Sebastian Faulks: The Wars of Words
PUBLISHED: 09:21 03 January 2017 | UPDATED: 09:21 03 January 2017
When it comes to the subjects of the realities of war, there are few finer writers than Sebastian Faulks. Katie Jarvis engaged him in a little light skirmishing
Unlike his books, I cannot read Sebastian Faulks.
I first come across him (in person) speaking at Cheltenham Literature Festival, where his interviewer jokes that Sebastian rejected the formal-looking chairs originally adorning the stage (“late-night line-up interview-chairs from about 1968,” he terms them) and asked for a settee instead. “Jilly Cooper was on this stage earlier, with a comfortable sofa,” Sebastian points out, reasonably; humorously.
And then there’s his statement to the audience that he won’t sign anything but his latest novel. Birdsong? Charlotte Gray? The Girl at the Lion D’Or? Nope. None of the classics that made his name. When it comes to him wielding a pen, it has to be his newly-(ish)-published Where My Heart Used to Beat or nought.
And then there’s the strange moment when the floor is opened up to the audience. “I can see two questions over there, in this block. Yes, you – the gentleman near the front…”
And a man takes the microphone. I’m expecting him to eulogise the quite-wonderful Birdsong in the guise of a question. To ruminate on the richness of the French as a source of novel conundrums. Or to pose any number of other clever Faulksian-focused queries.
Instead, in even, moderate tones, the man unexpectedly says: “You’ve used war as a subject quite often and, presumably, made quite a lot of money from it. Do you feel this is ethical and do you contribute to MSF [Médecins Sans Frontières] or to the Red Cross?”
You can hear a silent, collective gasp.
Strange question. Thought-provoking question. Tough question.
Sebastian Faulks has a message-to-self, written on a pad in his writing den. It says, “No war. No psychiatry. No consciousness.”
Maybe he’s bored of writing about war – though I can’t imagine it. But I’m far from done with reading his conflict-ridden fiction. The rotting, stinking foulness of the dun-coloured earth; the red of shattered flesh; the aborted yellowness of embryonic emotions; the black of bullet-torn souls. There are few finer writers than Faulks when it comes to realising the fiction of war and fictionalising its realities.
But we can take more, Sebastian! We can honestly take more.
He knows that. He’s actually here to talk to me about latest novel – Where My Heart Used to Beat (which features both the First and Second World Wars, alongside a rather gloomily brilliant analysis of the human psyche). But he is currently musing, in general, on our endless capacity to wallow in other people’s horror – though he couches that musing in compliment-form.
“Readers are so amazingly resilient,” he says. “I remember, when Birdsong [his First World War novel] came out, saying, ‘There’s a lot of blood and gore and slaughter; you might not like this’. And people came back saying, ‘It’s absolutely fine! No problem at all.’
“And I said, ‘What about that bit where they go to pick up the bodies; and the guy puts his hand into the ribs and it disappears because the flesh has rotted?’
“And they replied, ‘No, I’m sure it was like that! I trust you.’”
He doesn’t say he doesn’t like people. And I’m sure he does. After all, he surely couldn’t write his lyrical, sometimes satirical, prose in the empathetic way that he does if he were spitting like Juvenal. He’s definitely Horatian.
And other things he says, in the course of conversation, point to considerateness:
“When you’re writing, you’re desperate to find something all-engrossing, which takes up all your mental and emotional energy. If I haven’t put 100 percent of me into it, I don’t think it’s right asking people to pay… [looks at cover] £8.99.”
Even joyful ebullience:
“Most of my friends are simply appalled by the books I write. I’m known as a bit of a joker; first guy up to the bar. They think: ‘What is all this terrible sadness and tragedy and madness and war?’”
But, it has to be said, this latest novel certainly doesn’t show us – the human race - in our most flattering light.
Where My Heart Used to Beat is the story of disillusioned English doctor Robert Hendricks, who receives a mysterious letter from a stranger, asking him to stay at his home on a little island off the South of France. (Think: love-child of The Tempest and The Magus, with its own personality to boot.) This stranger has information about Robert’s father, who died in the First World War.
In terms of war (and Faulks is punctiliously accurate when drawing on actual people and events), it covers ‘new’ ground: namely, the Italian campaign launched in 1943 – often poorly served by history books, which prefer the Normandy landings – when the Allies reinvaded Nazi Europe from the south. The fictional Hendricks takes part in this campaign; and so did Faulks’s own father, who wrote a not-for-publication memoir, details from which – I assume – provide valuable colour and context.
The reality of the Italian push is not a pretty one, though it started well enough. The Allies landed successfully and took the enemy by surprise; instead of capitalising on their early gains, subsequent dithering by American and British command disastrously allowed the Germans to bring back troops from France and other parts of Europe.
“There then followed warfare, as nasty as anything in the First World War, in which men were lying in slit trenches no more than two-foot deep, swimming in blood and excrement for a long, long time. And so I felt it was interesting to write about something not many people know about. Maybe it’s the former journalist in me [he was deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday]: I like to tell people something new.”
But the book isn’t just the story of a war-traumatised doctor; it’s equally a wider history of the sheer disaster we know as the 20th century.
