As I was browsing through books whilst shopping for Christmas presents last week, I was surprised at the number of books I randomly picked up that were set at the beginning, during, or in the aftermath of the First World War. The subject seems to have become something of a recent fashion with novelists. I can only think that it is because we are now at a moment in history when we have only two or three people left alive who served in the Great War and, as they are all nearing the end of their eleventh decade, we are on the verge of losing all first-hand experience of one of the greatest traumatic events of the twentieth century. So maybe it is an act of remebering, if not remembrance, that has turned so many novelists to this period in history at this moment in time. For Pat Barker, of course, this is familiar territory, having received critical acclaim for her Regeneration Trilogy. Life Class is a more modest affair, but a very readable, enjoyable and serious book.
The story centres around a number of young people who are all art students at the Slade Art School in London in the years immediately preceeding the outbreak of War in August 1914. The novel is populated by a mixture of real and fictional characters and the narrative is driven by the various relationships and friendships of the central characters, in particular those around Paul Tarrant. The story follows the student years and his subsequent experiences in the Red Cross in France and especially the bloodbath of Ypres.
Of course, this is all a vehicle for an exploration of larger issues. The clue is in the title (not very subtle). Whilst at art school the characters are engaged in Henry Tonks’s life class, but of course the experiences on the battlefields of Northern France are far more of an education in life (and death). It is amidst these experiences that Tarrant starts to question the role of art in society (and particuarly in times of war) and he begins to conclude that if art is to justify its own existence then it must act as a witness to and commentator on man’s own brutality and madness. On the other hand, his lover, Elinor, who has remained in England relatively sheltered from the horrors of war, retains her Edwardian naivity and remains of the opinion that art is about beauty and should transcend the mundane and the ugly.
It could easily be said that this is all not exactly ground-breaking philosophy on Barker’s part, and I would tend to agree, but we are reminded of the momentous nature of the First World War and how its trauma ultimately changed society – things could simply never be the same after the horror of the trenches. It is events of such magnitude which give us the opportunity to re-examine where we are, how we have got there and where we want to go and we should never lose the opportunity to recognise the failures of the past and take action. That I think is the ultimate message in Life Class and one that has resonance today.