Monday, 27 January 2020

Barker, Ford, Gibbon: Reading Against the War

Barker, Ford, Gibbon: Reading Against the War
Written By: Dougal McNeill
Date: September 2007
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 29: Autumn 2007  

These notes draw on my current research project, which is an attempt to make a case for realist literature today. For too long our side has skirted around the demands of realism, and for unsurprising reasons; the false friendship of the Stalinists and its sneering disavowal by bourgeois aestheticisms have had an enduring impact.

What relevance might this project have for socialist historians? My reading of novels of World War One suggests that Pat Barker’s recent left-wing fiction has been able to shatter some historiographic myths about that war, myths all too convenient for the ruling class. The sheer brutality of World War One has meant that conservative historians have never been able to ‘rehabilitate’ it as they have with World War Two, and the ongoing popularity of Wilfred Owen and the other anti-war poets mean that for many millions of readers WWI is the mental image of the horror of war.

This is where I believe my research is of interest to historians, because most imaginative responses to the war contain this horror by bracketing off its wider political and domestic content. The view from fiction is that opposition occurred only amongst middle class men and that it took the horror of the front-line to produce opposition. In fact, 15% of industry struck when the Defence of the Realm act was passed; opposition was far more a part of struggle within the UK than our stock images allow.
There is some useful fiction that covers the home front but, because these works focus on class experience rather than class antagonism, they struggle to represent the dynamic of the war. Ford Madox Ford’s material is the English ruling class, and his primary character - England’s “last Tory” - stands in for the displacement and decay of a particular fraction of this class. Parade’s End’s resolute exclusion of the working class and working class experience acts as an enormous brake on its capacity to generate information on the full impact of the war. Ford’s representations of a particular class fraction’s sense of loss are extraordinary but drastically reductive and, by the Last Post (1928), can offer nothing but a sense of loss and finality. Groby Great Tree has been felled, Mark Tietjens silenced and Christopher Tietjens reduced to selling England’s ‘heritage’ (in the form of high-class furniture) to wealthy but uncultured Americans. The war in Parade’s End acts as a total break and sense of an ending but the tetralogy never establishes representations of the war and class with any explanatory power.

If Ford can see only a lost past, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s exclusive focus on the working class forces him into an equally limiting, relentless futurity. In A Scots Quair - one of the great novels of the twentieth century and one of the most unjustly neglected - the war acts as a wholly outside influence, impacting on the lives of working-class women in the Lowlands but never figuring directly in the novel itself. Gibbon’s concern is the impact of the war and its aftermath more than the immediate experience of conflict. Chris Tavendale’s first husband is executed for cowardice during the war and her second dies, from the after-effects of being gassed in the trenches, just after the defeat of the General Strike in 1926, but nowhere does the war itself appear. For all his skill at representing the lives of the working people of Kincardineshire, Gibbon can never figure the world-historical events he so clearly has as his targets as anything other than external disasters wholly alien to the deeper patterns of working Scots’ lives. The impact of the war is felt everywhere through A Scots Quair and yet, because it remains so determinedly concerned with the sphere of the domestic and the female, remains oddly diffuse and unfocussed. For all his - historically necessary and undeniably heroic - effort at recovering repressed experience, Gibbon’s trilogy ends up enacting a complex process of evasion and repression. If the war is everywhere in a novel concerned wholly with the home front it remains for the reader strangely nowhere.
This is what makes the Regeneration trilogy so important. Most critics have focussed on its treatment of the lives of Sassoon and Owen, but what Barker does with this familiar material is take her reader into the unfamiliar. Socialist anti-war activism, ‘moral panic’, ILP and union activity, the reality of working-class women’s agency: the trilogy, in drawing all of these strands into one cohered narrative, implicates a wider swathe of British class society than most anti-war fiction has managed. Barker’s mutual implications and crossovers not only draw out the complexities of class relations and antagonisms but also provide the reader with crucial insights into the operations and organization of the war. Parade’s End provides its representations of one particular class fraction - Yorkshire Tories - only at the expense of a deeper repression of working class experience. A Scots Quair draws out these neglected representations of workers’ lives only through a repression of a thoroughly utopian kind, where contending classes and class conflict make only sporadic and inessential appearance. What Barker achieves, through her strategy of mutual implication, is at once representation and explanatory force. Crucially for socialists, this is fiction of class relations, where the war is shown to be just the continuation of the class struggle of peacetime by other means. That this version of WWI is also a best-selling one is an historical event in its own right.

As socialist history finds a new generation of practitioners, Marxist literary theory and criticism remains one of the most pessimistic areas of socialist intellectual work, where the influence of postmodernism is still too strong. Realisms like Barker’s offer intellectual reasons to be excited, and imaginative ‘reasons to be cheerful.’

Note from Dougal McNeill:
As well as war fiction, I’m also researching fictions of the Great Miners’ Strike. I’d love to get criticisms, suggestions and comments from interested LSHG members.

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