Pat Barker‘s Regeneration Trilogy is the best work of fiction ever written about World War I (I know!, but I’m sticking to it). The first volume, Regeneration, is set at the Craiglockhart mental hospital and dramatizes events in the lives of the famous early psychiatrist W.H.R Rivers, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the writer Robert Graves (author of I Claudius), and others.
The second book in the series, The Eye in the Door, follows another character from Craiglockhart, the fictional (as far as I know) Billy Prior, as he tries to cope with life on Permanent Home Service in London during the war. Prior was shell-shocked and belligerent at Craiglockhart, and in London begins experiencing split-consciousness breaks-in-time, during which he’s out walking around doing things that Prior in his right mind wouldn’t have chosen. He’s still undergoing analysis from Dr. Rivers, and still grappling with class anger and the things about himself he finds difficult to accept—sexual sadism, a taste for boys as well as girls, shame over his perceived weakness in being psychologically injured by the war.
Prior works in war intelligence, and his story intersects with two real-life events of the time, the first a trial of a working-class woman framed and imprisoned for activism against the war. (In this telling, an old friend of Prior’s, framed by his department). And the second the Pemberton Billing trial, which was a high-profile anti-gay muckracking event trumped up by some crazy people obsessed with gayness. (Hey, we’ve seen that before.)
On the first level, Barker’s books are page-turners and really fun to read. But they’re also deeply complex, and this one circles around surveillance, both of the self and of the social other. In Regeneration, Prior’s ultimate war-horror moment was the memory of picking up a soldier’s disembodied eye. Here that eye becomes an “eye in the door” representing state surveillance. The book’s political events make clear that the surveillance is of the working class and of other elements perceived as needing policing—gays and lesbians.
As I think about it, the book’s two poles of psychology and policing bring out the ways in which social policing was central to the psychology of the war effort. The policing was literal, like in the articles in Pemberton Billing’s right-wing newspaper that contended that Germans were turning Englishmen gay in order to erode their manhood and win the war. But also deeper, as we see how the constructs of manhood and class obligation kept people like Sassoon fighting the war, despite knowing that the whole thing was bullshit.
Prior, as a working-class man elevated to officer status is torn between being the police (he works in intelligence) or the policed. His split-consciousness moments—where he’s literally unable to see himself—could be so many things. An urge to hide from the eye of society…. or an urge to hide from his own eye.
Here is a therapy scene between Prior and Rivers that further explores the them of eyes and seeing, and gives a sense of how brilliantly complex and fun Barker’s writing is.
“‘You know…’ Rivers hesitated and started again. ‘You must be wary of filling the gaps in your memory with …with monsters. I think we all tend to do it. As soon as we’re left with a blank, we start projecting our worst fears onto it. It’s a bit like the guide for medieval map-makers, isn’t it? Where unknown, there place monsters. But I do think you should try not to do it, because what you’re really doing is subjecting yourself to a constant stream of suggestion of of a very negative kind.’
‘All right. I’ll try not to. I’ll substitute the Rivers guide to map-making: Where unknown, there place dressing-gowns. Or just possibly, dogs. Here, have your chair back.’ Prior settled himself back into the patient’s chair, murmuring, ‘Do you know Rivers, you’re as neurotic as I am? And that’s saying quite a lot.’
Rivers rested his chin on his hands. ‘How do you feel about that?’
‘Oh my God, we are back to normal. You mean, ‘Do I feel a nasty, mean-spirited sense of triumph?’ No, I’m mean-spirited enough, I’m just not stupid enough.’ Prior brooded for a moment. ‘There’s one thing wrong with the Rivers guide to map-making. Suppose there really are monsters?’
‘I think if there are, we’ll meet them soon enough.’
Prior looked straight at Rivers. ‘I’m frightened.’
One of the many things that impresses me about this scene is that even in this small snippet it’s clearly written from Rivers’s perspective. The whole book is voiced in close-third-person, but which third person changes from chapter to chapter, with most but not all belonging to Prior. Yet it’s totally obvious that we’re with Rivers, not Prior. It’s also funny, and the dialog does a lot of work without seeming to.
I’m counting this book as 39 and 40 in my reading list for this year because I re-read Regeneration recently as well and never managed to blog about it. And I may start reading The Ghost Road, the last one in the series, tonight. They’re so good.