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the island of conclusions

an overly personal post about books

the island of conclusions

bright star

an overly personal post about books

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bright star
And this, I suppose, is my monthly (audio)book post.

I’m actually really thrilled that itunes/iphone has brought narrative back into my life. I love novels and memoirs and narrative history, but on top of the reading I have to do for work, make it through about two print books a year. But I can get through even a long audiobook in a month or so—mostly while driving (depressing as that is) but some while running (which is win/win, yes?).

You probably know this because I’ve been nattering on about it for a month or so now, but I finally finished the three books of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. This was a re-read/listen—I read them all when they came out from 1991-1995. I found them as enormously affecting as I did the first time around—possibly even more so.

If you haven’t heard of them, they start from the actual interaction of two historical figures—the poet Siegfried Sassoon and the psychologist/anthropologist WHR Rivers, when the latter treated the former for shell shock at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland in 1917. The later books follow Rivers and an assortment of mostly fictional characters through November of 1918 (Sassoon proves to be a kind of stalking horse—he shows up again, but ceases to be a POV character). They are, I suppose, mostly about war and memory (both personal and cultural) and masculinity. Barker, however, shoehorns just about everything that happened in that year into the narrative.

I mostly wanted to post about the novels because they are so different in style than Wolf Hall, the last historical novel I posted about. Wolf Hall is a technical tour de force: 600 pages of a single point of view, all of it tightly embedded in a characteristic thought process. You are hardly ever told what this character (Thomas Cromwell) is like—you just learn what he’s like by understanding how he thinks about the world. It’s a textbook example of the “show don’t tell” dictum—and no less compelling for being so doctrinaire.

The Regeneration novels are shorter and cruder. They fly in the face of a lot of the rules you hear about how to write. Regeneration, the first one, hands out POV to everyone but the dog (and would probably give it to the dog if a dog came on the scene), skipping between characters’ POV within single conversations, something I hate. The Eye in the Door, the second novel, curtails the POV thing, reducing it to Rivers and two OCs, but is as talky as all get out. Characters rehearse their own mental states and political convictions with ridiculous degrees of articulation. The third novel, The Ghost Road, restricts POV even further, cutting it to only Rivers and the fictional character Billy Prior (they are the only characters who carry through all three novels), but makes its cross-cultural comparisons (between Edwardian England and the Melanesians head hunters who were the subject of Rivers’s anthropological research) with all the delicacy of large anvils.

But the thing it, it doesn’t really matter. Even I forgave the POV stuff for the power of what was being said. The talky stuff is interesting. The cross-cultural comparisons are no less thought-provoking for being anvilistic. And all three novels have scenes not just of gut-wrenching emotional impact (the horror and waste of trench warfare, the use of electro-shock therapy on soldiers suffering from shell shock, the treatment of COs in British prisons) but also of tremendously poignant emotional intimacy (both sexual and otherwise).

So, here’s the thing. If I were trying to give someone a model for how to write, I would point them towards the Mantel book. But if I were giving someone—especially someone who doesn’t read a lot of novels—recommendations about what to read, I would send them to the Barker novels.

Which doesn’t make sense, right? Surely one would want to write what you would want people to read. But I think it takes a quality other than skill to write something like the Regeneration novels. I’m not sure what. Something that’s half compassion and half courage? I wouldn't know how to advise people on how to write like that.

I also spent some time thinking about why I found the books more affecting this time around. I think it must partly because the world has seen so much more war since 1995—a new (and ongoing) round of engagement with the problems of sending young men and women to fight in (dubious) battle and the issues those people face when they come back.

Also, the first time I read the books I was closer in age to the soldiers. Now, I’m not only closer in age to the doctor who treats them, but also have spent those twenty years in a profession where being a mentor to younger people becomes more and more important (as a teacher/role model, not a healer, thank goodness), so I was completely pulled into that story in a way I wasn’t before.

And, yeah, now I am also the mother of sons—whose capacity (and desire) to be (probably quite good and enthusiastic) soldiers seems much more apparent to me than that of the men my own age I knew when I read the books the first time. The Barker novels are remarkable, I think, for being so strongly anti-war while also not just insightful but also deeply compassionate/accepting about masculine aggression and the power of violence. And it made me think about my own ambivalence—my kind of atavistic pride in my boys’ physical strength and courage (and yes, warlikeness) and my corresponding unease with it.

