With World War I imminent, future medic and ambulance driver Paul Tarrant sits in his life class in London -- an all-male session drawing a nude in complete silence -- and sees his work diminish with each footfall of the approaching professor.
Professor Henry Tonks -- who was a real person of that time, an art teacher who had been trained as a surgeon -- asks him, "Is this really the best you can do?" and Paul says, "Yes."
"Then why do it?" Tonks asks.
This scene sets the stage for Paul's development as a student of the human form, which, by the end of Pat Barker's 11th novel, he has seen in all its grotesquery on the Belgian front. With no Professor Tonks to judge his work there, Paul lies in a fever across a dark room from his painting of an orderly cleaning the stump of a leg, when he imagines the orderly leaving the canvas to hover near his bed.
Between these scenes lies the story of a group of friends who have art, and then war, in common -- varying degrees of artistry and varying degrees of sacrifice. They are the trendy people of their time, hanging out in cafes and having affairs, but they are also Britons of their time -- duty bound when duty called.
Pat Barker is in literature's top tier, a fictional master of re-creating the "Great War" and its psychic damage. She weaves complexities into prose that is spare and precise, and her symbolism is so deft that you aren't aware of it as you read. On examination, you see the layers and how they form the body of the story.
In her "Regeneration" trilogy, for which "Ghost Road" earned her the Booker Prize, she deals with a real-life doctor who suffers the psychic damage of stitching up soldiers who head right back to battle. Amid his moral crises are the real-life poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, whose war experiences informed an entire genre of protest writing.
In "Life Class," the artist-soldiers, too, record their world and absorb its damage, but it is in essence a love story.
Of the art-school chums, Paul and the insecure Kit are both deemed unfit for combat but volunteer to serve as drivers. Paul is assigned to a field hospital near Ypres, Belgium, as an orderly. Itching to get nearer the action, he is eventually assigned to an ambulance corps.
Elinor, whom both men fancy, is determined to pursue art rather than volunteer as a nurse, but she begins to question its role and even its importance at a time and place consumed by the war effort. She forsakes painting for the social life, but her letters to Paul, and his to her, connect them to each other's worlds. Each clings to the other's world for balance.
Art's role becomes like that of the artists. They can't fight, but they can dress wounds. They can surely find the essence of the body now, cutting carefully to preserve the uniform at all costs, while the form beneath bleeds.
Barker pulls the reader through the gore and blood in the mud with no patience for shock or sentiment but slowly enough for the images to take hold. Amid the book's overarching questions -- Where does art belong in a time of war, and what should it look like? -- nightmarish war scenes would seem to be the answer.
Paul and Kit both continue to draw, Kit as a chronicler of the action, Paul in the more pensive confines of a room he takes in the village, away from the clamor of his shared digs near the hospital. Kit becomes notable for his wartime art.
Paul comes home with a leg wound and discovers that, like body parts, love, too is expendable.
When he shows his old professor the painting of his orderly, Tonks' judgment is confirming. Tonks tells him that it couldn't be shown in a gallery. The inference may be that a painting the public is not ready to see may be worth celebrating, while the one Paul dreaded his professor judging in the opening scene of the book is the truly offensive one because the artist is faking.
He is not true to the form and disguises his own feeling for it, using tricks to hide what he can't accomplish -- smearing the lines, cross-hatching and shading.
"Life Class," while as compelling to read as any of Barker's novels, is slightly elusive in its importance, yet Barker has never not excelled at significance.
It may be simply a beautifully written love story about artists and their roles during war time. When Tonks asks his students, "What are you trying to say?" he is looking for the same passion in art that a warrior takes to battle.
The clear message is that art is to be found wherever you are, but that doesn't seem profound enough to be set against the backdrop of such an atrocious event as World War I.
Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1626.