16 August 2018

We know the men – Agamemnon, Odysseus, Patroclus, Hector, Paris... the list continues. On the first page of Barker’s fourteenth novel, a Trojan queen named Briseis hears the war cry of the most famous and brutal of them all: Achilles.

After her city is ransacked by the Greeks, Briseis is captured, transformed in a moment from queen to slave, awarded to Achilles and left to mourn her dead family.

"‘Great Achilles’," Barker writes in the novel’s opening lines. "'Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him 'the butcher'."

The men of The Iliad have no problem with expressing themselves, often in lengthy battleground speeches. Barker is interested in other conversations and stories left untold. What words did the women speak when alone with each other: in the laundry, at the loom, when laying out the dead?

One afternoon not so long ago, Five Dials took the train from King’s Cross to Durham to speak to Pat about the book. It was a sunny and optimistic day, but the conversation inevitably made its way towards the subject Barker has examined with precision and care over the course of her career: the lasting damage of warfare. Her Regeneration trilogy examined the legacy of stress, trauma, dislocation and anger carried by a generation of First World War veterans. 

From the twentieth century, our conversation eventually worked its way back towards the Greeks and the Trojans. But first it was important to clarify a tale about the beginning of Barker's career. 

I hear your husband plucked your debut novel, Union Street, from out of the bin.

He was very, very supportive.

Did he actually fish through?

Yes. I threw it into the bin. Under the potato peelings, too.

And there wasn’t another version on a computer?

I wasn’t writing on a computer, no.

So that could’ve been the end of the book.

It was that close. That was a very big moment. It would be a trifling gesture now but it wasn’t in those days. He knew I was feeling very downbeat about it. But I always feel downbeat about my books. I’ve a great suspicion of writers who wake up in the middle of the night and admire their own genius. I just think: fraud.

You wrote three novels before Union Street. All went unpublished?

That’s right. It was difficult but I always made it an absolute rule that if I got a negative phone call, or somebody sent a rejection note, I would just go on and finish the sentence I was writing. I might sort of howl after that, but only after that sentence had been finished. You’ve got to be like that.

Mercenary?

It’s actually a pretty tough career. 

Maybe after one rejected book a person would go on to the second. But after the second gets rejected, to go on to a third?

I was getting more and more bloody-minded all the time. By the time I was writing the third I was very much writing what I wanted to write without any kind of references to the publishing industry at all. That’s not a bad attitude.

What was the first unpublished novel like?

It was a slender, sensitive, middle-class lady’s book and that’s not who I am. It was writing that was admired at the time. And I thought: no.

How much dialogue was in the first couple of novels before Union Street?

Probably less. The percentage of dialogue went up as I started to find my own voice.

With Union Street, you’re plunged into a world alive with voices.

And they’re still alive. Not the specific characters, but women like that are still very much there. There’s this agonizing: could you possibly write working-class characters when you yourself are no longer working class? It misunderstands the nature of writing. You’re writing from a very deep place in your personality and possibly out of the sort of archetypes that were formed in your relationship with your family and people who had impact on you very closely.

Pat Barker on The Silence of the Girls

Men don't hear women's silences. They just complain about them yammering on.

I read your first book right after I read your most recent. I felt a tether between...

You’ve a tidy mind, haven’t you?

I grabbed it off the shelf. Thankfully they were all lined up. I could go straight to the beginning. It felt like there was a line connecting the women in Union Street to the Trojan women. When did your interest in the Greeks begin?

Much later. I would’ve said about five years ago. Actually, somebody pointed out that there’s a passage in Life Class where Elinor Brooke is describing the Café Royale and the way the atmosphere had changed in the first days of the First World War. She says the old men were all panicking because they thought their day was over and the young men were spouting things they had read in the newspapers. And the women had gone absolutely silent. She said it was like the beginning of The Iliad. When Agamemnon and Achilles are making these fantastic speeches and the girls they are talking about say nothing at all.

Behind those great figures are other voices...

That are not being heard, yes.

When did you find your way to these voices?

I had just read The Iliad and was astonished by that silence. The eloquence of the men, the absolute silence of the women they’re quarrelling about.

It’s interesting. Obviously by chance one of my neighbours two or three doors up the street happens to be an expert on Homer. I had no idea she was there. We met for a drink when she was told what I was doing. She’s a classicist. She said she was reading the original Greek at the age of fourteen. She was sitting in class, a little fourteen-year-old girl, absolutely outraged by this silence. To her it was just leaping off the page. I’m sure a perfectly nice fourteen-year-old boy would read the same scene and wouldn’t notice the silence. Men don’t hear women’s silences. They just complain about them yammering on.

Heroes – from the heroic Greek figures to the superheroes in films today – take up a lot of space. It’s difficult to peer around them sometimes.

Yes. Agamemnon is definitely manspreading and mansplaining to the nth degree.

