Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Regeneration

Listening to:

Alkan, Motifs for piano, Op. 63, No. 5 (Les Initiés)

Just read:

Pat Barker, Regeneration.

This is a very good novel set during World War I in a Scottish hospital for shell-shocked soldiers. Central to the story are two real people, Siegfried Sassoon, there as a patient, and W. H. R. Rivers, a leading doctor at the hospital. This encounter really did happen, so Barker is presenting a fictionalised account of what might have happened. She does a very good job of it.

Sassoon is in the hospital because he has publicly condemned the conduct of the war and refused to return to it, and because the authorities (and Sassoon’s friends) wish to put him in a hospital as a head-case rather than in prison as a conscientious objector. Once there, he encounters the enlightened Rivers, as well as a number of other seriously disturbed soldiers. While there he also meets Wilfrid Owens. Owens is the author of Anthem for Doomed Youth, which begins

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

Sassoon, already an established poet at this point, helps Owens get his opening lines into just this shape, in what is an effective, if inevitably speculative scene.

Owens and Sassoon both eventually go back to war (it’s not easy to understand Sassoon’s motives, though their complexity is conveyed well), but the book is as much about Rivers’s career, and there’s quite a bit of theorising on just what the right thing to do is in a situation where patients are disturbed in novel ways, and where if made well, they are likely to be put right back into the situation that made them ill in the first place.

Regeneration is the first book of a trilogy; one that I look forward to completing.

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