20 Monday Apr 2015
If you’ve never read anything about life in the trenches during World War One, Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War, 1993, by Sebastian Faulks is an excellent place to begin. It’s also a welcome addition to the literature of that war for those already steeped in it.
It has the shape of a modern novel, with multiple plots, themes burnished in differing instances, jump-cuts between places and times, not to mention a sweet frisson of erotica. The novels the came in the decade following the war were not able to do all this. As if memory were still weighed down by the mud and blood of the writers’ experiences the narrative progress of the post-war novels is straight forward. A memory is just a memory, brief and explanatory of character or feeling, not a worm-hole to a different time and place. The plots are typically a series of battles, filled with terror, interrupted by days of boredom or, in not a few, a feeling that when not under fire these were great and glorious days. Women, if they appear at all, are passing figures seen in shops, perhaps cavorted with after a chance encounter, or professional pleasers, desired by and later to be ashamed of.
Birdsong begins in pre-war France. A young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, has arrived in the home of a well-to-do textile merchant, Azaire, and his wife, Isabelle, in the town of Amiens, in 1910. His descriptions of the area bring to mind familiar Impressionist paintings.
Behind the gardens the river Somme broke up into small canals that were the picturesque feature of Saint Leu; on the other side of the boulevard these had been made into a series of water gardens, little islands of damp fertility divided by the channels of the split river. Long, flat-bottomed boats propelled by poles took the town-dwellers through the waterways on Sunday afternoons. All along the river and its streams sat fishermen, slumped on their rods; in hats and coats beneath the cathedral and in shirtsleeves by the banks of the water garden they dipped their lines in search of trout or carp.
Readers with knowledge of the war will be put on alert by the name of the town and the river, scenes of horrific battles to come.
Wraysford is introduced to the factory, with some interesting observations on labor unrest, so seldom part of western fiction, for all the impact it has had in society. A chance noise in the middle of the night and a stealthy discovery of an unsettling scene between husband and wife set the opening amour in motion. With delicate strokes the younger man is drawn to the older woman, mother of two.
Sometimes from the safety of the sitting room he would fix his eyes … on the vital, unspeaking figure of Madame Azaire. He didn’t ask himself if she was beautiful, because the physical effect of her presence made the question insignificant.
He finds himself stirred with jealousy finding her with another man while delivering food to hungry workers. We hear in the narrator’s voice some of her earlier life and of her sister Jeanne, who will become an important figure in the story. Passion overcomes the two and they flee to southern France where the idyll continues until Isabelle discovers she is pregnant. She leaves, returns to her home, without a word to Stephen.
Cut to 1916, two years into the war and some five years after the separation. Immediately, as other men are introduced, we find that Faulks can convey horror as well as tenderness. New characters are introduced in war-built tunnels near Amiens. One man is “forty-five feet underground with several hundred tons of France above his face.” German and French alike are using tunnels to mount surprise attacks, blow up ammunition dumps. Each is afraid not only of the tunnels themselves, life underground and the possibility of being buried alive, but of the other side breaking through, tunnel to tunnel, and attacking. Claustrophobia. Silence. Strange noises. The smell of bodies. The fear of surprise. The night time rats are the least of it all.
One of the men prays.
It would make no difference to the outcome of the war whether he himself lived or died; it made no difference whether today it was Turner whose head was blown from his body, or whether tomorrow it was his or Shaw’s or Tyson’s. Let them die, he prayed shamefully, but please God, let me live.
There was a roar in the tunnel and a huge ball of earth and rock blew past them It took four men with it, their heads and limbs blown away and mixed with the rushing soil. There was an arm with a corporal’s stripe on it near him but most of the men’s bodies had been blown into the moist earth.
For a writer who has not been a soldier or in a war, Faulks does a superb job of describing the settings, the feelings, the exhaustion, the conversations of the men, as well as having the narrator give background and detail.
Men queue naked in the cold for a turn in communal baths “of variable temperature … improvised out of wine barrels and animal feeding troughs.” As they finish they are driven into the yards with the spray of a cold hose, “where they would recover clothes which, though clean, still contained the immovable lice.” They hear the voices of village women “like consoling memories of a lost life.”
Marching to the front lines, they pass others digging a large open pit, and realize it is for the graves of those who are about to die.
Shells which are so large they have to be lifted to the guns by railway cranes pulverize bodies and create holes “large enough for a farmhouse and all its out buildings. … Men who had prepared themselves to walk into machine guns or defend their trenches to the last could not face death in this shape.”
As Stephen and the lieutenant in charge of the miners talk, of love and loneliness, we hear mention of Isabelle and her disappearance, connecting us back to the Stephen in love we have almost forgotten.
