Yesterday I had the joy of attending a BBC World Book Club recording with Pat Barker on her novel, Regeneration. When asked what inspired her to write about the First World War, she spoke of two men in her life: her grandfather, who brought her up and who, on occasion, would show her the bayonet wound in his side, and her father in law who was a soldier in the trenches at 15. Though they would never have said this of themselves, Pat Barker came to realise that both men were, to some extent, shell-shocked and that this manifested itself through their silence. She said of her grandfather: ‘What I experienced from him was a wound and a silence, and as a writer, I was compelled to fill that silence.’
Much of yesterday’s discussion centred on the effects of war on the human mind and, in particular, on how so many soldiers developed a stammer or became mute. At times of great trauma, there is, ‘an insufficiency of language,’ Barker said. Language is inadequate to describe experience. And so, part of the healing process, as shown through the psychiatrist William Rivers, is to get these men to talk: a ‘talking cure’, a notion that finding one’s words, one’s voice, is part of what it takes to regenerate a damaged human being. It is not the job of novelist, Barker clarified, to speak ‘for’ others – with a little encouragement, they can do that more powerfully for themselves. But it is our duty as storytellers to convey the truth and, perhaps, to find words, no matter how insufficient and inadequate, to represent life, both its joys and its struggles. I can think of no greater privilege.