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Trauma Room

By (March 1, 2013) 2 Comments

Toby’s Room1

By Pat Barker
Doubleday, 2012

Toby’s Room, the new book by British novelist Pat Barker, is a sequel to her previous one, Life Class (2007). Its ending leaves open the possibility of a third book, which would be unsurprising since Barker is best known for her Regeneration trilogy (1991-95). Those books are about the Great War and shell shock; they count historical figures, such as the poet Siegfried Sassoon and the doctor W. H. R. Rivers, among their significant characters. The new books cover more or less the same period and use the same method. But they don’t feel like imitations, mostly because the focus has been shifted from the battlefield to the home-front worlds of art and surgical medicine.

Life Class introduced readers to three students at the Slade School of Art: Paul Tarrant, Kit Neville, and Elinor Brooke, loosely based on the artists Paul Nash, Christopher Nevinson, and Dora Carrington. The fictional characters study together under the acerbic, intimidating Henry Tonks, as did their historical counterparts. Tonks and the others return in the new book, which certainly stands alone and is to my mind much the better book. Even so, it is best characterized as a fascinating failure.

Henry Tonks

Henry Tonks

Barker is at her best when she is teaching us things about the early twentieth century, specifically its attitudes to physical and mental suffering. In Toby’s Room she introduces the real-life surgeon Sir Harold Gillies, who pioneered the use of plastic surgery and facial reconstruction techniques on soldiers badly wounded during the war. These victims are not just wounded; they are disfigured. The term suggests at once an object, the human body, and an act, that of shaping or making. Or, rather, an act of un-making. These books contend, through the theory of Tonks and the practice of Gillies, that to make something we must first unmake or take apart something else. To draw the body we must know its anatomy; to repair its wounds we must create others. Barker is at her worst when posing but not grappling with the implications of these insights.

Early in the novel Elinor struggles through the dissection of human cadavers required by her anatomy course. She relies on that experience when, five years later, in the midst of the war, she is asked by Tonks to take a job as a medical illustrator at the newly constructed Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, in what is now South-East London but was then open countryside. The hospital was designed specifically for those suffering from facial injuries. At the request of Gillies, who wanted them as a surgical aid, Tonks was asked to draw portraits of the patients at various stages of their excruciating “recovery”: it was not uncommon for patients to undergo twenty or even thirty separate surgeries. Elinor re-encounters her former teacher at the hospital where, in the company of Paul (himself invalided home from the 3front), she has sought an audience with Kit—a patient there thanks to severe wounds suffered while serving under Elinor’s brother Toby in a medical unit on the front. This is the Toby of the book’s title, and, like the titular character of Virginia Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room (1922), after which Barker’s novel has surely been named, he is a shadowy figure, the bearer of secrets that explode like submerged mines throughout the novel.

And Toby has many such secrets. The first, known to him but not to Elinor, is that he was a twin, though his sibling, a girl, died late in the pregnancy. This so-called papyrus twin—the dead twin is flattened in the womb by the living one into the shape of a scroll—has been sent to a medical museum; the first instance in the novel of medical monstrosity, and of Toby’s violence. The second secret is one that Toby and Elinor carry with them: an incestuous sexual passion that overcomes them at the dramatic conclusion of the opening chapter. The third concerns the circumstances of Toby’s death, finally revealed by Kit to Paul and then, with some editing, to Elinor. There are other secrets in the novel as well, ranging from the mundane—Elinor’s father’s affair with a younger woman—to the miraculous—Gillies’s heroic effort to reconstruct faces damaged almost beyond recognition by shrapnel and mortar. These secrets become part of the novel’s rather conventional indictment of Edwardian-era morality and gender politics. As Elinor muses: “All her life… [she] had been brought up not to know things, but not knowing didn’t keep you safe.”

What Elinor most wants to know, to the point of obsession, is what happened to Toby, who has been declared, “missing, believed killed.” She is led to Neville not just because of their past acquaintance, but more urgently because of a letter she finds in the lining of Toby’s coat, sent home along with his other personal effects. In it, Toby bluntly states that he “won’t be coming back this time” and tells Elinor to ask Kit if she wants to know more about his, Toby’s, fate. Toby is sure Kit will survive, and the hint of bitterness in that suggestion is amplified in the next line, stricken through but still legible: “He’s been no friend to me.” The letter ends without salutation or signature, only the single word “Remember.”

