Sebastian Faulks on life’s absurdities and what frightens people about fiction

Melissa York
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Sebastian Faulks. Photos: Ben Lee
"I had the strong impression from your book,” says a character in Sebastian Faulks’ new novel, “that you think the twentieth century has been a catastrophe.”
“Undoubtedly,” comes the reply, and what follows is a conversation about humanity’s flaws, the significance of individual life, and the normalisation of genocide that feels well-rehearsed.
And so it should: Faulks – more than any other British author – has spent the past 25 years exploring topics that are, by his own admission, “huge, difficult and politer not to talk about.” From mental illness (Engleby) to terrorism (A Week in December), Faulks has tackled the heavy stuff, but it’s his hyper-realist yet poetic depictions of trench warfare that have really cemented his place in British literature. Birdsong, his most popular novel, has sold over three million copies to date, is regularly voted one of the nation’s favourite books and has earned a place on both English and History syllabuses in schools across the country.
But in his new introduction to the novel – written to mark the centenary of the Great War – Faulks describes the distaste and indifference he encountered when he said he was setting his novel in the trenches. “It was as though people felt those four years had been dealt with, assimilated and filed away,” he writes. “I passionately disagreed... What did those four years tell us about our species? Was our sense of what we are forever changed?”
Faulks went on to set two more novels in wartime France – The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Charlotte Gray – but it’s in his new book, Where My Heart Used to Beat, that it feels like he’s finally tying up loose ends and discovering definitive answers.
It follows Dr Robert Hendricks, a psychiatrist who’s enlisted to fight in North Africa and Italy during WWII and devotes his life afterwards to helping the mentally ill through talking therapies, a radical approach in the 60s, when most patients were still locked up in asylums.
But then he gets a mysterious invitation to a paradise island by another psychiatrist claiming to have known Hendricks’ father who died in WWI, where he’s forced to re-evaluate his damning views on our species’ “botched nature”. “The legacy of those four years,” Hendricks says, “is that they legitimised contempt for individual life. You see the results in purges, pogroms, holocausts – in the tens of millions of European corpses that the century has added to the 10 million dead of its first war.”
Despite an undeniable obsession with Britain’s finest – and darkest – hours, Faulks is a surprisingly jovial presence. Dressed casually in jeans and a leather jacket, his soft features are framed by an unmistakeable crop of tightly-coiled curls. I say surprisingly jovial, but that’s to ignore his tenure as team captain on Radio 4 panel show The Write Stuff, in which panellists pastiche the work of famous authors, and his contribution to the James Bond and PG Wodehouse catalogues (he wrote new novels for both). Does crawling back into the head of a jaded war veteran ever get him down?
“No, not really,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I mean, while I was writing Engleby (whose main character has a personality disorder), I didn’t become a serial killer.” He turns the question around, asking if I thought Hendricks was a cynic. Well, yeah, I reply. A recovering cynic, perhaps, but a cynic nonetheless. He nods. “I think everyone feels like that when they get to their 50s and 60s, especially your readership, in the corporate world, where you work very hard for a long time, then you start to feel tired. There’s this paranoia that it doesn’t really amount to anything. I think it’s something you feel when you get older, abstractly.”
Hendricks is a man on the precipice of despair and enlightenment; he can only experience the “richness” of the present by taking his own advice and talking about his past. This is another recurring feature in Faulks-lore; an interweaving narrative comprising a series of half-forgotten memories. That’s the closest literary structure we have, says Faulks, that emulates the human experience.
“It just occurred to me,” he says, “that if you’re told there’s some great purpose to your being here as a child, you absorb all that and believe it. The idea that your life has shape and a path of meaning, where you understand more, you grow more... Your life just doesn’t take on meaning in that way. I think part of the difficulty of getting older is, actually, realising life is just absurd. If you’re lucky, your life will have fewer difficult parts and more absurd ones, and if you’re unlucky it’ll be the other way around.”
It’s this unflinching honesty when confronted with life’s big questions that have made Faulks Britain’s go-to-guy for war fiction.
While Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke documented the horror of what they’d seen, Faulks felt – for one reason or another – literature had failed to really speak about the physicality of their experience. The visceral realism of his prose – describing the sudden “intimacy” of seeing your fellow soldiers’ shell-blasted innards or what it’s like living with a constant colony of parasites inside your clothes – is shattering. However his newest novel explores the darkness that descended on the following generation who lost their fathers in the war only to find themselves conscripted to the same fate.
Hours of research go into such an endeavour. It took Faulks three years to write – including a pause in between – during which he re-read the hundreds of documents and notes he’d amassed over the years interviewing veterans. Formerly a journalist, he clearly relishes the time he spends talking to others about their experiences and weaving it all together until he’s wrung some sense out of the century’s most nonsensical events.
The results seem to have resonated down the years and a special centenary edition of Birdsong was released last year under the audacious subtitle “The Novel of the First World War”. The BBC also made a major three part drama of it – with a script written by Faulks – in 2012. Other media have suggested that the results weren’t to his taste, but he vehemently denies these claims, adding, “I don’t know where that comes from because I’ve never said that. I think Eddie Redmayne is a superb actor and he was very good in the part.”
Faulks speaks quickly and profoundly about history so it’s no surprise he’s been asked to speak at centenary commemorations and read from his work in recent years. This is partly because Florence Green, who died in 2012 aged 110, was the last surviving WWI veteran in the world, so the torch-bearers have now been delegated down the generations.
Faulks says that sometimes he feels a bit “embarrassed” at the prospect of being one such custodian, “but at the same time I think art has a crucial role to play in understanding what happened, how it developed and the reality of what life was like living through that. I also feel very gratified that what I’ve written resonates in some way. I appreciate the enormity of that.”
National reverence for his fiction has also led to a prestigious role on the government’s advisory committee for WWI centenary commemorations, alongside military generals and notable historians. “It’s a very large group of people,” he concedes, “and it’s very difficult for everyone to completely agree on everything. The idea is that the government runs ideas by us and we give our various opinions and concerns and what emerges is this sort of compromise.
I do think the instinct behind it is a very good one, though, because it’s the government trying to avoid giving you their version of history. They have to think about the ways other countries could be offended in every instance, and while it can seem overly sensitive and politically correct at times, I think it probably is the right way to go about it.”
Where My Heart Used to Beat is not only thematically comprehensive, drawing on his past work and research, it also forced Faulks to examine his personal connection with those great wars. The psychiatrist in his novel asks Hendricks to relive the same campaign in North Africa that his father, Captain Peter Faulks, fought in, earning a Military Cross for his efforts.
“My father didn’t really talk about it,” says Faulks, “but he wrote a memoir – that’s probably a very pretentious name for it, really – and that was very good for the details of daily life on the front; what they wore, what transport there was, what cigarettes were available out there and that sort of thing.” He quickly dismisses the idea that Hendricks, the great cynic, is the literary immortalisation of his father.
Reading biography into fiction, even historical fiction, is something of an irritation for Faulks. I suspect it has something to do with the fact it diminishes his craft, his uncanny ability to describe the most extreme conditions of human experience in horrifying mental technicolour.
As always, Faulks has a darker theory. “I think that people are frightened, actually, by the idea of pure creation, that they feel something for a person that only exists in your mind.”
His characters may not be real, but the trauma they suffered was. And that’s the truly frightening thing about Faulks’ fiction – for too many, it wasn’t fiction at all.
Where My Heart Used to Beat is available to buy now, RRP £20, published by Hutchinson