It’s July of 1917, and a soldier, an officer no less, has written an open letter protesting the artificial continuation of the war – its senseless slaughter and its deception, both military and political. It’s a war, declares Captain Sassoon, whose purposes and goals have never been clearly stated. This has a modern familiarity about it. One could imagine a similar declaration being written about the war in Afghanistan – America’s longest war.
By virtue of this rebellion against military discipline, Siegfried Sassoon is being sent to a military hospital that specializes in cases of traumatic war injuries and “shell shock”. What we’d call today PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. Sassoon is being sent to the Craiglockhart War Hospital specifically for evaluation by Dr. William Rivers, the most respected man in the field. It doesn’t go unnoticed by Rivers and his colleague Bryce that a diagnosis of shell-shock would “not be inconvenient” given the political ramifications of the protest.
So starts the ‘regeneration’ of Siegfried Sassoon by Rivers. Along the way we meet several other patients at the facility who Rivers is also treating. After a certain period of treatment, these patients are recommended by Rivers for return to duty or discharge. They are sent before a board and processed, almost universally based upon Rivers recommendations. In treating these men, especially the case of Sassoon, a well-regarded poet, Rivers begins to question his role in sending men back to face statistically, almost certain death. I came to this book by way of Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme. Although I had been aware of this book for sometime, it had never made its way to the top of my tbr list.
Rivers is concerned that Sassoon has been unduly influenced by the likes of Bertrand Russell and Edward Carpenter. As well he might, since Sassoon is a highly decorated soldier, beloved by his men. Initially, Rivers sees it as his duty to prepare Sassoon ‘cure’ him, for return to France. Increasingly, he comes to question this, and his own motives for taking this position. In a discussion of Sassoon at a staff meeting, Rivers has an exchange with a fellow doctor, Brock, who argues there may be a case for just letting Sassoon alone, to which Rivers replies:
‘No, there’s no case,’ River said, ‘He’s a mentally and physically healthy man. It’s his duty to go back, and it’s my duty to see he does.’
‘And you’ve no doubts about that at all?’
‘I don’t see the problem. I’m not going to give him electric shocks, or or subcutaneous injections of ether. I’m simply asking him to defend his position. Which he admits was reached largely on emotional grounds.’
‘Grief at the death of his friends. Horror at the slaughter of everybody else’s friends. It isn’t clear to me why such emotions have to be ignored.’
A few notes about the exchange above: the “or or” out of Rivers’ mouth is not a typo. He is a stutterer who has mostly conquered this affliction, but it still manifests itself when stressed. Stuttering and muteness are common afflictions that Rivers encounters. And the reference to ‘electric shock’ foreshadows a different method used by another doctor later in the novel. This episode is one of the most disturbing in Barker’s book, a scene that could have come out of a Nazi ‘doctors’ bag of tricks.
Rivers, really the main focus of Barker’s novel, is seen as a caring doctor, but a product of his class and times. Class considerations are a major sub-theme in Barker’s novel. They come up to greater or lesser degrees with nearly every character. I say “character”, but this is a historical novel, with many of the major players actual historical figures.
One of the other patients that Barker spends considerable time on is Pryor. Pryor is an example of one of those men who is conflicted about where he belongs: He comes from a lower class background, but has risen higher than his lot in life might have dictated. After a visit by his mother and father, he describes his father to Rivers as a ”bar room socialist”: Beer and revolution go in, piss comes out. Later Pryor will have an affair with, and fall in love with, a working class girl, someone with whom he shares the same background.
Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen at the hospital, who he takes under his wing. Owen worships Sassoon, considers him a role model (he’s a would be poet himself). Barker takes time to write scenes of this mentoring very specifically, which are nicely done, and based on historical evidence.. There are also the hints of homoerotic overtones in their relationship, and in other of Sassoon’s friendships. The soldiers war wounds are not looked on without a sense of humor. Owen who was injured while retreating through a graveyard and had fragments of tombstones “embedded in his flesh”:
‘You want to try it,’ he said. ‘Lying two months on your belly in a hospital bed with “Requiescat in Pace” stuck up your arse.’
Barker is spare in his descriptions, but he uses them to interesting effect, as when he notes the incongruity of a rather grand, twisting, marble staircase in an otherwise pedestrian bar: like a Roman nose on an unprepossesing face.
It’s the beginning of Part 3 (the book is in three parts), that has the most telling imagery, and cogent commentary on war, nationalism and religion of the ‘Christian’ kind. It’s a defining scene, and perfectly captures the quagmire (as we call it these days) of war. Rivers who is attending church as his mind begins to wander form the popular hymn of the times (God moves in mysterious ways), to the flag-drarped altar, is distracted by the stained glass panes of the east church windows:
A crucifixion, The Virgin and St John on either side, the Holy Ghost descending, God the Father beaming benignly down. Beneath it, and much smaller, Abraham’s sacrifice of his son. Behind Abraham was the ram caught in a thicket by his horns and struggling to escape, by far the best thing in the window. You could see the fear. Whereas Abraham, if he regretted having to sacrifice his son at all, was certainly hiding it well and Isaac, bound on a makeshift altar, positively smirked.
Obvious choices for the east window; the two bloody bargains on which a civilization claims to be based. The bargain, Rivers thought, looking at Abraham and Isaac. The one on which all patriarchal societies are founded. If you, who are young and strong, will obey me, who am old and weak, even to the extent of being prepared to sacrifice your life, then in the course of time you will peacefully inherit, and be able to exact the same obedience from your sons.
We’re not holding up our end of the bargain, Rivers thinks. The young are not inheriting, they are being slaughtered – sacrificed. While “we” sing hymns and praise the Lord. And comfort ourselves that our sons are “defending” some skewed concept of “freedom”. The sacrifice though, we tell ourselves, is not in vain.