Why did you choose Briseis as the narrator?

I wanted it to be about her, because, apart from anything else, the descent from being a queen to being a slave is so dramatic.

Perhaps it would’ve been nice to have another character who had been a slave in her previous life, but then there’s a little bit of that in Uza, who didn’t care whose dick was up her as long as she was living a comfortable life.

The range of femininity in the book is wide.

And those women talking together are very much like the ones in Union Street. It’s the same kind of conversation between women.

Pat Barker on The Silence of the Girls

Nothing happens in the book, or in The Iliad, that isn't happening in the contemporary world - give or take changes in weaponry

The language between the characters is just modern enough. Or perhaps just universal enough. Were you looking for that effect?

Those men can’t possibly have spoken in fifteen-page speeches. They would not have sat through each other’s speeches without interrupting after the first ten or eleven words.

The speeches on the battlefield are amazing. Because you can’t actually kill the bloke until you’ve established who his great-grandfather was. They give each other complete genealogies. There are two men who meet on the battlefield and discover that their grandfathers were guest friends, which is a very important relationship. They’d stayed with each other and automatically could no longer kill one another. Because Granddad and Granddad knew each other well. So, they avoid each other on the battlefield.

The first chapter rings with a modern sense too. I couldn’t help but think of Syria. The attack on a sun-baked city full of narrow lanes is about to begin. The sense of impending doom would be just like it is today. Is there a continuity that runs through all the novels you’ve written about conflict?

Nothing happens in the book that is not happening in the contemporary world. Nothing happens in The Iliad  that isn’t happening in the contemporary world, give or take changes in weaponry, which doesn’t make it worse. It just makes it different.

When we, say, look at what’s happening in the present, the danger is that people tend to think: what’s happening in the present ‘out there’.

There are the women in the ISIS slave markets. But there are young women who are illegal immigrants in this country, working for no money. They’re working for food, and if they are sexually assaulted, which they very commonly are, they cannot go to the police. They can’t complain to anybody. In effect, these women are slaves. They’re being sexually abused. And that is in our society, not in others.

You don’t have to scrape away layers to find what’s relevant.

It’s right here, yes.

In terms of primary documents...

Well, there’s only one I’m looking at.

But in your career as a novelist you’ve conducted extensive research, whether it’s the primary documentation of war, or the poems written after. Does this material make your job easier?

Writing myth is much more freeing than writing history. You should not ideally have any anachronisms at all in history. Not the way I do it, anyway. People differ, people are prepared to bend history to various degrees, but I don’t. If Rivers and Sassoon [both historical figures feature in Barker’s Regeneration trilogy] are having lunch in the Conservative Club on Princes Street, that’s what they were doing. And Rivers chooses the boiled fish because he has ulcers. Did Rivers have ulcers? Yes, he did. It’s like that. Which is also stimulating. It’s writing in a straitjacket, but that would stimulate your imagination.

The freedom of myth, the freedom to be naughty and deliberately anachronistic is also very stimulating and a relief after the other. After so many years of writing in a different way.

After so many years of adhering to this sense of history, has writing myth become a freeing, joyous writing experience?

Oh, God, no. I was in agony over that book many, many times.

Did you feel freedom with your treatment of Achilles?

There is an alternative to the myth that he’s shot in the back by an arrow. A poisoned arrow, possibly. Fired by Paris. A coward’s weapon in a coward‘s hands.

Achilles is amphibious. That’s what makes him interesting to me. If he were just a sort of copper-bottomed Bronze Age hero I wouldn’t be particularly interested. It‘s that ambivalence, actually a femininity, the fluidity of which underlies it all, which makes it interesting. I actually think he’s a fascinating character.

Is this the first time that you’ve looked at what could be called Stockholm Syndrome? This idea of a complicated love that arises?

A very young girl, like Tecmessa when she was first bought, would suffer from Stockholm Syndrome because everything has been swept away. And there’s this bloke who‘s done it all. Nevertheless you cling to him. You convince yourself you’re in love with him; perhaps in a way you are.

Patroclus’s captive falling in love with him is a bit more comprehensible. I read something that said Patroclus in The Iliad is simply a plot device, but I don’t think he’s a plot device at all. I think he’s the ethical centre of the story. He‘s the only halfway decent guy in the whole bloody thing, and I think Homer represents him as that.

What I come away with all the time is an awe of Homer’s mind. Amazing, amazing writer, well not writer because he didn’t write, of course, but you know what I mean.

And, you know, I’ll probably get myself into all kinds of trouble with classicists because everybody is saying it was an endless number of people. And I think it wasn’t. One man wrote Achilles’s speeches. I’d go to the stake for that.

Five Dials is a literary magazine featuring brilliant fiction, poetry, literary criticism, current-ish events and illustration. Great minds gathered in PDF form. The full version of this interview will appear in Five Dials 46. Subscribe for free

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