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‘I wasn’t being awkward, ‘ Prior said. ‘That was concern.’
‘ I didn’t , but it doesn’t matter. I don’t sleep much after four anyway. ‘ He caught the flicker of interest. How quickly Prior pounced on any item of personal information.’ ( Regeneration p.64)
Pat Barker’s decision to place a fictional character in the middle of her historical novel Regeneration is a brilliant one. She creates Billy Prior as an ‘anchor’ for her trilogy of novels; an anchor whose class difference and outspoken intelligence serves to challenge and agitate the pre-existing limitations of such an historically ‘accurate’ novel. The very ‘energy’ of Prior with his sexual ambivalence and predatory instinct for unsettling others, makes his role in the text utterly compelling. He embraces ‘eros’, as his soul’s choice. He desires to move forward; he is ‘kinaesthetic’, even if that forwardness involves trangression and rule breaking. The reader feels the force of him and so does Rivers!
In this exchange we see how Prior ironises his intimacy with his Doctor. ‘Concern’ is appropriated from Rivers (the medical man) and replayed back to him, reversing or attempting to reverse the dynamics of their intimacy) Indeed his language is saturated with irony, as evidenced by the pronounced use of italics to point out the very emphasis and ‘loaded’ aspect of his utterance. He wishes to resist the ‘colonialisation’ of medicine and explore something more intimate perhaps with Rivers. At any rate Prior’s long term experience of asthma has made him reluctant to perpetuate any ‘patient’ tag with Rivers. In this exchange we see how Rivers ( despite himself) volunteers intimate details of his sleeping patterns; of course, ironically Prior has made it into his Dr’s bedroom!
The exchange develops into teasing:
‘ Oh, go on. Professional curiosity. I want to see if I’ve detected it.’
Prior smiled faintly. ‘No, you won’t have detected this. I find myself wanting to impress you. Pathetic, isn’t it?’
Here Prior adopts a vulnerable and ostensibly ‘weak’ position. He admits his desire for affirmation from Rivers. And of course such an admission can be both liberating and truthful. How many times are people prepared to expose their feelings and invite possible rejection? However such an admission also invites intimacy. And the question ‘Pathetic, isn’t it?’ also demands, coyly perhaps, validation.
Remember too that Prior has been a long term asthmatic.He has probably developed behaviours that support and protect his ‘difference’ and it is not unusual for ‘manipulative’ behaviour to operate as both defence and ‘seduction’ in a wider sense. His relationship with his mother has made him all too aware of his ‘feminine’ vulnerability, yet he has also learned to use it to gain attention and affection.
Prior’s need to escape the class consciousness of Craiglockhart is highlighted through his burgeoning relationship with Sarah. It also allows Barker legitimmate fictional access to the world beyond the hospital and thus to explore the effects of the war in a different context. Furthermore the heterosexuality of Prior’s relationship with Sarah is set against both the homosociality and homosexuality of Craiglockart. I also wonder about the provocative ‘affect’ that such a relationship might have on an ‘interested onlooker’ like Rivers. Does Prior transgress the homosocial in order to demand the attentions not only of Sarah but also Rivers himself? Who knows. The quality of the novel is such that we are fascinated to such a degree by Prior, that such readings of his behaviour can arise.
Prior’s oscillation between one type of role and another is revealing and survivalist. His marked use of irony a means by which he attempts to control a situation as well as attain a ‘distance’ from it. Prior’s irony allows him to flirt with intimacy in terms of proxmity and distance. It protects and conceals.
River’s compassionately engages with Prior’s admisison, of vulnerability giving him respect and empathy but also ironising his own relation to Prior; in this duellling match, he parries!
‘Though I’m a bit surprised my opinion matters. I mean to be quite honest, I didn’t think you liked me very much.’
Rivers’ psychoanalytic training allows for such reciprocity. He is prepared to parry in this way for it gives the ‘patient’ (and who is the patient? Is there a fixed patient or is that the point after all? ) an opportunity for disclosure.
Prior astutely changes tack and brings in the issue of transference; ‘daddy rears his head! Rivers is surprised that prior knows about transference and is once again made more vulnerable and susceptible through Prior’s inventive capacity to unsettle his ‘sparring’ partner.
”I’m a bit too old to be sitting on daddy’s knee.’
The sexual connotation is clear and this banter maintains Rivers’ interest whilst also reshaping the hierachical structure between them. Teasing shows that you have invested attention in the other. We do not properly tease people who do not interest us; we may not even tease people we dislike. When the teasing stops, so may the interest?
Pat Barker manages to distill the most essential ingredients of her characters’ relationships through dialogue. She is highly selective in the way she chooses the dialogue to reflect the ‘kernel’ of the idea. The resulting dialogue is utterly convincing and keenly imagined, aurally as well as visually. In other words that we do genuinely hear this conversation; it sounds right. People do talk in this way. Rivers and Prior both listen for the ‘cue’ or the ‘password’ that allows the truth to make itself manifest in conversation. And in a world deprived of conversation through trauma, ignorance and brutality,The compassionate exchanges between one human being and another take on a singular aspect.
They are a gift.
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