Every day in this hospital one was brutally reminded that the worst tragedies of the war were not marked by little white crosses. (p 150)
Continuing to work my way through Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy of WW1 novels – they’ve been sitting in my reading pile for years, but always with other books on top of them. They are living up to the anticipation.
The Eye in the Door is the second in the series, looking at the work of psychiatrist and anthropologist Dr William Rivers. Where Regeneration viewed the war from the safety of Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, The Eye in the Door takes us to London and beyond. Where several characters in Regeneration were actual people, the central character in The Eye in the Door is Billy Prior, whom we met as one of the few fictional folks in Regeneration.
Barker mixes fact and fiction to explore further the extent to which humans can detach and compartmentalize parts of themselves for survival, and the cost of that dissociation. Prior is neither fish nor fowl in every aspect: a working class boy who makes good as an officer; breaking down in the face of war; spying for the Ministry of Munitions to warn or betray his childhood peers; keeping the secret of his bisexuality; developing a fugue personality.
We see how he and others struggle to maintain sanity. And question if it is sanity to continue fighting in a seemingly senseless war. Is it more courageous to fight or to stand against the war?
Siegfried Sassoon makes another appearance, too. He also copes by being two people: “the anti-war poet and pacifist; the bloodthirsty, efficient company commander.” (p 233) One experience feeds the other. The duality tears him apart.
Again, the author’s note is a good starting place to understand the historical events that give context to the story. As the war turned against the Allies in early 1918, paranoia ramped up with the fear of loss. Conscientious objectors, unionists, pacifists, homosexuals … anyone ‘different’ was the target of suspicion. (Hmmm … things haven’t changed much 100 years later.) Behind every tree was a plot to assassinate political leaders and accusations of homosexuals and lesbians open to German corruption and blackmail.
“I can see the war’s going pretty badly and there are always going to be people who want scapegoats instead of reasons, but … Why this? I can see why people with German names get beaten up … or or interned. And conchies. I don’t approve, but I can understand it. I don’t understand this.” …
“I think it’s the result of certain impulses rising to the surface in wartime, and having to be very formally disowned. Homosexuality, for instance. In war there’s this enormous glorification of love between men, and yet at the same time it arouses anxiety. Is it the right kind of love? Well, one way to make sure it’s the right kind is to make public disapproval of the other thing crystal clear.” (pp 155-156)
I’m looking forward to the end of the trilogy.