Friday, May 27, 2011

Book 42: Regeneration

When I took "British Lit 1798 to Present," my professor made the argument that World War I had a much greater impact on Britain and the British cultural imagination than World War II.  In comparison, for Americans it was World War II that really made an impact and helped defined the ways they saw themselves.  It certainly makes sense: almost a million young British men died in the four year conflict, which would have a huge effect on a generation, with about twice that many wounded (2.13% of the population according to Wikipedia).  The Americans entered the war rather late.  The US was much more involved in World War II comparatively, and when you go to an American book store's military history section, the Civil War and World War II take up the majority of it.  It's an easy war to glamorize from an American perspective: there were clear good and bad sides, and the Americans helped achieve the victory, while then attempting to be gracious winners who helped rebuild the countries they had been at war with.  Growing up in Germany, World War II and the Holocaust obviously overshadowed World War I, so the statement that World War I would have a greater impact was an interesting idea to me.  However, World War I was the first war with casualties on such a huge scale, and certainly caused many of the things that led to WWII.  It triggered a great deal of change and disillusionment, and it is still unimaginable how the war could have gone on so long with such dramatic tolls.  I love the World War I poets, and the German novel All Quiet on the Western Front, and have definitely become more interested in the period over the years.
Regeneration is the first novel in Barker's WWI trilogy which centers around historical figures and fictional characters as its main protagonists.  The novel isn't about the front lines of the war or the battles but its effects.  The novel begins with Siegfried Sassoon's declaration against the continuation of the war.  It appears that he is already a famous figure at this point in history (now of course he is known as one of the war poets), so rather than court martial him, the authorities declare him shell shocked and send him to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh where he comes under the care of Dr. Rivers.  Originally, I expected Sassoon to be the main character, but I believe that title goes to Dr. Rivers (another historical figure), while Sassoon and Billy Prior (fictional character) are the two main supporting cast members with a few other extras to illustrate war experiences.  The hospital Craiglockhart is for officers suffering from shell shock and other mental disorders as a result of the war.
Barker uses her characters to show some of the reactions that patients had: there are a few that suffer from "mutism" and are unable to speak.  Burns is unable to eat because during an attack he was thrown headfirst into the stomach of a decomposing body.  Another officer, a doctor, can no longer handle the sight of blood but still plans to return to medicine.  The men in the novel are conflicted: they don't want to be in the war, but they don't want to leave their men behind and want to return.  Sassoon especially feels guilt for leaving his men behind.  Prior has a problem with anyone not involved in the war (they don't understand, they are continuing with their lives as normal), and even Rivers feels guilty that he was too old to be in the military.  Rivers has read Freud's theories, and believes in many of Freud's ideas and practices such as dream analysis, and using talk therapy.  Fortunately, he isn't that big on the sexual part, but he does believe that they are suppressing memories, and even uses hypnosis on a patient as a last result.  As the novel progresses, Rivers must deal more and more with the inherent irony in his position: he is trying to help his patients and get them well to send them back into danger when really by remaining ill, they are possibly helping themselves more.   Sassoon isn't ill but Rivers still has to get him to decide that he would be better off returning to his troops.
The language in the novel felt very sparse - it's been a very long time since I've read Hemingway but that's always the first thing I think of when I think of certain writing styles, even if that might not be completely accurate.  The officers are generally sent to the hospital for about 12 weeks prior to seeing a board so the novel covers a time span of about 3 months.  While the reader witnesses a few sessions that Rivers has with his patients, their healing process isn't always explained.  Some of them simply get better without completely confronting their problems (Rivers for example isn't satisfied with one patient's recovery in particular) while others end up discharged from the military or on assignments outside the war zone.  The end of the novel contrasts Rivers's treatment methods with another doctor's, who is very brutal by comparison, especially to modern sensibility.
Even in today's military we still often talk about the stigma associated with seeing behavioral health professionals and ways to combat this stigma given current suicide rates.  While the stigma has definitely decreased in the last few years (there are of course always people that think that Soldiers seeking this type of help are malingering, but Soldiers are suspected of malingering for visiting regular doctors about physical ailments as well when these appointments appear to be at a too convenient time), it is interesting to see the World War I perspective when these types of problems were only beginning to receive recognition.  I confused a few of the patients a few times, remembering them more based on their neuroses than their names since the novel definitely focused on the main characters and didn't develop some of the minor characters much beyond a collection of symptoms - I feel like these men in particular were more symbols than anything.  Barker also included a few comments on women's positions at the time by including women workers, including one who has an abortion.  Overall, it was an interesting look at soldiers' psyches as a response to the war, and I thought Barker did a good job of showing the internal conflict many of these men faced as well as demonstrating that it was the overall accumulation of war sights that caused the breakdown rather than one huge event (two men actually comment on the fact that their breakdowns happened after incidents that weren't even the worst they'd seen).  While I liked the novel while I was reading it, I don't think it made a huge impact on me - many of the things Barker describes feel like they are now self-evident or common sense, but it was still nice to see a war novel written from outside the trenches that really doesn't try to glamorize things.  I plan on reading the rest of the series but having read the book a bit less than a week ago, the characters are already starting to blend together for me, and naturally given the subject, there aren't huge plot developments in the novel but small stories of men attempting to slowly heal from the stresses of war.

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