True to life

Pat Barker has always been at her best when writing about the battlefields of the First World War. It is clearly an era to which she is well attuned, and this shines through in her novel Life Class. The novel opens in pre-First World War London during a life class at the prestigious Slade School of Art. Paul Tarrant, one of the students, is having problems with his work, and is becoming more and more disillusioned with his ability as an artist.

When war breaks out Paul is sent to the Western Front at Ypres as a ward orderly and later an ambulance driver. It is here that he will rediscover his artistic soul, painting brutally explicit pictures of the war as he sees it. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Elinor, a fellow Slade school pupil, an extremely talented artist, and bitterly opposed to the war has headed in the opposite direction, painting pictures as far removed from the war as possible.

The Tarrant character is partly modelled on the First World War artist, Paul Nash, and in the same way that Barker's earlier Regeneration trilogy investigated the relationship between conflict and literature, and how literary men survive and make their way through war, Life class examines the same question from the perspective of fine art.

Ultimately the question that this novel presents is - what is the purpose of art? Is it a reflection of life, a response to the artist's condition, or is it designed for ornamentation and to uplift? Are these views of art incompatible, or is there space for both of them? At the end of the novel these questions are left unresolved, as are the tangles of relationships of the principal characters. But the questions linger on long after this provocative novel has been closed and the last page turned.


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