Faulks, Sebastian: Birdsong

The programme of events commemorating the centenary of World War 1 has triggered interest and heightened awareness of what is often referred to as “the forgotten war”, and we all wish to extend our appreciation of such momentous events. “Birdsong” (1993) is, of course, a work of fiction, but it is the product of extensive, detailed and original research. Faulks immersed himself in the time and the events that characterise it. In so doing he has been able to bring insights that seem authentic to a story line that compares and contrasts the vagaries of human nature when confronted with horror. Above all it gives you a sense of what it must have felt like to fight in the trenches.

It follows that this was an ideal choice for our book group.

The proposer of the book provided a brief introduction, outlining the author’s background. Born in Berkshire on 20th April 1953, Faulks has said that he had a very happy childhood. His mother introduced him and his elder brother to books, theatre and music at an early age. He was educated at Elstree School near Reading; Wellington College, Berkshire; and Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he read English. He graduated in 1974, and was elected an Honorary Fellow in 2007.

He decided that he wanted to be a writer while still at school, and after graduating he eked out a living by teaching at a private school. Then he joined the staff of the Daily Telegraph, firstly as a junior reporter and later as a feature writer for the Sunday Telegraph. He wrote books in his spare time and later reviewed books for the Sunday Times and The Spectator. In 1984 his first book titled “A Trick of Light” was published. In 1986 he joined the Independent as Literary Editor and he stayed with the Independent, becoming deputy editor of the Sunday paper. He left in 1991 and subsequently wrote columns for the Guardian and Evening Standard, before the success of “Birdsong” enabled him to focus his skills on writing books.

He has published 15 novels. The best known is the trilogy set in France: “The Girl at the Lion D’Or”, “Birdsong” and “Charlotte Gray”. “Engelby” was published in 2007 to mixed reviews. It represented a departure for Faulks in terms of the near-contemporary setting and in the decision to use a first person narrator. In 2008 he was commissioned to write a new James Bond novel by Ian Fleming’s estate to celebrate the centenary of Fleming’s death. “Devil May Care” became an immediate best seller.

He has been the recipient of many literary awards. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and received a CBE for services to literature in 2002. He married in 1989 and has three children.

The proposer explained that, as part of the WW1 commemorations, he had been involved in research into members of his golf club who had died in the conflict, and that this had provoked his interest in the book. He had previously read Engleby and had listened to Faulks talking about Engleby at the Edinburgh Book Festival. However, he preferred Birdsong.

Some of our group had read Birdsong some time ago and had re-read the book in order to refresh their memory. They all found added benefit in the second reading, uncovering depth in the characters and their contemplations, and wider themes in the book.

There were differing views of the “time shifts” otherwise described as “jump cuts”. Some thought it worked brilliantly, drawing out the contrast between untroubled pre-war life, the wretchedness of war itself and the transition to post war reality, and embodying his wider themes about time and the generations.  Others thought the time shifts “a bit clunky” and “irritating”, particularly the shift to the 1970’s.

There was a general view that the first part of the book that deals with Stephen’s life in Amiens, staying with the Azaire family and having a passionate affair with his host’s wife Isabelle, was a bit too long. One person was tempted to stop reading at this stage; however, all were sufficiently encouraged by the description of the steamy sex to carry on reading.

The jump from peacetime Amiens to the Western Front in 1916 was a surprise and a shock to all, with the stark contrast between the love affair in the peaceful countryside of northern France and the horrors of the Somme. This narrative technique worked well throughout the book, and was greatly appreciated by all.

It was mentioned that Faulks deliberately imitated cinematic narrative devices, “moving from unbearable close ups to a view on a long lens and a very wide shot”. This thread permeates all parts of the novel, and was particularly effective when deployed in linking time, building characters and in dealing with themes such as life and death.

