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About this book

Pat Barker is one of the leading British political and historical novelists of her generation. This introduction places her fiction in historical and theoretical contexts. Including a timeline of key dates and an interview with the author, Rawlinson establishes the cultural importance of her work and provides an overview of its critical reception.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Timeline

Abstract
1960 Harold Macmillan ‘Winds of Change’ speech, Cape Town, South Africa John F. Kennedy elected as US President Aged six, Kazuo Ishiguro arrives in Britain
Mark Rawlinson

1. Introduction: Why Should We Read Pat Barker’s Fiction?

Abstract
The novel as a genre has become progressively more up-to-date in its subject matter. In the opening lines of Adam Bede (1859), a landmark of English literary realism which concerns the lives of working-people, George Eliot attributes to the medium of ink a strange power of divination, strange because it was not a power of prevision and prophecy, but of retrospect, of ‘far-reaching visions of the past’ (Eliot, 5). Published in the year of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Eliot’s novel of ordinary, modern life was set during the wars against Napoleon, indeed in another century (1799). The fiction of our era can be more contemporary in its setting than Eliot’s, though as the work of Pat Barker so strikingly illustrates, it may be historical fiction simultaneously. One way of answering the question why we should read Pat Barker’s novels is to point to the way her novels seize on the contemporary, and in particular the ideas and values with which we inhabit our contemporary world, to provide far-reaching visions of the present. But to emphasize the novels’ temporal relevance is to risk overlooking what makes these topical statements novels in the first place.
Mark Rawlinson

Major Works

2. Union Street and Blow Your House Down

Abstract
This chapter evaluates Barker’s first two published novels, Union Street (1982) and Blow Your House Down (1984), stories about urban, working-class communities of women. Given that her later novels have a particular interest in masculinity, and become more and more concerned with middle-class lives, it might seem perverse to relate these early books to the rest of Barker’s oeuvre in terms of a model of repetition rather than one of rejection or supercession. But ideas of return are a major thematic component of her books, most obviously in the therapeutic and historiographical aspects of her numerous renderings of the experience of the Great War. The novels are not only about repetition, they are acts of repetition in their own right. This latter attribute has two dimensions. One concerns Barker’s allusiveness, her adaptations and borrowings. The other concerns her writing’s relationship to itself, and in particular the way later books reconfigure earlier ones (as will become apparent in the next chapter’s account of what Barker has referred to as her change of sex). Not only are these intertextual relationships a significant effect in the style of Barker’s early storytelling, they also anticipate the developments of her later 1980s fiction prior to what has come to be seen as her breakthrough book, Regeneration.
Mark Rawlinson

3. Liza’s England (The Century’s Daughter) and the Man Who Wasn’t There

Abstract
In Midnight’s Children (1981), Salman Rushdie hitched the birth of his narrator Saleem Sinai to the moment of Indian independence (perhaps in imitation of Soviet ‘children of the revolution’ like the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, born in the wake of October 1917). There is no such political logic to Barker’s character Liza Wright, née Jarrett, being front page news as ‘the Century’s Daughter’. The German director Edgar Reitz, in a series of films for West German television, Heimat — Eine deutsche Chronik (first broadcast in the UK in 1984), gave his matriarch Maria Simon the same 1900 birth date. Reitz’s narrative spans the years 1919–82 so, like Barker’s, it is a story of a national century from a family or personal perspective. The start of the century birth date seems freighted with symbolism, but its significance is also numerological superstition, connected strangely with public propaganda for an ideology of progress (Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’, published in a national newspaper on the eve of Liza’s fictional birth, was an ironic riposte to the boosterish optimism with which some greeted the new century in the last days of Victoria’s reign). In this context, the author’s change of title to Liza’s England makes sense.
Mark Rawlinson

4. Regeneration, the Eye in the Door and the Ghost Road

Abstract
The hospitals described by German novelist Erich Maria Remarque in his internationally best-selling All Quiet on the Western Front of 1929 are literally a stage on which to produce the spectacle of war’s material destructiveness: ‘the damaged limb had been hoisted up into the air on a kind of gallows: underneath the wound itself there is a dish for the pus to drip into’ (Remarque, 185). But the theatre of atrocity is played out only before those who are party to the killing; families know nothing of what has become of their sons. Remarque’s soldiers are mute bodies, reduced to their digestive systems and drilled as killing machines. They adapt to war by disowning their humanity; pressing themselves into the earth for cover, it is as if they were reversing evolution.
Mark Rawlinson

5. Another World and Border Crossing

Abstract
Another World presents a contemporary England full of dangers — that is certainly how its inhabitants perceive it — and the novel counterpoints these threats with revenants of the Great War. Nick, an academic psychologist, lives in the ‘shadow of monstrosities’: Peter Sutcliffe, Fred and Rose West and the children who murdered James Bulger are specifically alluded to as the ubiquitous, mediated images of the violence of the age (Another World, 3). Nick is threatened — by the youths in Newcastle’s Bigg Market, by his daughter’s pubescence — but he has also learned threatening behaviour, edging his car at the legs of lads scuffling across the road and gesturing offensively at other motorists (later in the story he is convinced he has run over a girl, as if the aggressiveness of his motoring makes this a likely outcome). The modern everyday is a war zone. Urban dereliction fills the windscreen and serves as an injunction to keep moving — like a war correspondent’s footage on TV; Summerfield, with the old Fanshawe armaments factory boarded-up, is ‘Beirut-on-Tyne’ (11).
Mark Rawlinson

6. Double Vision and Life Class

Abstract
Pat Barker’s most recent novels, Double Vision (2003) and Life Class (2007), are set at what appear to be the margins of modern war, at either end of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm has called ‘the most murderous century’ (Hobsbawm, 1987, 149): Northumbria in the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Slade School of Fine Art in the months leading up to the Great War in 1914. This is not the first time that Barker has chosen protagonists who are artists, but there is a further reflexive dimension involved in the creation of the sculptor Kate Frobisher, and the painters Paul Tarrant, Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville (the latter characters drawing on the historical Slade students Paul Nash, Dora Carrington and C. R. W. Nevinson). These latest novels are about our vicarious relations to human suffering and, ultimately, about our reading, and her writing, of fictions of military violence such as the Regeneration trilogy.
Mark Rawlinson

Criticism and Contexts

7. Critical Reception

Abstract
There are a number of ways of accounting for a writer’s reception, for the way their work has been received, and one can begin by asking received by who? The word reception has several senses, which suggest the range of our potential concerns here: a theatrical ovation, acceptance or admittance (‘into a place, company, state’), a radio signal getting through without interference. Indeed, one can construct a revealing history of literary studies according to the relative importance given to the way writing is received: for instance, Aristotle’s theory of tragedy (fourth century BC) is very much concerned with the effects of performance on the audience, but by the time literary study had been established within Anglo-American universities in the mid-twentieth century, such talk had been outlawed as the ‘affective fallacy’, the error of confusing the verbal and formal properties of the literary work with its psychological effect on a reader. Indeed, the successful reception or admittance of English in the contest for authority among the modern university faculties can be identified with the dissemination of the formalist procedures of close reading or practical criticism. It can also be linked with broadly shared assumptions about which works were worth expending critical scrutiny upon.
Mark Rawlinson

8. Author Interview

Abstract
MR Can I begin by asking you about Life Class and its relationship to Regeneration: what I’d like to explore is why and how you returned to the terrain of the First World War.
Mark Rawlinson
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