Posted by Sari
Actually, I had written this quite some time ago, but wanted to wait for a bit for reasons to do with uni entrance examinations. But here goes: my favourite book(s) number two:
Which is Pat Baker’s Regenration –trilogy, a series of books about shell-shocked British officers during the First World War. It is an inspired series which weaves together history, metaphor and fiction better than any other book I know, and does it in so many ways.
At the center of the trilogy is the real and fascinating figure of doctor W.H.R. Rivers, an MD, psychologist and anthropologist who during the war was assigned to treat officers with war neuroses. Among his real patients was lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, a poet and decorated solider who in 1917 became so disgusted at war that he chucked his medals in the Mersey and wrote a declaration to be read in the House of Commons denouncing the continuation of the war. He was shipped off to Scotland to be treated by Rivers in order to avoid a scandal. Regenration, the first novel in the series depicts the debates about the justification of the war between Rivers and Sassoon, the friendship between Sassoon and fellow inmate Wilfred Owen and Rivers’ efforts to break through to patients really suffering from what today would be termed PTSD.
The next book, “The Eye in the Door” continues to trace the friendship between Rivers and Sassoon and the consequences of that friendship to Rivers’ world-view, but it centers more on a fictive patient of Rivers, Billy Prior who is a “temporary gentleman”, a working-class solider who has risen through ranks to be an officer. Besides being the liminal character capable (and eager) to transgress all boundaries, Prior presents in this part of the trilogy a new dilemma for a warring nation. As Rivers has to make sense of the world were he is curing patients so that they can be sent off to the front to be killed, Prior has to come to terms with his guilt regarding the inhumane way the state (and he himself as a representative of that coercive war-time regime) treats conscientious objectors, and to lesser extent others who do not wholeheartedly buy into the great nationalistic project.
The last part, Booker winning “Ghost Road” is in a strange way the most lyrical of the three and alternates between depictions of Owen and Prior back in France, Rivers in London and Rivers’ memories of his anthropological trips to pacific island headhunters whose culture is in crisis because westerners have banned head-hunting and thus destroyed the cultural equilibrium of the islands.
There are number of reasons why this trilogy is maybe my favourite work of fiction in the world. Firstly, it is the only historical novel I have ever read that has prompted me to read more about the subject-matter and that has not destroyed one bit of the effectiveness of the novel. Rivers’ own writings, his biography, Sassoon’s actual autobiography, his fictionalised autobiography, and biographies, Owen’s biography, Showalter’s “Female Malady”, Fussell, other works on FWW PTSD… I can situate all that in the novel and not cringe. That is not to say that Baker’s novel tells the truth about the war - the revisionist WW1 historians have severly criticized the fusselian take on the war experience – but it can and does tell a truth.
The second, and even more important reason why I love the books is the masterly way in which Baker uses the web of connections between the real persons and events as very powerful metaphors. For example, stammering was one of the most common symptoms of war neuroses in officers. Rivers stammered. So did rev. Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), a friend to Rivers’ father. Rivers father, also a clergyman, was also a speech-therapist. These are historical facts, but the way Baker interconnects them through Rivers and makes the power-relations of utterances one of the central themes in the book is nothing short of uncanny. Another example: before the war Rivers worked with his friend Dr. Henry Head in an experiment where they traced the regeneration of nervous system. They severed Head’s radial nerve, then sutured it and during the period of five years Rivers tested Head’s hand by pricking it with needles to see how and how the nerves regenerated. They named the two stages of nerve generation the protopathic, where the stimuli are percieved as painful and poorly localised and epicritic, where responses to stimuli are gardeable and localisation can be percieved. In the book this experiment and its results act as metaphors for the process of trying to deal with the war trauma from the unlocalised suffocating pain of the trauma to the gradable, localised pain achieved by therapy. For Rivers the experiment functions also as an allegorical reminder of the pain he caused/causes while dealing with his patients.
My third reason for admiring Barker’s trilogy can actually be seen as one of the central themes of the novels, the justification of war and violence. It carries through all three volumes, beginning with the discussions between Rivers and Sassoon where they in a way convince each other that the other is right, and ending in Ghost Road where the debate is lifeted out of this particular conflict by interspersing the text with passages of Rivers anthropological studies in the South Seas. On one hand there is a sensless slaughter in Europe bitterly described by Owen in Abraham and Isaac, on the other there is the Pacific head-hunter culture which through Rivers eyes looks like a dying idyll, because traditional outlet for tribal violence has been shut down western missionary culture. Neither Rivers or through him Barker find easy answers to the perpetual dilemma of the violence of humanity, but the trilogy, unlike many other fictive and historical works does at least face that question head on.
And if you googled yourself here because Regeneration is the entrance exam book for English Philology this year in Helsinki University, congrats. It is a great book to take apart and put together again.