As I mentioned, I had a copy of Pat Barker’s “The Ghost Road” lying around on my shelves, a paperback purchased not too long after it won the Booker Prize in 1995. Never thought much about reading it in all that time, not that I remember. It showed up on the LitWWI syllabus that I’ve been sampling, and that might have been the first time that I realized it was the final book in a trilogy. The Booker must have been awarded partly as recognition for the accomplishment of the three books as a whole. Initial advice, to any one considering reading in this area, is to make sure you start at the beginning with the first book, Regeneration, and that’s probably what everybody does at this point, years later. There may be a few people reading through Booker Prize winners (on their iPads and Kindles no doubt) who could still fall into the trap, but it’s unlikely. The books are short enough (right around 250 well-spaced pp. each) that the trilogy wouldn’t be especially fat if published as a whole. That’s the format in which I have copies of FM Ford’s Parade’s End (4 books I think, actually), and Sassoon’s Memoirs of George Sherston.
The three books are very different. It’s almost as if Barker’s main character, Billy Prior, goes through a transformation in each separate volume, starting all over every time while trying to come to terms with defferent, cataclysmic social shifts of the tumultuous war era. Barker’s work does all sorts of amazing and challenging things with the hisorical novel genre, showing its plasticity and making the most out of its scope and potential. She’s mining an intense and rich, multi-layered era, and the story moves through a number of different places and moments within it.
In Regeneration, the first book, you don’t even know that Billy Prior is one of the main characters in the story, and that he is Barker’s primary fictional creation. Barker’s two main characters in the trilogy, as it turns out, are Prior and the neurologist-anthropologist W.H. Rivers. If Prior is Barker’s fictional totem, Rivers is her historical one, the relatively unknown and little-remembered historical figure around which she builds her story, and a foil for Billy Prior. It’s genius stuff, in its way, on the level of conception, and of setting a plan to approach the era and its conflicts. Barker’s execution and style and dramatization are all excellent and first-rate, but the accomplishment and success of the book (again, the trilogy as a whole) starts with the concept of the paired characters and the discovery of Rivers.
I remember an old friend, as I explained Leslie Stephen as my dissertation topic to him, saying that it sounded perfect, an inexhaustible resource that was virtually untapped. I would add that Stephen, like Rivers, was a Zelig-like figure who lived and appeared at a number of literary and historical crossroads, the friend and biographer of George Eliot, for instance, the son of the man who did the legal heavy lifting for outlawing slavery in the British Empire, uncle of a top 5 Jack the Ripper candidate, a specialist in the 18th century and Dr. Johnson who married Thackeray’s daughter and was the father of Virginia Woolf (i.e. Mr. Ramsay), conqueror of the Alps and president of the Alpine Club in the Golden Age of mountaineering. Further exploration would probably reveal whether Barker was reading about Siegfried Sassoon’s presumably well-known stay at the mental hospital of Craiglockhart for shell shock victims when she first heard about Rivers, or if she found him through some other means. With a sustained, major work like this trilogy, with its culminating Booker Prize, it should be easy enough to discover the source of the story. But I mention Leslie Stephen because Barker might have had a similar experience of watching Rivers as a figure suddenly opening up across the pages and intersections of history, revealing himself to be rich and compelling in his own right, while relatively unknown. Rivers turns out to be a truly important, major figure, and Barker’s books have served to crystallize his singularity and significance. He’s a great historical figure, and a fantastic character.
So the main (historical) character in this story is the man who happened to treat Siegfried Sassoon for shell shock in the midst of the war. And the story starts as a relatively straightforward fictionalized rendering of a key Sassoon moment, just after he publishes his antiwar broadside (in 1917, I believe). I’m sure the Sassoon story has been told countless times, but I didn’t happen to know it. I’ll note that I went straight from Barker’s Trilogy to reading Robert Graves’ autobiography Goodbye to All That, and I haven’t read Sassoon’s autobiographical Sherston books yet. I’ll be posting on the Graves book soon enough I hope, and should cover some of this material there. At any rate, Graves interceded on Sassoon’s behalf and had him put up before a medical board. If this hadn’t happened, at least as Graves puts it (it’s evident, but less developed in Barker, I think), Sassoon would have been court-martialed and sent to prison. Instead he was diagnosed with shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart, in Scotland, where Rivers was given his case. Sassoon took his golf clubs north with him.