4Remember: this injunction is as much Barker’s preoccupation as it is Elinor’s. Barker’s perennial theme is our response to overwhelming, traumatic events. She is a leading exponent of a robust tendency in contemporary literature—the novel of mourning. (Toni Morrison, W. G. Sebald, and Rachel Seiffert are other practitioners.) Memory is so central to our cultural moment, and Barker’s fiction is so representative of how we think about suffering today, that I wonder how much staying power her work will have. Unlike those other writers, Barker doesn’t attempt to mimic the gaps or elisions of trauma in her style. Plot isn’t scrambled, point of view isn’t distorted. All shifts are clearly, even rigidly or mechanically marked. Barker’s discussions of trauma are just that—discussions, confined to the realm of content, never infiltrating and infecting her form. Metaphor appears in only the most minimal, banal way. Responding to her sister’s criticisms that she is morning her brother’s death as though she were his widow, Elinor thinks, “There it was again: the shadow under the water that none of them ever admitted seeing.” It might have been a line like this that prompted the biographer Hermione Lee, in a review of Toby’s Room, to call Barker’s prose “ordinary,” adding “you don’t go to her for fine language, you go to her to plain truths.” You go to the dictionary or the encyclopedia for plain truths, too, and it’s as a plainspoken presentation of engaging historical material that this novel works best. It’s hard to see anyone reading these books in a hundred years except as literary-historical evidence for late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century preoccupations about our relationship to the events of a century ago.

Toby’s Room is an engrossing, disquieting book. It reads quickly and seems straightforward, but it lingers in the mind long afterwards, like a pleasanter version of the belatedness characterizing the trauma Barker so often writes about. But the book is almost perverse in its quotidian presentation of extraordinary events: the book itself isn’t strange, though the things in it are. It’s hard to see anyone reading these books in a hundred years except as literary-historical evidence for our current fascination with the events of a century ago.

Of course, we don’t only or even mostly read novels with an eye to literary posterity or canonicity. But Barker herself seems to think so—she is preoccupied with such questions. From the title onward, the book is an investigation into literary and artistic history, specifically the movement known as modernism.

51922 is often taken as the pivotal year of literary modernism. Ulysses was published that year, as was The Waste Land and D. H. Lawrence’s indelible collection of stories, England, my England. Also published that year—by the Hogarth Press, established by the author and her husband five years earlier—was Virginia Woolf’s third novel, Jacob’s Room, the first expression of her mature style. By self-publishing the book, Woolf was free to give free rein to the formal experimentation she had been developing in a series of unusual short stories written in the late teens. Indeed, of all the books named here, even the more canonical ones, Jacob’s Room is the most unconventional. It is in part an elegy for her beloved older brother, Thoby, who died in 1906 from typhoid contracted on holiday in Greece. But it also memorializes all the young men killed during the war. Jacob’s last name is Flanders and the novel ends with an allusion to his death in its fields. The novel’s most striking feature is its near-effacement of its ostensible protagonist. Jacob appears in many of its scenes, but always obliquely. We seldom see him do anything, and even more rarely know what he is thinking. The novel challenges our ideas of what literary characters ought to do or be like. How minimal can characters be before we cease to identify with them? It similarly challenges our understanding of narrative progression and even of syntax.

When we compare Woolf’s novel to Barker’s, as her title asks us to do, we see the former not as a shadowy companion but rather an opposing, even negative example to the latter. Barker’s many references to modernism aren’t just local color or historical context or even name-dropping—“See how much I know about the period!” Rather they amount to a sustained critique. For Barker, modernism is exemplified by the Bloomsbury group, the set of writers, artists, and intellectuals centered in the neighborhood around the British Museum, to which Vanessa and Virginia Stephen, later Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, first moved in 1905 after the death of their father. There they mixed with the friends Thoby had made in Cambridge in 1899. After Thoby’s death, the friends became ever closer, living and working together, even marrying, as in the case of Vanessa and Clive Bell, and Virginia and her upstairs lodger, a poor Jew recently returned from Ceylon named Leonard Woolf. In a sense, then, Bloomsbury itself could be called “Thoby’s room.”

