Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

7 January 2008
Part-way through Part 1
A re-read…. Stephen is the archetypal arthouse lit young man: thoughtful, self-possessed – like the teacher’s son in McEwan’s On Chesil Beach or the character in the second (?) of the stories in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Like them, he’s on unfamiliar territory, finding his way. Like Cloud Atlas Boy, he’s abroad, early in the 20th Century. And… sex is in the air. Unlike either of those others, this one knows what he’s doing: the first chance he gets – a day off work – he grabs it. And, like the Chinese smallholder in Rose Tremain’s The Colour his lovemaking seems unbelievable in its sensual, gentle generosity. There’s none of that embarrassed, cack-handed urgency as described in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and On Chesil Beach, or the stunned remorse that follows. To me, that was believable… but maybe that says more about me than about the books. (Sorry about the flurry of cross-references. I’ll settle down in a bit.)

Anyway, now he’s established his credentials and he’s just visited the cathedral. He’s surrounded by reminders of death (What’s the plural of memento mori?) and, well, remembers he’s going to die. 24 hours after the best sex ever – during which Faulks has fun taking Isabel, particularly, to other-worldly realms of sensation – life seems, with its petty concerns, a heap of nothing. Whass point?

9 January
To the end of Part 1
The BSE count (best sex ever) stays high for a while, with a range of positions and non-penetrative practices described, no more believably than before. Faulks decides to bring it to a crisis point that isn’t really a crisis: Isabel tells Rene, he’s upset, they leave on a train, they set up, with no apparent trouble, in an apartment for her and a carpenter’s job for him. Yeh, right. We find out a bit about Stephen’s past and no, he never went to gigolo school. Aw, it must have all come naturally. As does the pregnancy she decides not to tell him about… and it’s her turn for the ecclesiastical moment as she focuses on the fleshliness of Christ’s Passion and wonders if sex is, y’know, enough. Whass point? She leaves Stephen, in a fog of unresolved guilt, and it doesn’t look as if she’s coming back. What’s a man to do? (Join up, mate. But hang on, that bit comes later.)

10 January
Part 2
I can see why I wasn’t entirely convinced the first time I read it. Part 2 – as I hinted yesterday – is set during World War 1. It has those everyday, lazy coincidences of novels: we’re to believe that Stephen spends late June 1916 above the same bit of river in France that he fished in six years before during his BSE days. And bizarrely, this part of the novel begins with a different character entirely, a sapper who only encounters Stephen – now a lieutenant that we don’t recognise either – when our moody friend threatens to have him court-martialled. Hmm. Why does Faulks make him quite so unsympathetic? Even the other men see him as an odd fish….

The set piece, of course, is the first day of the big push – which reads like the Battle of the Somme but seems to take place somewhere else on the line. Inevitably in the name of Art, or Truth, or whatever, Faulks describes injuries in that cool, graphic way that has become a cliché. Scenes in hospital (Stephen picks up an injury some time before the big show) are interchangeable with scenes in McEwan’s Atonement. And, because the primacy of the flesh in defining our humanity is such a central theme in this book, we’re soon led down another, not unexpected, path: the futility of it all, the way all that pointless death defines a new, Godless way of seeing the world. But in this part, unlike in Part 1, it’s Stephen who floats away from his body into some other realm. And this time it’s not through sex, it’s through that other great, bodily, identity-defining experience: the near-fatal injury.

But, shit, it’s such a miserable read.

12 January
Five days back I was up to the end of Part 2, and was being made miserable. Since then… Faulks has done a pretty good job of persuading us that years have passed. Stephen’s many colleagues have been picked off one by one – except two that Stephen’s granddaughter encounters in 1978 (I’ll come back to her) and Jack Firebrace, the sapper whose story began Part 2. Stephen and Jack are trapped underground, and have been for most of the penultimate (?) section of the novel. Jack’s injured, Stephen is scrabbling, then exploding, a way out. Credibility is overstretched, unfortunately: their position is quite impossible, and the fact that we know it as surely as the characters do makes us – makes me, anyway – think of the author as dispensing arbitrary fates. Weir’s been shot, of course; Stephen has survived the underground explosion: what do you expect? So, despite all its right-on realism, it’s palpably a novel. And I’ve stopped caring what happens.

There are, of course, some extraordinary set pieces. The underground claustrophobia is one of the things I remember from the first time, and the sudden deaths of characters we’ve got to know over years of the narrative provide an armchair insight into the arbitrariness and pointlessness of it all. And in the bit I’m reading now, Faulks has brought in a new, 11th-hour perspective: Levi the German Jew, who has just been told of the death of his brother. What he doesn’t know is that the explosion that killed him was the one Stephen set in an attempt to get out of the tunnels. But we know, and we look forward to the meeting that’s bound to happen. (Y’know, this being a novel and all that.)

As for the 1978 sections… I don’t believe in Elizabeth, the granddaughter – or the trove of Stephen’s notebooks her mother has kept. (We assume her mother is Isabel – but we find she left France with a German in 1917, and Stephen’s spent a night with her sister since then…. So: maybe Stephen won’t survive. Maybe the notebook Elizabeth was reading a chapter or two back – dated 1918, just before the underground section I’m on now – was the last he wrote. I can’t remember now whether it was Elizabeth’s mother or her grandmother – Isabel/Jeanne – who could remember him.)

One last thing, for now. There are great tracts of this novel I don’t remember from the first time, including any of the 1978 bits. Did I ever actually read it all? I was sure that I had….

To the end
The two endings – the group hug in the tunnel, between men who were each seeking to avenge the deaths of people they loved before the stronger claims of common humanity took over (oh yeh?) and the wonderful miracle of – wait for it – childbirth in 1979, followed by a nature-sodden epiphany among the conkers as Robert, or Richard or whoever celebrates the birth of his son who, somehow, is also Stephen’s child, and the one that Jack Firebrace lost – are glutinously sickly. And, yawn, a bird sings. Of course it does. Question: is it really possible to write a novel about WW1?

I’m going to have to re-read Pat Barker’s Regeneration.


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