Sebastian Faulks’s 1993 novel about the Great War opens in peacetime: a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, comes to Amiens in 1910 to learn more about the textile industry and take what he has learned back to his masters in England. He stays with the family of an industrialist, Azaire, and while he is there, he falls passionately in love with the man’s wife, Isabelle. The affair that ensues comes to a close not long before the war begins. The next time we see Stephen, he is in the trenches. Stephen’s story is interwoven with flash-forwards to the 1970s, in which his granddaughter Elizabeth seeks an escape from the round of her daily life by finding some connection with her long-dead grandfather and the war in which he fought.
This book calls itself a “novel of love and war,” but it’s several steps above a romance novel. Faulks tells a hard story well, and he relates individual stories to the broader historical scene in a way that pulls you in: the officer, the enlisted man, the French, the English, the women, the men. Though he uses scenes that could be considered a bit cliched (the muddy trenches, the communal baths), he makes them work: there are scenes that take that drama and show it fresh.
But Faulks’s style is an odd combination of the graphic — the explicit — and the distant. Here’s an (almost random) example of what I mean: at the beginning of the novel, Stephen is twenty years old, and madly in love with the lady of the house. In the night, he hears an odd sound, “almost like sobbing, interrupted by a more material sound of brief impact.” Uh-oh. Impulsively, he leaves his room to try to find to source of the noise. But as he’s getting closer, he rethinks:
The passageway came to a junction, and looking to the left Stephen saw a narrow bar of light coming from beneath a closed door. He calculated how close to the door he should go. He wanted to remain sufficiently near to the turn in the corridor that he would have time to double back into it and out of sight of anyone emerging from the room.
Cold-blooded skulking, that’s what I call that, for a twenty-year-old. At any rate, the whole book is like that: highly emotional scenes described, but at a distance of one or two steps. We are told, earnestly (and explicitly) about the passion Stephen and Isabelle experience. We are shown battle scenes of unspeakable violence and gruesome horror. There is even a graphic scene of childbirth. Yet almost none of it really moved me.
Part of it is that Stephen himself is portrayed as strange. He was brought up, first by his grandparents, and later in an institution he hated, and he seems to retain some measure of self-preserving distance toward the world. But I can’t blame it all on that. The main problem is really that even though all the characters are conducting their lives in the ultimate passions of love and war, they seem to be distanced from any of it, a chilly pace away from engagement with their circumstances.
The book is inconsistent, as well. Some characters are thin — Azaire, for instance, is nearly a cartoon — and others are rich. The one character who seemed to me completely fleshed out is Jack Firebrace, an enlisted man who receives bad news at the front:
Jack put the letter down on the ground and stared in front of him. He thought: I will not let this shake my faith. His life was a beautiful thing, it was filled with joy. I will thank God for it.
He put his head in his hands to pray but was overpowered by the grief of his loss. No polite words of gratitude came, but only the bellowing darkness of desolation. “My boy,” he sobbed, “my darling boy.”
Firebrace and his loss — or, rather, his losses — are touching personal moments in a sea of graphic violence. Faulks uses a good many themes, like the sappers’ tunnels underground, that don’t seem to go anywhere much. Is he getting at the idea of fighting for the land? Because he explicitly rejects that notion, via Stephen. If there was more, I didn’t get it.
This book may have suffered for me because I so recently read Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy. Those books were not only brilliantly written and structured, not only full of allusions and ideas, not only perfectly balanced between the tedium of everyday affairs and the inevitable violence of the war, they were profoundly compassionate. Birdsong was passionate, yes, but I felt it pushing the war away, describing its disgusting details in order to repel me, rather than trying to understand it. It’s quite an important difference — one that tipped the balance, for me.
Note: Funny story. When I first began this book, I thought for some reason that it had been written just after the first World War. About forty pages in, I got to some very graphic sex scenes, and my jaw dropped. I flipped to the copyright page. Oh. 1993. That explains that, then!