The novels, of course, take up the Abraham and Isaac story—given the context, how could they not. But they made me think about mothers who give their sons up to wars. I dug up a link to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Mother and Poet -- worth a read if you’ve never read it.

Happy weekend, folks! I went for a run this morning and it was raining so hard by the end of it my earphones slipped out of my ears and I had to take off my glasses and run blind. Very strange—like being under water!
  • It's pouring over here as well! Floods, up north, and this is only the first day... bad weather has been forecasted all the way to Tuesday!

    I'm always interested in your reviews... they both sound like the kind of thing I'd like to read, but I still have three novels I bought last winter that I haven't had time to read, so huh... *slinks off*
    • floods! ugh--I hope you stay dry!

      no worries--you should see the stack next to my bed of books I'm twenty pages into....audiobooks are the only way I can do it these days (it turns a bad thing about my life--the amount of time I spend driving--into a good thing--I get to listen to narrative!). Both books are definitely worth a try when you have a chance, tho'
  • the use of electro-shock therapy on soldiers suffering from shell shock

    I had read the books first (not when they were exactly new, but in the late 90's) but that scene from the movie embedded itself in my brain so much that any time I watch Grey's Anatomy these days (which isn't often) and see that actor (whose name escapes me) who played the soldier I shudder thinking about it.
    • You know, I've never seen the movie--is it worth watching? It's not on Netflix, so it probably involves me buying the DVD (though I'll check the library)

      But wow--I can't believe they did that scene. It really is the most painful in the first book--if not the whole trilogy (though I think Manning's memory of shooting the soldier drowning in mud in the second and the whole horrible countdown of the first week of November 1918 she does in the second--which may be the most agonizing thing I've ever made myself listen to--are possibly worse) .

      I think it's deliberately worse than anything in the first book, tho'--since it's Barker's way of proving Rivers's thesis--that it's forced inactivity (in that case Rivers's own) in the face of atrocities that is the road to mental agony. Also, it's all the fear he has about medical authority misused writ large.

      //more than you wanted to hear.
      • I haven't watched it in years (I have it on VHS recorded from Canadian TV. Or, er, I may have gotten rid of it in the pre-move purge) but from what I remember it was very good. It blends in some plot elements from the second and third books, but is mainly focused on the first. (BTW, in the US it was released as Behind the Lines instead of Regeneration.) And it had good actors--Jonathan Pryce as Rivers, Jonny Lee Miller as Prior, James Wilby (from Maurice) as Sassoon. That scene with the electroshock was Jonathan Pryce, John Neville (AKA Well-Manicured Man from XF) as the other doctor and Kevin McKidd (yes I looked it up, the Grey's guy) as the soldier--the three of them in a little room, and it was horrifying. Oh, I found the scene here.
        • oh, wow, that is horrifying!

          I see someone has put the whole thing up on Youtube in chunks--I may have to watch it!

          thank you!
  • I read Regeneration a while ago, and you're really making me want to read the whole trilogy.

    I love your observations about technical discipline and compelling writing. Perhaps if you're saying something emotionally true, interesting and saying it well, the technical elements matter less.
    • Well, the second and third books have the problems I noted in the post (and then some), and I think people didn't like them as much (though the last one won the Booker Prize in 1995), but I think they are very much worth reading.

      The first time I read them I was particularly struck with the last one--mostly because I was, and am, really interested in the problem of cultural (or just group) memory. This time, I was struck by the second, which is the one most about empathy, identification, intimacy.

      You might also find them interesting b/c Barker clearly has some points to make about the historical novel as a genre--particularly in its representation of class and sexuality. The second novel (which is very concerned with the persecution of homosexuals in 1918) opens with a detailed gay pickup, and one of the climaxes/cruxes at the end of the last one is a kind ecstatic scene of gay rimming.

      Yeah, I think you're right. I found Wolf Hall emotionally compelling, despite its technical control, but I'm fascinated by the way the passion, or conviction, or something makes the technical sloppiness matter less. (Also, Barker is actually very good with character voice, even when she's jumping around between points of view, so you don't get that flatness I usually associate with technical sloppiness).

      //long response!
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