6In Toby’s Room, Bloomsbury is invoked through repeated references to Woolf’s work. A single page, only ten pages into the book, alludes to three of her works. Elinor, spending a stifling weekend at the family home, goes to bed early where she sits in the dark so as to keep out the moths that terrify her sister. Moths feature regularly in her work, not least in her essay “The Death of a Moth” and in The Waves, the working title of which was The Moths. In Jacob’s Room the young Jacob goes hunting for moths, including one that the definitive field guide misidentifies. Later on the page and in the evening, Elinor listens to the noises of the house, which culminate: “Then silence, gradually deepening, until at last the old house curled up around the sleepers, and slept too,” a direct reference to the famous “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse. A few lines later, Elinor herself settles down to sleep, hearing only silence, not the usual night noise of “a susurration of leaves, sounding so like the sea that sometimes she drifted off to sleep pretending she was lying on a beach.” The lines allude to the well-known beginning of Woolf’s autobiographical fragment “A Sketch of the Past,” where she describes falling asleep in her nursery in Cornwall to the sound of the sea.

This hectic flourish of allusions is all the more unusual in that they are not intended admiringly. In this regard the indirect references to Woolf are like the direct mentions of Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury is addressed critically, and not just through individual characters. When Kit says that only “a few nancy boys in bloody Bloomsbury” would understand Toby’s death, he speaks for his historical model, Nevinson, who (under the influence of the artist, novelist, and all-around nut Wyndham Lewis and his Vorticist movement) reacted violently against Bloomsbury’s ideas of art. But he also taps into the novel’s broader anti-modernism.

7Resistance to modernism is typically expressed in characters’ reactions to the war. Particularly important here is Elinor’s growing distaste for the pacifism and conscientious objection of Bloomsbury, made evident through walk-on appearances by Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, whom she meets while volunteering at Charleston, Bell’s country place in Sussex. Elinor writes bitterly in her diary that she suspects Bell and her set are talking about her abortive relationship with Paul; she feels herself “gossiped about, fingered, passed round, pawed at, the way the Bloomsbury crowd always do.” Bloomsbury acts here as a synonym for ineffectualness bordering on cowardice. The novel never tries to imagine what conscientious objection might look like, doesn’t even think of it as war work.

That might explain the affectionate portrayal, in Elinor’s diary, of Ottoline Morrell, the real-life hostess and patron pilloried in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Elinor praises her for being, “underneath all the vapors, all the nonsense” of the modernist art world, a “very practical, shrewd, hardworking woman.” She wonders how Morrell can “put[ ] up with the pacifists who are supposed to be working the farm.” The only pacifist given a speaking part in the book doesn’t really want to speak at all; he launches a desperate and poorly received kiss at Elinor. The moment is condemned as feeble rather than inappropriately lascivious—further proof of Bloomsbury’s weakness. A different attitude, however, is expressed to those, like Catherine Stein—a German citizen deemed enemy alien during the war and a friend of Catherine’s and lover of Kit’s at the Slade—who can’t help their distance from the war effort. They are forgiven, but those who can are not.

8I’m disturbed by the implied connection Barker makes between the titular Toby and Bloomsbury in particular and modernism in general. When Toby’s final secret is revealed—he desires other men, especially men of other classes—he responds by endangering himself (and the men in his unit) by volunteering for increasingly risky missions until he is killed. It could be argued that this outcome merely expresses the prevailing beliefs of the period: the shame of homosexuality is so great that suicide is the only honorable recourse. But Toby is so unlikeable that his death seems a judgment. Where Woolf’s Jacob is callow, Barker’s Toby is disreputable: snobbish and careless of others. More to the point, he’s an ineffectual, even negligent leader. Kit, wounded as a result of Toby’s insistence on taking extraordinary risks, is understandably bitter towards the other man. But the book seems to be too. It’s as if Bloomsbury, famously welcoming of queer desire, is being punished along with Toby.

It’s unclear why a resolutely realist writer like Barker would frame her text in relation to modernism. A generous interpretation would be that Barker wants to remind us that the story of the literature of the first half of the twentieth century does not begin or end with modernism. It needs room for the likes of Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Graham Greene and many others, maybe even an Edwardian like H. G. Wells to remind us that belief in scientific and medical progress—rather than the hostility to it often displayed by modernism—was also a feature of the period. A less generous way—one licensed by the collective hostility of the book’s references to Bloomsbury and modernism—is to say that Barker feels the experiments of those movements, whether in ways of living or styles of art, have failed.

