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England’s northern light

Special to The Times

In 1983, Pat Barker was named one of the best young British novelists by the literary magazine Granta. The list, which has proven to be prescient, also included Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, among others. Barker could not have differed more from her fellow honorees. She had published just one novel, “Union Street,” the year before; at 39 she was pushing the definition of young; and her subject -- the grim life circumstances of working-class women in northern England -- was completely alien to the worldly and London-centric novels of her newfound peers. Further, she wasn’t a part of the London party circuit that that Brit Lit crowd is still so associated with.

Twenty-five years later, that distinction remains in place. Barker continues to reside three hours north of London, and she has never made the gossip or business pages. Instead, she has steadily turned out novels that have been greeted with universal acclaim, never more so than in 1995, when she won the Booker Prize (beating out the heavily favored “Midnight’s Children” by Rushdie) for “The Ghost Road,” the conclusion of her Regeneration trilogy, the work that cemented her reputation as one of the great authors of her generation.

This month, Doubleday will publish Barker’s 11th novel, “Life Class,” which concerns three students at the Slade Academy of Art in the months leading to World War I, then follows their experiences tending to the wounded behind the trenches in France. The book, published in England last August to generally strong reviews, is a return to the historical milieu of Barker’s celebrated trilogy. Gerry Howard, her editor at Doubleday, couldn’t be more pleased about that. “The main emphasis with this book is that she has gone back to her core subject of the war,” he said, “and that is something we want to impress.”

Barker understands, to a point. “I think the return to the First World War has caused a bit of buzz this time around,” she allowed. “But I don’t really think of the books as being about the First World War -- the war itself fades into the background because the themes of each book are quite different. It’s not the way I look at it.”

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Barker tends to see the world a little differently than most -- she’s more sensible and down to earth than most people who spend their days creating fictional universes, and the hype of the publishing industry doesn’t seem to be of interest. Barker continues to live in the university town of Durham, three hours north of London by train. We met in the bar of the Royal Marriott, which serves as the town’s one fancy hotel. It’s a chilly maze of corridors overlooking a river, mostly populated by university students’ parents. Barker arrived early, settling into a corner sofa. She is not terribly excited about the demands of publicity. “ ‘Meet the writer’ things fill me with suspicion,” she said amid introductory pleasantries, “because it’s impossible to meet the writer except in the work. But I think I am basically quite unlike my work. I think I’m much more cheerful.” She is indeed cheerful, yet she is also very much like all of her novels -- accessible, earthy, good-humored and clear.

“Life Class” consists of halves. In the first, Barker explores the days leading to the war, concentrating on Paul Tarrant, a working-class boy at the Slade Academy. Revolving around him are Kit, a celebrated artist of questionable moral fiber, and Elinor, an altogether modern woman who toys with the affections of both men. The second half of the novel moves the action to France at the outbreak of the war. Paul works as an orderly in a makeshift hospital behind the trenches, and the reverie of his art-student world is immediately shattered by the contrast of the appallingly wounded men he must treat. While the reader might intuit that Barker is making a point by juxtaposing the necessary self-indulgence of the artist and the horror of war, it turns out that Paul is inspired by the horror to produce his best work. In one of the most moving passages of the book, he becomes most alive in the creation of a painting in between hospital shifts.

One of the first casualties Paul deals with is a young man whose genitals have been blown to pieces. Barker does have a flair for the horrific, but one wonders why one of her first war scenes had to be quite so gruesome. “Partly it’s the irony, of course,” she said pleasantly. “It’s the ultimate expression of masculinity. But it is taken from an actual case. All the wounds described are from actual cases.”

Barker did a great deal of research for the book, from the conditions the surgeons were working in to the effect the French soil had on the wounded men. One might have thought she had exhausted the squalor and abject terror of the battlefields in “Regeneration,” but shifting the scene to the hospitals, she renders the war even more vividly.

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“Things were so appalling,” she continued, “and you have to get that sense that somebody is being changed for life by what he’s seeing. And it doesn’t go on like that -- after the first six months, perhaps you do become deadened, it does become repetitive. It was the shock of those initial experiences that I wanted to recapture and the way that one’s newness to the situation reawakens the pain of the people who have gotten used to it.”

