Recommended Reading: Life Class and Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

One of the many gifts my father has given me is sharing his lifelong interest in World War I, that brutal period in history that often disappears into its sequel’s shadow. The war was terrifying in its intensity, its stagnation, its sheer totality. And it also produced some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century before an entire generation of young poets, novelists, painters — an entire generation of young men — was wiped out.

[Which is not to say that that women didn’t suffer didn’t the war, or that there were no incredibly talented women writers and artists of the period; see my earlier post on Anna Akhmatova.]

Some other time I’ll write a post on my recommended reading on the war, but for now, let’s talk Pat Barker.

If you haven’t read Ms. Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road), drop everything and make a run for your neighborhood bookstore. The trilogy is complex and marvelous, focusing especially on the war’s psychological effects on soldiers. Particularly masterful is the way Barker blends fact and fiction; her characters interact with historical figures like Owen, Sassoon, and Graves. Readers with STEM proclivities will appreciate her fine understanding of scientific and medical concepts.

As you might imagine, I was delighted to run across Ms. Barker’s lastest book, Toby’s Room (2012), in our local library a few weeks ago. It wasn’t until I read the jacket copy after I finished the novel that I realized that Toby’s Room is a sequel of sorts to Life Class (2007), which I promptly found and read next. I say ‘a sequel of sorts’ because the timelines in the two books overlap, as do the characters, though the focus shifts among them. I would describe the two novels as companion pieces.

Both are concerned with trauma—emotional and physical, resulting from war and from domestic life—and its relationship to art. Once again, Ms. Barker’s characters blend seamlessly into a landscape populated by very real figures. Of particular interest is the work of Henry Tonks, which I won’t say much more about in order not to spoil the plot of the books.

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“Like an ermine mantle tossed over someone’s shoulder”

This week, I’m departing from Shakespeare only to find him again in a short poem, “While Reading Hamlet” (1909), by Anna Akhmatova, the foremost Russian poet of the twentieth century. She’s perhaps best known for her long cycle Requiem, an outcry against Stalinist oppression, which claimed the lives of two of her three husbands.

This little poem is much lighter in tone, though the menace of the cemetery lingers. I wrestle with reading poems in translation, because to me it tends to feel almost like voyeurism, peeking in at something I don’t really have the right to know about or understand. No-one can speak all languages, though, polyglots notwithstanding, and so I must resign myself to translation if I want to read Milosz or Szymborska or Rimbaud or the great Anna Akhmatova.

I’m reading from my copy of the Norton edition of Akhmatova’s poems translated by Lyn Coffin; you can find it here.