What, then, is Barker’s alternative to modernism? A book that initially puts an art school at its center can’t disavow art altogether, no matter how much the students debate the seemliness of making art in wartime. The real conundrum here is the relation of destruction to creation. Why are destroyed things beautiful? It sometimes seems as though the book would prefer to offer that debate without itself having to take a side. That neutrality—a pretense of reportorial objectivity, of stylistic transparency—is echoed in Elinor’s belief that, unlike the pacifists (who are themselves taking a side, however much she and the novel disdains it), she can ignore the war altogether, as something that has nothing to do with her, as a woman.

That position is soon given the lie, however, as Elinor is conscripted into her own kind of war work, one that mimics Barker’s self-appointed task of recording the suffering of others. Yet the desire to avoid taking an artistic or political position—which in the case of a novel could only be understood as a drive for self-effacement—remains powerful. The novel knows the idea is wrong—it would be perverse to long to efface oneself when faces are literally being undone—but abandons it only reluctantly. Toby’s Room would rather offer discussions of style than have one itself. A book without style is of course a mirage, even in a novel as generally plainspoken as this one. And it contains moments of exceptional vividness and resonance. These occur not in individual phrases but in large set pieces, specifically the description of two kinds of extreme events—destructive weather and disfiguring wounds.

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If we didn’t already suspect that Toby’s life is stormy behind its controlled exterior, we can figure it out from two storms that bookend the novel. Early on, Toby succumbs to a serious illness. He has been driving himself hard in medical school; the crisis coincides with a violent snowstorm that shuts down London. Elinor makes her way through the snow to his rooms and nurses him until the storm abates and his fever breaks. The next day, Elinor looks out the window at a city transformed, but the icy idyll is broken when a woman throws a chicken carcass from the back door into the snowy garden. Immediately, the “big white birds” that had been circling, looking for scraps, “swoop[ ] down, fighting over the carcass in a great flurry of wings and snow.” We recall this moment when Elinor herself recalls Toby’s last leave, the last moment of intimacy, however strained, between them. They lie in the garden of their parents’ home and argue over whether the bird they see circling them is a sparrowhawk or a buzzard. And that sense of violent destruction cutting through the air returns in the war scenes. Kit remembers watching with Toby “young officers, newly arrived from England, using beetroots on poles or target practice. Shouts of ‘Howzat?’ when somebody smashed the beetroot head to pieces.” Here we see one of Barker’s favorite stylistic tics, the sentence fragment, meant, it would seem, to convey immediacy. More powerful, though, is the furtive appearance of the term “head”—the pulpy remains of the root remind us not so much of the chicken carcass as, more ominously, of the faces at Sidcup.

The most powerfully metaphorical moment is the second, still more violent storm that closes the novel. Toby is present only metaphorically, a ghost haunting Kit and Paul, who are spending a weekend at Kit’s family’s summerhouse on the Suffolk coast. The scene is already strained, as Kit’s rage at the extent of his wounds and at the reactions of barely concealed horror and disgust they incite from civilians has made him depressed, anxious, and hostile. Paul is there rather against his will; he feels himself made a confidante who is always on the verge of being mocked or even hated. But he has his own agenda: he is determined to find out what happened between Kit and Toby.

The entire visit—between men who are brought together only because of their shared sense of what physical suffering entails, and who can disguise their mutual wariness, which goes back to their differing fates as artists, only by drinking—is a tour de force of menace and (near) misunderstanding. Its climax is a violent storm that brings the war home. The coastline has already reminded Paul, by the way that “water and land merged,” of “that other inundated landscape: the countryside around Ypres.” But the winter storm, in which snow and sleet and a howling gale threaten to sweep Kit and Paul off the beach, strengthens the connection. Observing the local fishermen rescuing their boats at the height of the storm, Paul is reminded of the start of an attack at the front. The difference here is that this natural storm is an enemy that unites rather than an artificial one that tears asunder. No doubt that is why once they make their way back inside, the men are finally able to have something like an open conversation, and Paul learns what Kit saw that led to Toby’s death.