Fourth time’s the charm

Before Barker’s first book, “Union Street,” was published in 1982, she had written three other books, all of them unpublished. “I think I was possibly destructively isolated when I was trying to break through into publishing because I knew absolutely nobody,” she said.

Even then, she didn’t have much use for the notion of writer’s block or a muse. “I’ve had kids, you see,” she said with good humor, “and if you’ve ever tried to write with a baby in the house, if the baby is asleep you’re writing, if the baby is awake you’re not. There was no room for waiting for the muse to descend -- the muse is a sleeping baby.”

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Barker talks about the need for “the bloody-mindedness of originality,” an excellent description of the unflinching and still shocking “Union Street.” “I needed to have my first books rejected because it drove me back in on myself and it made me find my own voice. ‘Union Street’ was a book I had written when I decided I was never going to be published, so it was an extremely uncompromising book -- I was no longer thinking about the reactions of readers, I was just telling it like it was.”

Despite the forcefulness of that work, Barker felt cowed at the time. “I was not very self-confident, I have to say. It took me an awfully long time to write about what I knew about because looking around on the [literary] scene there didn’t seem to be any opening for a voice like mine.”

She was buoyed by the encouragement of author Angela Carter, who taught a writing course Barker was attending, and by her husband, a neurologist and professor at Durham University, who fished that manuscript back out of the trash. “I always say, I owe it all to him,” she said. “He really did rescue it, from under the potato peelings. And he bought me my first typewriter. And we did the research together for ‘Regeneration.’ ”

When the novel was published it won acclaim amid a great deal of reviews that referred to the work as “sordid.” That surprised Barker. “I didn’t see it as sordid. I suppose I had lived a life rather like that, minus the rape, so I don’t see it as sordid. I wasn’t slumming, I was very much drawing on an environment that I knew. But there was that suffocating sense that my experiences of life were not what the literary world wanted or understood. Or values. Which is why people like Angela Carter were so significant to me, because she didn’t teach the technique of writing, she simply responded as a good reader. It’s pathetic that I needed to have that said, but I did.”

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After “Union Street,” Barker was seen as the northern, working-class female writer. After “Regeneration,” she was seen as the World War I writer. Given the quality and range of her work, one might expect this categorization to be frustrating. “Oh, I think everyone gets pigeonholed, don’t you?” She laughed. “Boris Karloff said, ‘If I wasn’t typecast, I’d never work.’ But I think that the northern, working-class, gritty-feminist label was something I was glad to put behind me in the end,” she said, pouring herself a second coffee. “World War I at least is a far bigger topic.”

Gerry Howard, her editor at Doubleday, thinks that regardless of subject matter, her style is among her most powerful tools.

“She does not have an easy style to describe -- it’s plain but not spare. She doesn’t write like anyone else, the work never draws attention to itself, it’s a style appropriate to the subject.” He was surprised, he said, that “Life Class” wasn’t shortlisted for the 2007 Booker, adding that “Pat Barker is the reason that we are in the book publishing business.”

Unaffected by success

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Barker has continued to lead the life she had before she was published, steadily writing away in Durham. “It really is just about the writing,” she said. “There is this deadly competence that I’m aware of in my own work -- I’m writing and everything is jogging along, but there’s no spark. And you have to learn to just grit your teeth and throw it in the bin.”

She has never been tempted to write anything autobiographical. either veiled or otherwise. “The misery memoir is a special category which surely must come to an end sooner or later. I find it very hard to write the letter ‘I,’ ” she said, adding that she is “almost pathologically private.”

She is working away at her next novel. “Life Class” ends on an open note, the war still raging, and her three characters very much in the art world, and Barker suggests that she will continue their story. “I’ve been chipping away at it. I’ve got about 40,000 words, most of which won’t survive. But it is just beginning to take shape.”

Her interest at the moment is in “this extraordinary hospital” in London during World War I “where you had artists and surgeons working together in the operating theater -- it’s a kind of movement where the arts and medicine interface and the beginnings of plastic surgery.”

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It was time for Barker to leave the Royal Marriott. Her daughter would be picking her up to take her home, she said. I offered to drop her off in a taxi, and she agreed. Twenty minutes later the cab finally arrived. I’d exhausted my questions about her work, and she gamely made small talk about her grandchildren. As the cab neared her home, she offered to get out at an intersection, to make things easier. She walked through the traffic in the light drizzle looking perfectly cheerful and very much at home.


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