Walking with a mask on, believing it's your face
The novel was a combination of fictional and true accounts which are loosely based on “the history of psychology and the real-life experiences of British army officers being treated for shell shock during World War I at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh (The War Poets at Craiglockhart)”. It consisted of four parts centered mostly on three characters (Rivers, Sassoon and Prior) but also delved on mental struggles of other discharged soldiers suffering from their experiences while in the battlefied; and how individuals cope and move on from these burdens.
The protagonist Siegfried Sassoon declares that the war the British are fighting for is no longer a justifiable course of action, and he laments that they no longer have a true cause that empowers them through their service as soldiers. This he used as inspiration and form of catharis in the various poetry he writes. He was dispatched to a mental ward in the care of the psychoanalyst W.H.R Rivers who was a recognized doctor in his field. In the hopes of ‘curing’ him from his ‘pacifist’ ways, the readers are taken into a very intimate scrutiny of the psyche of different characters other than Sassoon. There is also Sergeant Burns who struggles to eat food after a bomb explosion threw him head-first into a gas-filled belly of a corpse that caused him to swallow some of the rotting flesh; Anderson, a former surgeon who now goes into a catatonic state in the presence of blood; Willard, who insisted that his spine is damaged although there is no physical evidence to show it, but it has rendered him unable to believe he can walk; and finally, Billy Prior, with selective mutism and asthma, whose arrogance and refusal of treatment from Rivers explores the power struggle between patient and doctor. Other supporting characters include Wilson Owen, a fellow poet who has hero-worship for Sassoon, and Sarah Lumb, Prior’s girlfriend who works at a factory that handles bomb detonators. With so many enigmatic characters, this work of fiction was able to deliver an intensive and humane look on the turmoils of war in a more psychological aspect and how they translate to the physical manifestations.
"The process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay" ~W.H.R. Rivers
My personal favorite character is Rivers because the doctor has steel nerves especially during the last portions of the book where he observes a fellow colleague, Dr. Yealland, perform electric shocks on a patient with mutism. His detached demeanor does not reflect the intense nature of his intellectual mind which allows him to see things clearly and more sensibly; recognizing that the men under his care need treatment which will open them up emotionally, rather than come up with an ultimate cure. This makes him serve noble intentions even if he himself is haunted by the hopelessness of some of his patients’ inner worlds.
Sassoon’s poetry are rich with allegory, and their passages in the book—as well as the process in which he revises and improves them—are entertaining to read. Sassoon’s stand against war does not directly make him a pacifist, and that paradox is what kept me reading because I wanted to know exactly why Sassoon was able to fight in a war he never believed in at all. Meanwhile, Prior’s personality is the most intriguing of the three. He is more able to act on his feelings no matter how ugly they are as oppose to Rivers who is still professionally responsive and Sassoon who retreats to his poetry. Still, he carries the most bondage of them as well, unable to adjust to an ordinary life outside of his experiences in the war.
I enjoyed reading and comparing the states of minds among Rivers, Sassoon and Prior, as well as the relationships and emotional bonds formed within. Both Sassoon and Prior see Rivers as a father figure but with a maternal presence. But Sassoon and Prior’s responses to this are essentially different. While Sassoon accepts Rivers because he was filling in a hole left by his own father whom he never knew, Prior subtly retaliates every time Rivers tries to understand him because Prior’s own relationship with his real father—who only visited him one time in the ward—was already fractured to begin with. As chemical as Prior and Rivers are because of the tension between them, Sassoon’s ways of relating to Rivers and vice-versa are more explorative because both men respect each other even if their ideals are barely similar.
The most invigorating aspect of this book is that it deconstructs gender roles in times of war where masculine fortitude is challenged by the traumatic experiences men undergo when in battle for their lives, while the women back at home has now taken on more assertive and independent roles. Prior makes this observation with Sarah Lumb whom he meets one night as he was drinking at a bar and forms a relationship with her, secretly drawn to her strength and invulnerability that contrasted his own frailty (“women have expanded in all kinds of ways, whereas men over the same period had shrunk into a smaller and smaller space”).
In the middle of the second part of the book, Rivers contemplates the notion that the war was advertised by the government in which men can prove themselves with traditionally heroic male feats, yet the reality portrays that these very same men, once in the battefields, are “crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed,” and that “the war that had promised so much in a way of manly activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passitivity and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down.” Sassoon addresses that the war has questioned the standard roles of men in the society, especially among men of military service, and he realized that such fixed roles of power, strength and infallibility attached to men are the reasons why they were easily damaged in the first place (“You’re walking with a mask on and you want to take it off but you can’t because they all think it’s your face”).
I also read online that there are two sequels that followed this story, and they explored themes of homosexuality in time of war as well. I definitely saw that possibility in my course of reading this novel. The male characters are extremely well-written and their relationships are intricately woven in the story so well that it will not surprise me if that theme may serve as an enrichment to an already layered storytelling which breathes the psychologically sublime.
Regeneration is the first volume of the trilogy, followed by The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road (which I’m still trying to get at least PDF copies of). It was a story of the vitality of change in a collapsing world where the traditional values and roles of men are being deconstructed through the ailments of war and the emerging sexual politics in that period of history. I was happy to read something other than the usual violence and gore found in most works of fiction like this, and that was what made this book so unique and intimate to read. Still, I recognize that this biographical sort of genre on wars is an acquired taste so I’m taking that into consideration in rating this book. I believe that it can beautifully translate in a cinematic adaptation, however, but that would entail a film that relies on the strength of its character dynamics enhanced by symbolic visuals. To anyone interested in expanding their usual taste in literature, this book is highly recommended!