10It is telling that these scenes of nature are more compelling than the brief scenes of battle. As in her earlier work, Barker is more interested in the aftereffects of battle than in battle itself. Thus the other set of indelible scenes in the novel are the ones at Sidcup. Gillies is not as central to Toby’s Room as Rivers was to the Regeneration books. Kit describes him to Paul: “‘Odd chap, looks like a bit of a bloodhound. New Zealander. He calls the patients ‘honey’ and ‘my dear’ and sits on the beds. God knows what the army makes of him, but he’s supposed to be the best there is.” These suggestions of Gillies’s unsuitablility for the army—his intimacy with his patients, his colonial origins—aren’t developed. Instead Barker focuses on his handiwork—and, even more so, on the translation of that work into Tonks’s art. It’s significant, though, that the exaltation of virility that comes through negatively in the book’s portrayal of Bloomsbury returns here indirectly. At its best the book’s interest in virility and struggle is mitigated by its recognition of the reality of pain and suffering. Yet the book makes it clear that Gillies and Tonks’s care for the wounded is anything but soft or effeminate. It is described as another kind of virility. Think back on those twenty or thirty operations: even more than the men who suffer them, the book admires the men who perform them. Barker attends carefully to their work, as when Kit describes to Paul how Gillies has attempted to redress his most grievous wound, the loss of his nose, by fashioning a tube pedicle:

They cut a strip of skin off the chest, here, and then they roll the edges over so it’s a tube—that’s to stop it getting infected—and then they stick the other end… Well, where it has to go. Nose, in my case. If they need any bone they take it from the breastbone. And because it’s all coming from you, your body doesn’t reject it. Well, that’s the theory, anyway.

The theory, not surprisingly, often fails. As Kit dryly explains, he got an infection from a cold in his non-existent nose and the graft didn’t take. The passage is typical in that it is primarily explanatory. Kit’s apology to Paul might be Barker’s to her reader: “Sorry about the conducted tour. I’m afraid I get a bit obsessed.”

I forgive her because the subject matter is so interesting. But I wonder why the novel never tries to describe the wounds it is so preoccupied by, never seeks to mimic that destruction by a corresponding deformation of form. Instead, it offers us labored discussions of the difficulty of representing wounded bodies. Tonks and Kit discuss the ethics of allowing his drawings to be shown, Tonks finding the idea “distasteful” and Kit regretting that what he calls Tonks’s best work will remain unknown. (Far more moving is Kit’s fascination with his own portrait because there are no mirrors in the hospital, not even any water in the fountain lest “some poor deluded Narcissus decided to risk a peep.”) Similarly leaden is Elinor’s reaction to the series: “Were they portraits, or were they medical illustrations? Portraits celebrate the identity of the sitter. Everything—the clothes they’ve chosen to wear, the background, the objects on a table by the chair—leads the eye back to the face And the face is the person. Here, in these portraits, the wound was central.” The present tense of the verb “celebrate” suggests not the submerged voice of the character but rather the heavy-handed explanation of the author.

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The drawings, for Elinor, offer “no point of rest; no pleasure in the exploration of a unique individual.” We could be reading a description of a cubist painting or a modernist novel. Rather than pursuing the correspondence, however, Barker refuses it. It would seem that the comparison would only denigrate human suffering rather than expand our idea of art. Art must be rejected. The novel insists that the art made by Tonks at Sidcup—the portraits of the disfigured soldiers that he calls his Rogues’ Gallery—are not intended to be art. They are records, even aide-memoires for Gillies; strange memorials not intended for public consumption. (The paintings were finally exhibited in 2008.) An offhanded reference—“of course we take photographs as well”—alerts us to the oddity of using drawings rather than photographs to document the before and after of Gillies’ surgeries.

In this moment the book concedes that its theory of art isn’t as straightforwardly imitative as it might have seemed. Art distorts as much as it reflects. But distortion returns us to war. Tonks’s drawings emphasize what photographs might cause us to overlook: that the notion of aesthetic pleasure, even beauty, cannot be divorced from horror or suffering. Elinor, as spokesperson for the book, worries over this possibility, looking over her sketches and thinking back to the sculptural fragments they’d drawn at art school, “where so often a chipped nose or broken lip seemed to give the face a poignancy that the undamaged original might have lacked.” (How ordinary the Venus de Milo would look with arms.) The clunky exposition of these fears only heightens the import of the aesthetic questions they raise. For the book requires that we read it against itself.

But the questioning of art and its relation to physical and psychological suffering cannot happen, at least in a work of art, without reference to the art that theorizes that suffering. Even in effacement we find the wounded face. Even an art that disavows itself and its forbearers, as this book seeks to do, ultimately only affirms it. Just as a style that seeks to efface style is sometimes every bit as stylish as one that flaunts it. Not every book has to be modernist. But every book needs to think about its relation to form. Barker’s book intrigues by trying quite hard to pretend it’s not a book. In the end, then, this intriguing, frustrating book is stranger than I’d initially credited.

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Dorian Stuber is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Hendrix College, where he teaches British Modernism and Holocaust Literature.