Rivers is called a “neurologist,” and he sees himself as more of a researcher than a psychologist. His neurology background, as presented somewhat obliquely in this first book, involved experiments in the regeneration of damaged nerves. In Cambridge, before the war, Rivers’ mentor and research partner, Henry Hill, severed the nerves in his own right forearm in order to trace the progress of nerve regeneration. Obviously, this experimental background provides an extraordinarily powerful and fitting theme for the effect of war on society and the individual. Barker uses it all sparingly, never overdoing the nerve experiments or over-explaining things. She has much more work to do with Rivers, and doles it all out slowly, especially in this first book.
It turns out that Rivers is primarily an anthropologist, but he apparently had a fin-de-siecle (late-Victorian? Edwardian?) program to integrate the social sciences somehow, to study man and society through a number of different disciplines. His war service treating shell shock victims (“neurasthenics,” very Proustian) is an inconvenient and deeply unexpected detour, a radical break that’s much like the soldiering and trauma of his patients. Without any intention, Rivers finds himself to be a practicing psychologist, a profession that is forming itself as he practices it under extreme circumstances. Rivers knows Freud (again, barely mentioned, if at all, by Barker) and he has full knowledge of the foreign social science of his day. He’s reaching many of the same conclusions and methods as Freud, but in a seemingly more sympathetic and less determined, individualistic way. His anthropology background had the same sources as Freud’s speculation on primitive man, but as we learn in book three, Rivers took an important research journey which formed his thinking earlier in his career, not unlike Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. Jumping ahead, the third book, The Ghost Road, a bit hard to make out and understand in all of the themes and connections at a glance, traces the repressed violence in society, showing Rivers’ awareness of it as he studied the effects of the British Empire outlawing head-hunting on an obscure South Pacific island archipelago. Repression of violence combines with industrialization to make war on an unfathomable scale. Civilization and Its Discontents, Totem and Taboo, and The Interpretation of Dreams, along with the whole wide world of social science as it stood exactly one century ago, are all operative here.
It’s funny–this book marks the first time I’ve really thought about Freud and his relevance in a long time. He’s been fading pretty steadily. But Barker’s book, without discussing or crediting Freud, and instead establishing the importance of Rivers, makes me think about who Freud was and what was going on with his work as the war began and played itself out. It was all a big part of the beginning of the century and the thorough transformation of society. But it’s interesting how the Freud echoes seem to be growing somewhat faint by the last decade of the 20th century, while he was a big part of the radical transformation that occurred around WWI.
Sassoon is a horseman and hunter and poet who becomes a superb British officer and soldier. He experiences every horror of modern warfare and is completely disillusioned, along with his entire generation. He’s torn between doing everything he can to end the war, and fighting and dying with his men. He’s haunted and traumatized and presents symptoms of mental illness and shell shock, what we would cal PTSD, but Rivers has other patients in much worse shape.
So Barker begins her story by working through this Sassoon moment and settling into Rivers’ work and experience at Craiglockhart. The first book is about the effects and trauma of the war. When we meet Billy Prior he doesn’t stand out amongst the other patients, at least he doesn’t now, reflecting back some time after reading it. The story in this first book is about a home romance, as much as anything, as Billy Prior begins a relationship with a munitions worker named Sarah. It begins as a sexual encounter but Billy, by the end of the book, thinks he might have found some one to love, to care about, a reason to live. At the same time, like Sassoon and the other critical character present at this extraordinary historical nexus at Craiglockhart, Wilfred Owen, Billy is determined to rejoin his men and go back to the fight. Owen, it should be noted, plays a minor role in this and the other books, although he comes a little closer at the end of the third volume.
The problem with writing up a book so long after the fact is that I’m forgetting all sorts of important stuff. Rivers’ talking cure and search for deep-seated conflicts is posed against a London doctor’s brutal use of electro-shock. I’m trying to remember Billy’s specific illness, a memory block about a specific battle trauma, but I can’t remember the source and the way it echoes through Rivers and the other characters. Generally speaking, Barker has worked out a number of rich, evocative and layered strands, and they add up to a profound whole that is impossible to fathom quickly. That’s an extraordinary thing for a book that also achieves the difficult goal of telling a good story: giving you something to think about. It requires thought and reflection, and by the third book the storylines are far apart, with Billy Prior and Wilfred Owen’s return to the front and facing doom, set against Rivers’ sustained memories of his anthropology field studies. It’s very rich, but it would take some figuring to crack it, and I can’t even begin to do it now.
Billy Prior’s primacy in the narrative is revealed in the opening scene of the second book. I’m thinking now that I can break up my writing on Barker’s trilogy into separate posts, if only as a means to get things moving here at the zhivblog. So more to come.