Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Life Class

Life Class
Written by Pat Barker
Reviewed by Nancy L. Horner

Life Class is a tale of art, romance, and survival during a time of war. As an introduction to Barker's writing, Life Class is probably not stellar. Barker is known for her Regeneration Trilogy, also set during WWI. The Ghost Road, the third in the trilogy, garnered her a Booker Prize and I've personally read enough about the trilogy that Regeneration is sitting on a shelf, waiting to be read. I was well aware that I was opening a book by an author with skill. The stinging question for any reader or writer following up a work considered "a masterwork . . . complex and ambitious," must always be: "Can it be duplicated? Will the master retain his or her glory?"

Because I haven't read Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy (or, for that matter, any of her other work), Life Class had to stand as an individual work by an author whose previous work was only known to me peripherally, without basis for comparison apart from what I've read about the author and her writing.

As Life Class opens, the story revolves around a community of artists, a model in "life class" (painting or sketching with the use of a live, nude model), and a teacher by the name of Tonks. According to the author's acknowledgments, Tonks actually existed. A stern instructor and perfectionist in the art of form, the former surgeon had the capacity to make or break an artist under his tutelage.

And, thus begins the story of Paul Tarrant. Paul experiences a scathing criticism from Tonks, which causes him to reconsider his decision to spend his grandmother's money on an education at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Meanwhile, Paul admires fellow student Elinor from a distance, but Elinor appears disinterested in Paul apart from friendship and is, from all accounts, deeply involved with Kit Neville. Kit, a former Slade student who has prospered in the art world in spite of being kicked out of the Slade, is confident in a way Paul wishes to be.

Elinor introduces Paul to Teresa, a life class model who is married but separated from her abusive husband. Paul and Teresa launch into a careless affair and at this point -- close to the beginning -- the story begins to sag. Thinking her dramatic, Paul doesn't take Teresa's warnings about her dangerous husband Jack's threats and his proximity seriously until he has a shocking encounter with Jack. The fallout, however, is minimal.

And, here I must make a departure. There were several occasions during Paul and Teresa's torrid affair that I found jarring by comparison with otherwise engaging writing. It was not, however, the language of their first graphic sexual encounter (which, quite frankly, I would describe as pornographic) but the fact that the course language was ill-suited to the beauty of the author's prose at other times that I found startling. In fact, the aim of the novel appears to be, at least in part, to contrast the beautiful and the base, the violent and the peaceful. If so, the author definitely did a fine job illuminating such contrasts.

Regardless of the intent of specific language, the shallowness of the characters unnerved me. Paul was flat, lifeless and emotionally absent, whereas Teresa appeared to be little more than a directionless escapist who moved seamlessly from one male encounter to another.

Elinor's role eventually grew and as her true character was exposed, she proved to be equally shallow. Kit was the only particularly likeable, enthusiastic character, but his appearances dwindled and he was never portrayed with any depth.

WWI, Barker's area of expertise, actually doesn't become a major part of Life Class until roughly halfway into the novel, when Paul and the other young male characters express their intent to enlist and thus become players in the unavoidable conflict. When both Paul and Kit are shipped off to Belgium, the novel begins to change tone, shifting from letters between Paul and Elinor to narrative in alternating chapters. The story improves, at this point, as Barker shows off her knowledge of WWI -- often by way of vivid, even gruesome, detail contrasted with the tranquility sought by Elinor as she immerses herself in painting (her "work") and attempts to shut herself away from the truth of unfolding war so completely that she appears cold and heartless.

Barker's writing is peppered with flashes of brilliance, but the characters in Life Class were disappointing. As I read, I often stopped to reread a beautifully crafted sentence slowly and then read it again. And, yet, the characters were so unlikeable that I set the book down with a hollow feeling. Besides the contrasts, Barker's story attempted to show that love and art can and should continue despite unfolding tragedy. However, the theme would perhaps have been better served via a set of characters who could see beyond their own obsessions.

Although I found the book disappointing, Pat Barker impressed me with her style enough that I will give her a second chance, next time by dipping into the first of her Regeneration series.

An excerpt of Life Class can be found at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19255881

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