Tag Archives: Pat Barker

The Eye in the Door, by Pat Barker, part II

15 Nov

The Eye in the Door, Pat Barker

So, I’ve continued thinking about class in The Eye in the Door, a book which, if it isn’t taught in universities, should be. In the end, Barker’s working-class “temporary gentleman” officer-hero Billy Prior, who secretly sleeps with men, is offered a cushy desk job by an upper-class Englishmen he cruised in the park in the book’s opening scenes. The upper-class man, Charles Manning, has unclear motives for the offer, partially kindness, perhaps, and partially buying Prior’s silence.

I’ve also been thinking about what an excellent writer Pat Barker is. On the micro level it has to do with complexity of scene and on the macro level, it’s the way she plays scenes off on each other throughout the book. The encounter in the park, mentioned above, kicks the book off, and is resolved with the job offer in the final chapter, but why these two scenes are the bracket isn’t immediately apparent. Plot-wise, Prior and Manning’s relationship is minor.

This is the first edition I owned of this book. Long ago loaned-and-lost.

This is the first edition I owned of this book. Long ago loaned-and-lost.

But, in terms of themes, the Prior-Manning connection is at the book’s heart.

Here’s part of the scene after they’ve met in the park and gone to Manning’s shut-up London home:

“All very nice, Prior thought, but not what I came for. He noticed that Manning’s eyes, though they roamed all over the place, always returned to the stars on Prior’s sleeve. Well, you knew I was an officer, he said silently. He was beginning to suspect Manning might be one of those who cannot—simply cannot—let go sexually with a social equal. Prior sighed, and stood up. ‘Do you mind if I take this off?’ he said. ‘I’m quite warm.’

He wasn’t warm. In fact, to coin a phrase, he was bloody nithered. However. He took off his tie, tunic and shirt, and threw them over the back of a chair. Manning said nothing, simply watched. Prior ran his fingers through his cropped hair till it stood up in spikes, lit a cigarette, rolled it in a particular way along his bottom lip, and smiled. He’d transformed himself into the sort of working-class boy Manning would think it was all right to fuck. A sort of seminal spittoon. And it worked. Manning’s eyes grew dark as his pupils flared. Bending over him, Prior put his hand between his legs, thinking he’d probably never felt a spurt of purer class antagonism than he felt right at that moment. He roughened his accent. ‘A’ right?’

‘Yes. Let’s go upstairs.'”

Manning is Prior’s class enemy—the phrase ‘seminal spittoon’ makes that clear. But the upheavals of the war have landed them literally and figuratively in bed together. How Prior will handle it is his emotional arc for the book. After being wounded out of the war, he’s assigned a desk-job in an upper crust intelligence unit, spying on working-class anti-war activists from his old neighborhood. He’s caught in the middle, neither a pacifist nor an accepted member of the unit.

Pat Barker, The Eye in the Door

Another of the book’s themes is surveillance, which dovetails beautifully into class, as the lower classes (and the sexually deviant) are often surveilled. Manning is a minor character, but the few chapters told from his perspective address how his sexuality makes him a target of observation. We’re also privy to some of his thoughts about class, a reference back to the first scene that’s dropped into the stream of Barker’s prose in a way that looks easy but is actually very difficult to do. Here’s Manning describing Prior:

At first, noting Prior’s flattened vowels, he’d thought, oh yes. Temporary gentleman. A nasty, snobbish little phrase, but everybody used it, though obviously one tried not to use it in connection with people one liked. But the amazing thing was how persistent one’s awareness of class distinction was. The mind seemed capable of making these minute social assessments in almost any circumstances. He remembered the Somme, how the Northumberlands and Durhams had lain, where the machine-guns had caught them, in neat swathes, like harvested wheat. Later that night, crashing along a trench in pitch-blackness, trying desperately to work out where the frontage he was responsible for ended, he’d stumbled into a Northumberlands’ officer, very obviously shaken by the carnage inflicted on his battalion. And who could blame him? God knows how many they’d lost. Manning, sympathizing, steadying, well aware that his own nerves had not yet been tested, had none the less found time to notice that the Northumberlands’ officer dropped his aitches. He’d been jarred by it. Horrified by the reaction, but jarred nevertheless. And the odd thing was he knew if the man had been a private, he would not have been jarred, he would have handled the situation much better.

In the end, Manning wields the power of his privilege and offers Prior a job, which Prior declines. The job-offer is a fascinating note to end the book on. On the one hand, Manning and Prior are both sexual outsiders and thus somewhat allied. Manning is offering Prior something of great value—the job would keep him from ever being sent back to the front. Prior says, “Manning’s offer was one for which a great many men would have given an arm or a leg, and not merely in the meaningless way that expression was normally used.” (He’s referring to men shooting themselves to get out of the war.) But in another sense, it’s a naked example of the upper class using its resources to defend and perpetuate itself.

Prior’s choice to decline the job is the happy ending.

“Prior nodded, glanced round to make sure they were unobserved, then took hold of Manning’s pudgy cheeks and chucked them. ‘There’ll always be an England,’ he told him and ran, laughing, down the steps.”

Prior sees how the whole thing works, and escapes, laughing. It’s a wonderful end to a wonderful book.

39. & 40. The Eye in the Door, by Pat Barker

13 Nov

The Eye in the Door, Pat Barker

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.

Beautiful Siegfried Sassoon, just because.

Beautiful Siegfried Sassoon, just because.

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.’

‘I know.'”

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.