader with its complexity and reality, elbowing pale fiction out of the door.

The Ghost Road occupies a curious space in British reading tastes. Its novelistic compass is victory and sacrifice, the heroic theme located in the historical past (by no means coincidentally the same space to which commissioners of TV drama return every season). To map that space, one needs to go back to the parting of the ways of fiction between 1890 and 1920, into those who wrote literary novels – Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James – and those who wrote for the masses – Kipling, Galsworthy, H.G. Wells. The interest of the latter three is now historic; writers in a period of transition, when the world threatened social and political change, they were stuck in the old categories of empire, class, property, sexual repression. The Forsyte Saga’s outdated certainties are why nobody bothers to read it any more, and may be why, adapted, it has been one of the most successful TV dramas of the last 40 years. The literary novelists of the era, however, are still read and admired for their prescience – for drawing their power from the reality of changing conditions. How relevant this split still is can be seen in British readers’ continuing appetite for losing themselves in the certainties of historical fiction (‘sexed up’ to appeal to the taste for explicitness – perhaps that was the point of Billy Prior).

Pat Barker’s First World War trilogy established her as a novelist who wrote convincingly about war, about the world lit, in a phrase Graham Greene once used, ‘with the glare and significance that war lends’ and its heavenly and infernal importance. More recently she has moved from the past to the present day, while maintaining her thematic pact with the violence that men do. Her last novel, Border Crossing, was a chronicle of a child killer, and she intends her protagonist, Danny Miller, to reappear in Double Vision under a new identity as Peter Wingrave, an evasive odd-job man and would-be writer who, like a virus, psychologically infects or affects most of the characters: the sculptor Kate Frobisher, who employs him as her assistant; Justine, his girlfriend; Stephen Sharkey, a foreign correspondent who has retired to a cottage in the country to write a book; and Alec Braithewaite, the local vicar and Justine’s father.

If it is about one thing, Double Vision is a novel about reverberations of violence, of the murder committed by Peter twenty years before, of the death of the war photographer Ben Frobisher, Kate’s husband, and of a handful of world-historical events – the siege of Sarajevo, September 11, Afghanistan. Barker unflinchingly introduces these events onto her fictional rural north of England stage. She contrives to have Sharkey, the foreign correspondent, in Sarajevo when Ben Frobisher is murdered, and in downtown Manhattan on the day of the al-Qaeda attack. She also manages to have him take a few days off from writing his book to attend the trial of Milosevic at the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.

I did not enjoy Double Vision. Not because I didn’t like Barker’s writing, often admirably plain in an era of forced style, or her desire to examine themes of violence, and its representation and genealogy. She does not try to analyse the causes of violence, which is in her favour. The novel opens with Kate Frobisher crashing her car on a patch of winter ice, and as the branches of a tree shatter her windscreen and ‘[claw] at her eyes and throat’ the reader understands that violence is in nature and thus in humanity, random and bilateral. Yet here once again, as she did in The Ghost Road, she writes from the top down; she does not start with an individual, but with an angle. This is one of the reasons why her characters think rather than feeling, because they are subordinate to the historical or journalistic reference points that they represent, mouthpieces for the ideas the author wishes to explore. In E. M. Forster’s terms, these are characters designed, not created. Steven Sharkey, for example, who apparently needs only three months to write what he intimates to the reader will be a serious attempt to discuss the representation of war, refers to the book’s substance only once. Conversely, the events invoked – Sarajevo, Afghanistan, 9/11 – may be dramatic, but these invocations are shortcuts to significance. This is visible in the one dramatic piece of background that works, and that may have been experienced by the author – Double Vision takes place during the foot-and-mouth cull, and its scent and savagery fill your nose and throat. The other backgrounds – Sharkey’s book, the Milosevic trial (where after the day’s hearing he orders ‘two pints’ from the bar – in The Hague), memories of Sarajevo – are of course legitimate sources to illuminate a foreground. Yet when one says ‘background’, that implies that a foreground exists, and I am hard pressed to say what it is, unless it be a foreign correspondent’s affair with a vicar’s daughter. There are interesting and thoughtful conversations: Goya is discussed intelligently several times as an artist whom Kate Frobisher and Stephen have in common, through his declared paradox that art needs to show the violence it knows – ‘One cannot look at this. I saw it’. But in respect of what really touches the people about whom this novel is told, well, routinely dramatic things happen, in the manner of a TV drama – people are widowed, or begin fucking someone 20 years younger, or do Hitchcockian things (dressing up in women’s clothes) – and when the pace slackens, the stage is set for a further outbreak of random brutality. The narrative reaches for great themes, but the tone is that of an episode of Casualty.

Had Barker not written this novel from the top down, but from the bottom up, from characters that came to her mind in Forster’s ‘delirious excitement’ rather than the coldness of design, she might not have written such a surgical round-up of issues about violence, but instead a novel of our lives, or someone’s life, whose secret life and motivation threw some light on our social and cultural conditions – surely one of the regulators of violence, however random it is. Someone, perhaps, like George Bowling in Orwell’s Coming Up for Air (an unsurpassed portrait of England)or Guy Crouchback in Evelyn Waugh’s own prescient wartime Sword of Honour trilogy.

But such a novel is, at some level, at odds with its society, and she has not written a novel of dissent. She has written instead a novel that is careful not to disturb English mythology. There is a moment in Double Vision when she seems to have slipped back into Ghost Road territory as she recalls the image of a serviceman with a kitbag, stepping down from a train, looking at the surrounding fields, and ‘trudging up half-known roads, unloading hell behind him, step by step’. She concedes that this image may only ever have been a sentimental fantasy but, instead of exploring the idea, reinforces the fantasy by ascribing it to ‘something deeper – some memory of the great forest. Sherwood. Arden.’

Well, perhaps. We are a contradictory race. Not a little of our imagined potency comes from such pastoral emblems, despite their untruthfulness. But they do not help us to face the world, or ourselves. (Pastoral may have given way to urban, and urban to multicultural, but postwar British fiction continues to rely on received mythologies about ourselves of one kind or another.) I am not talking about the need for psychology, or making a plea for more interiority of character – for more ‘interesting’ characters in that sense. I am talking about sociology, an understanding of the social and historical settings we live in, because only sociology can lay bare the context that psychology or ‘character’ functions in. Madame Bovary is the archetype of this fictional approach; Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised is a more recent example. (Significantly, both caused deep offence on first publication for their perceived attacks on society.) Among British novelists, even Evelyn Waugh once said, ‘I regard writing not as investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language… I have no technical psychological interest.’ But Waugh’s language said harsh things about our postwar world, many of which turned out to be true. This way of writing novels is missing from much contemporary British fiction. We reach for, and do not get, grand themes, chiefly because British writers are obsessed with character, and a kind of character class-system – the cleverer the characters, the more ‘literary’ the novel – and lack the courage to describe in detail the society and background that give rise to it.


© Julian Evans 2003

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