233 pages into the novel Faulks suddenly transports us to 1978, London where a woman named Elizabeth is navigating the very modern world of a woman being tugged between expectations of marriage and motherhood, or full time work. It takes a bit of reader adjustment. When she begins pulling old notebooks of her grandfather from her mother’s attic, focus returns. We realize that they had been written by Stephen Wraysford, though neither Elizabeth nor we have all the pieces to the puzzle until the end of the book. Faulks is parsimonious and astute in seeding clues. Another plot thread begins which will have thematic resonance as the narrative goes on. Elizabeth becomes pregnant by a married man, and chooses to have the child … an interesting echo of her own mother’s origins as a child of love. It also allows Faulks to end, as he wished, on a birth, a new beginning, coming from the collision of war and love.
It’s an interesting choice: after creating a small world of love and war to step outside it and take up another story, the granddaughter, who has never known Wraysford, discovering him piecemeal through journal entries. Yet it is not these discoveries which we are reading, as she, a character, turns into the author, a familiar turn in modernist writing. She is discovering the man and the war as we are, as Faulks himself did, and wants others of his generation to do —
“My generation is uniquely privileged in that we haven’t had to go to war, but my father and my grandfather were there and because of that, it’s part of my life. I don’t think I had really grasped that until my first son was born in 1990 … I felt that these things needed to be explained to people of my generation … That may seem rather odd because there have after all been some great war memoirs and poetry written, but they weren’t giving the kind of experience that I wanted to write about. I felt there was something else to say.”
And his “explanation” is very very good. He writes not simply of men at war, but a man who has loved, in war; a man in war who carries with him a past and who, once the war is over, will find love, into which he carries a past. The addition of the granddaughter, to show us this act of recovery, after we have been immersed in the fully drawn results, was both intriguing and odd to me. It had the effect of “breaking the frame” in a stage play or a film, when an actor turns to face the audience, acknowledging them, and speaking directly. Sometimes this is an interesting effect, a way to “double” the experience, to bring the audience into the drama, to link the drama to the lives of those watching. Not here, however. It seems to me to stand apart, an unnecessary show-and-tell about the importance of recovering the past, and then grows off on its own, not fully integrating into the lives being discovered. The film adaptation did a good job in eliminating the granddaughter and her discoveries. We simply experience the lives of the men and women of the war years.
I am not sure either that Faulks’ interest in “human extremes: what we are capable of doing to each other — in violence and in love,” carries across as he might wish, to the reader. The scenes of the naked body, in love making and in death, don’t have the impact of similarity which he intends. Stephen takes a virginal officer friend to a whore house. When the friend can not go through with it, Stephen goes into the room.
“When he looked at the girl’s upper body, the ribs and spine, he thought of the shell casing that stuck from Reeve’s abdomen; he thought of the hole in Douglas’s shoulder where he had pressed his hand through him almost to the lung. … Then his mind emptied … she was no more than animal matter, less dear, less valuable than the flesh of the men he had seen die. He did not know whether to take the girl or kill her.
This scene as portrayed in the film is simply baffling; a threat of murder. We attribute his actions to a kind of PTSD, however, not a piercing reaction of love and loss for his men.
Nor am I certain why incest, in two instances, appears as a shadow of love. It is a transgressive manifestation of love, certainly, but why here? What is being added? What are we to understand?
Despite my puzzlement, I don’t think much is lost by setting a few things aside, not integral to my appreciation of the story of men in war, their terrible losses and of men and women whose injuries from love, of a wholly different kind and degree, are interesting, and real and related to the time and the war.
Birdsong was an enormous success in England when it came out in 1993, selling over half a million copies in paperback and getting wide acclaim from critics and readers alike.
That success, it seems to me, comes from the imaginative access Faulks opens on long ago events. Perhaps, as is said of translation of great literature, enormous events must be re-imagined in each generation. As with other recently written fiction about WW I Birdsong has the language and images of modern sensibility. Descriptions of intimacy and cruelty which were only beginning to appear in writing after the war –in good part because of the war itself– shaking off Edwardian circumspection, are now familiar to us. We expect it. For modern readers, the fiction of the 10s-30s, even when about passion (D.H. Lawrence) or war (Remarque or Barbusse,) can seem as if softened by veils and shadows. An obscenity is the word “bloody.” An amorous encounter is a “intimate touching.” Birdsong, (and First Casualty, (2012) Ben Elton or The Canal Bridge, (2014) Michael Phelan) bring considerably more to their scenes of love and destruction. We are also now at ease with shifts in time and perspective, with sudden appearance and slow revelation, as well as slow build and then perception. We have been raised on movies; our imaginations and our story tellers both reflect that. And so, these stories written today, even if by writers not immersed in the war itself, impress upon us more deeply the experience of war than those of 90 years ago.
Read it and I think you, like half a million Britons, will be swept up and into the lives shaped by a war, the 100th anniversary of which we are now observing, reminding ourselves that war then, like war now, has real and terrible consequences which, in hindsight will seem to have been avoidable.