“In 1905, Europe was Kaisers and Archdukes and Kings; in 1995, Europe is largely social democracy. But its transition from one to another was achieved at a cost of millions of lives – war, genocide, slaughter. And Europe, at the beginning of the 20th century, could have presented itself as the beacon continent of the world – the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, leader in science and the arts; by the end of the 20th century, the only thing we really led the world in was genocide.
“This is a very sad story,” Sebastian Faulks concludes, “but this is our story.”
Does he think humans unredeemable?
“One of the conclusions I came to is that humans are a very odd new species that hasn’t settled in properly, so it’s not surprising that we behave in these catastrophic ways.”
Certainly, he shares with his character, Hendricks, a deep desire to understand if not why we’re here, then at least the values and experiences we have during our lifetimes. Given Faulks’s own background – Wellington College in 1966, followed by an open exhibition to read English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge – you might expect him to be a closed-up, boarding-school intellectual.
But his life has been far from monotone. He enjoyed a happy, affectionate childhood with his brother and childhood companion Edward, introduced by their mother to books, theatre and art galleries at a young age.
He was a questioning child – and there was plenty to question. Among family legends was the story of his grandfather, a soldier in the First World War, a reporter in the Second, who accompanied the Americans into Germany where he was killed by a sniper while crossing the Rhine.
“It does seem to me that the first six books I wrote were, roughly speaking, about who are we, which is a real adolescent question. When you get to 18, you look at the world you’ve grown up in, and all the things you’ve accepted that mum and dad have told you.
“I grew up believing there would be a third world war at any moment - middle of the Cold War, communism, gulags, and so on. Mum and dad saying it would be all right, and then dad going off to the cottage hospital to have a bit more German shrapnel taken out of his arm, where it had worked its way down. And I remember thinking, ‘Well, this isn’t all right, really. This is just so not all right.’”
He’s not a novelist who haunts HQ command centres or the bridges of battleships, demanding operational answers. Instead, he’s down in the trenches, chasing off rats and scratching lice with the wretched soldiers who stare out the cold-eyed glare of insanity.
“To me, the interesting thing was: What was it like for a 19-year-old from Accrington to witness events that no humans in history had ever seen before. And, more specifically - because that’s such a big question and your 19-year-old wouldn’t really be able to express it in words - you have to go into a much smaller way of describing it. Were his palms sweating? What was the taste of tea that had come up that morning with the rations? How heavy was the rifle on his finger and the pack on his back which he would, genuinely, have responded to?”
Yes. What was it like to live through hell? And what has that done to us, that our ancestors should have had to?
So let’s return to the beginning. To the sofa-thing, on stage. Well, that was just funny. And the book-signing thing? Well, that was just odd.
But the war thing? The bit about making money out of writing?
“I have sometimes wondered whether it’s really ethical,” was the reply Sebastian Faulks gave to this hand-grenade of a question.
“And I do contribute to various war charities. I also gave up a considerable amount of time, earlier this year, to helping the Government with the commemoration of the Somme centenary. It was quite long, gruelling voluntary work, which I was very happy to do. And very interesting, too, with [our] Government departments, and with the French Government and the French local government – a mixture of the sublime and the faintly ridiculous. Getting notes back saying, ‘The MOD doesn’t fancy this and the Foreign Office won’t wear that.’
“…But…” he concludes.
“I think it is a good question and one I haven’t got to the bottom of yet.”
His on-stage interviewer offers him a get-out. “How useful is it for art to try to commemorate, explore, explain?” she ruminates, kindly.
“I think that’s quite an easy way out,” he counters, bravely.
Later – when we’re chatting over a coffee - I offer him another get-out. But a valid one, I think. One of the doctors, in Where My Heart Used to Beat, suggests that those who have been traumatised by the past can come to terms with it by changing the neural basis of the memory.
Isn’t that what fiction does for the collective memory? Help us come to terms with trauma by fictionalising fact?
It’s clear – as he processes this – that the audience-question is still lying heavily on his mind.
“I hope so. Yes,” Sebastian Faulks says, carefully. “Is it wrong to profit from war…? Maybe, actually - and it’s hard to argue this really convincingly - you could say that, by revisiting, reliving, you’re not falsifying; but you are changing the basis of memory and making it easier to accommodate. And contributing to a sort of easier post-traumatic world.”
Indeed. We fictionalise so much of our history by remembering it in ways that we want to remember it; by filtering it in ways that we want to filter it. And nowhere more so than in war.
It seems to me that, in his gritty, visceral, horrifying novels, Sebastian Faulks is oxymoronically defictionalising it.
“Again, a very interesting point, probably beyond the scope of an article. But, yeah, in a way; I think so. Certainly, in Birdsong, one of the things it is saying is: Actually, this is what it was like. And it’s not about cap-badges and memorials and planes and tanks and numbers; it’s about this.
“Although the characters are all imagined and invented, it is saying that you may have lost sight of what this actually was.”
Let novelists have their money – they’ve earned it. They’ve earned it in their imagination; but also in giving us back some truths about our fictonalised past.
Where My Heart Used to Beat, by Sebastian Faulks, is published in paperback by Vintage, price £8.99
For more on Sebastian’s work, visit the website here.