Regeneration, by Pat Barker
Finally, a spare minute to write a quick book update! Seems like it’s been forever.
Siegfried Sassoon was an English poet and soldier known for taking an anti-war stance and satirizing it in his work. When he declared the war unjust in 1917, he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital rather than court-martialed. He was treated by one Dr. Rivers, who did not hide the fact that his primary responsibility was to make Sassoon fit once more for service, regardless of his own feelings about the war or anything else.
I’m not sure which parts of the narrative correspond to real life events and which don’t, so from here on out it’s safe to assume that the story I’m telling is fictional.
Barker has a wonderful talent for using few words, and seemingly little effort, to say so much. This is a war book that is more about psychology than action, and Barker offers some wonderful insight into the psychological and sociological impacts of war. My favorite of these insights all had to do with masculinity, and there were plenty of these, mostly related through the musings of Dr. Rivers. For example, in thinking about new ways in which to get his patients to truly deal with their fears, emotions, and trauma, he must redefine masculinity itself so as to encompass the ability and were-withal to do so, so that they do not feel that he is trying to render them sissies, something they feel already just in being unable to handle life–and death–in the trenches.
Later, in noting one of the many paradoxes of war, he wonders that
this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was…domestic. Caring. As Layard would undoubtedly have said, maternal. And that wasn’t the only trick the war had played. Mobilization. The Great Adventure. They’d been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure–the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they’d devoured as boys–consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed. The war that had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down. –p. 107-108
But whereas mens’ roles and mobility were restricted by war, womens’ were expanded and, in River’s view
it was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were inclined to point to as the explanation for their condition. That would help to account for the greater prevalence of anxiety neuroses and hysterical disorders in women in peacetime, since their relatively more confined lives gave them fewer opportunities of reacting to stress in active and constructive ways. Any explanation of war neurosis must account for the fact that this apparently intensely masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace. –p. 222
And this, on the tougher policing of sexuality in wartime:
…it’s not very likely, is it, that any movement towards greater tolerance would persist in wartime? After all, in war, you’ve got this enormous emphasis on love between men–comradeship–and everybody approves. But at the same time there’s always this little niggle of anxiety. Is it the right kind of love? Well, one of the ways you make sure it’s the right kind is to make it crystal clear what the penalties for the other kind are. –p. 204.
So, yeah, Dr. Rivers’ thinking about war, sexuality, and gender roles was, to me, the most interesting part of the novel. But I also appreciated its’ snappy dialogue and can easily understand why this book is widely regarded as required anti-war and WWI literature. I’m interested to take a look at the other two books in Pat Barkers’ trilogy, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, and will be seeking out the movie adaptation of Regeneration.