Barrett’s novel explores a pre-WWI sanatorium

Andrea Barrett’s newest book, The Air We Breathe, takes on a theme with a distinguished history: it’s about the lives of sanatorium patients during WWI. As Barrett is a professor of English here at Williams, I was privileged enough to be able to ask her directly about this decision, which intrigued me from the moment I began reading.

“I couldn’t help but notice that you set the book during WWI in a sanatorium … quite similar to [Thomas] Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Did that influence you?” I asked via e-mail, as she is quite busy with the work that follows the publication of the book.

“It did influence me, very much; in fact the novel started as a direct response to The Magic Mountain,” Barrett responded. “And out of a desire to write a kind of low-rent, American version of it: poor immigrant patients in America rather than rich European patients, a public sanatorium rather than a fancy private sanatorium; the eve of the American entry into the war rather than the beginning of the war in Europe. And an inclusion, this time, of the perspectives of some of the people who worked at the sanatorium caring for the patients, as well as that of the patients themselves.”

It is indeed a fresh take on Mann’s subject of years ago, and much more seemingly socialist in its agenda. Sanatorium patients gather to discuss ideas and dream of creating a utopian community. The radiographer at the sanatorium also plays a major part, and the book employs far more realism than Mann’s rather fanciful, philosophically allegorical work. Patients develop love relationships; one is embroiled in a love triangle with two of the sanatorium workers. Barrett successfully exploits the confined nature of the sanatorium and its status as an emotional pressure-cooker as she builds her understated drama into a narrative which is, for the most part, only understatedly emotional.

Perhaps the lack of affect is due to the narrator . . . or rather, narrators; the book is narrated by “we,” the patients of the sanatorium. I asked Barrett about this choice, one not often seen in fiction.

“From the beginning,” wrote Barrett, “the novel seemed to demand this odd voice; I wouldn’t have chosen it if I could have made anything else work, as it presented some difficulties. But no other voice was capable of embodying the tension between the group of patients, and the individuals that compose it. Between the needs of the groups we belong to, and our needs as singular beings.”

Most of us don’t belong to a group as cloistered and tense as that of the sanatorium patients. The setting Barrett chose for her book, in fact, is so remote – not only from our daily experience, but from our subjective emotional experience, due to the narration – as to appear irrelevant. It isn’t, partly because it faces an issue we’re facing as a country today: America’s entry into war.

“How much did you base the book on historical fact?” I asked.

“All of the characters are invented, and so is the sanatorium of Tamarack State and the village of Tamarack Lake. But there were real villages, and real sanatoria, very much like the ones in the book, filled with patients who shared some of the experiences of the characters in the book. And the American Protective League, along with the atmosphere of suspicion, xenophobia, and forced patriotism as the country entered WWI, were unfortunately quite real.”

She evokes these feelings poignantly by linking them to the morally ambiguous figure of Miles, a well-to-do outpatient at the sanatorium. He joins the American Protective League, but uses it to get back at the man who he thinks stole the affections of the woman he obsesses over. This focus on human foibles and the narrowness of the setting in the sanatorium, make the political personal (according to current theories it is), without engaging in the rather absurdist allegorization that Mann uses in his much earlier novel. Barrett manages to feed off Mann’s legacy without being derivative, and her novel offers a fresh and interesting perspective into a turbulent turning point in American history.

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