Death is an ever-present theme. The scale and arbitrariness of death, and the impact on individuals and their families and comrades are topics that are especially well portrayed. The impression is given of fleeting contact with individuals, insights into their lives followed by descriptions of their deaths, sometimes casual and sometimes in graphic detail. It was suggested that the death of comrades in some way helped to secure a closer bond between those remaining and to unite them in a common cause.

The death of Michael Weir narrates the existence of chance, bad luck and timing as factors leading to death and to the resultant feelings of guilt felt by those that failed to intervene sooner. Weir is portrayed as a good man and the manner of his death was clearly intended to anger and horrify. This was cited by one of our group as a good example of the arbitrariness of death.

The group also liked the way that the vivid description of the death of Jack Firebrace was linked to the death of his eight year old son, whose passing some two years earlier had stripped Jack of his feeling of invincibility and his reason for living. We felt that deep emotional feelings, and their influence on the struggle for survival, were especially well explored.

The group admired Faulks’ descriptive powers in relation to the scale and nature of death.

bodies were starting to pile and clog the progress”; “explosives can reduce men to particles so small that only the wind carried them – men simply go missing”.

Stephen’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, on visiting a cemetery near Bapaume in the Somme, felt that “on every surface of every column as far as her eye could see there were names teeming, reeling, over surfaces of yards, of hundreds of yards, over furlongs of stone”.

One of our company particularly liked Stephen speaking to Gray regarding the attack on Beaumont Hammel  “I looked in your eyes and there was perfect blankness”, and following the attack as darkness fell the movement of the wounded was described as “It was like a resurrection in a cemetery 12 miles long”.

The group discussed the death rates of officers and men in both WW1 and WW2 and considered the reasons for the differences. While this conversation was interesting, the complexity of the topic threatened to divert us from considering the novel and it was parked for the time being.

It was suggested that at the time of writing “Birdsong” there was relatively little interest in WW1 and perhaps this silence related to the shock or trauma suffered by those who fought and survived. The reluctance on the part of veterans to share their experiences could be attributed to an overwhelming desire to forget or to conceal the trauma for reasons of self-preservation. Those at home might also not have wanted to hear about these experiences. We were reminded of Weir’s efforts to tell his father the truth about the front which were met with complete, almost hostile indifference.

Most of the group agreed that the strongest and most memorable sections in the book for them were those concerning the 1st day of the Somme offensive and those describing the underground warfare. The seduction of Isabelle in Amiens was also admired, but the reasons for the end of the affair remained a bit of a mystery.

There were mixed views on the sections dealing with the 1970’s. Some considered them a bit contrived, particularly the coded diaries, while others thought them well structured and entirely appropriate given their purpose to suggest that time heals, that hope arises out of despair and that life goes on.

It was pointed out that ironically the book’s title “Birdsong” is meant to represent the indifference of the natural world to the behaviour of humans. One felt that, Faulks, as an English graduate, was sometimes too self-conscious and contrived in his use of imagery to reinforce his themes, an example being his overly repetitive use of the imagery of birds from the title onwards. On the other hand, this might be Faulks’ way of re-enforcing the idea that life goes on in some shape or form despite the horrors of human actions.

Everyone admired Faulks’ skilful characterisation throughout the novel. Particular mention was made of the complex character of Stephen Wraysford, and the portraits of Azaire, Gray and Jack Firebrace. There was a view that the male characters were stronger than the female. Some found the character of Isabelle unconvincing. It was suggested that this might relate to the mystery associated with her behaviour. Various theories were put forward for the ending of her affair with Stephen, including one suggestion that she had decided that Stephen was not good father material, but none of these gained the confidence of the group and we were left to speculate. It was also suggested that the subject of the novel naturally places greater emphasis on the male characters, and that this was likely to result in these characters being more fully developed.

The group was surprised to learn that Faulks had written the book in only 6 months. It was his fourth novel and by far the most successful. He described the book’s success as the “locomotion” of his career. The book has sold more than 2 million copies in the UK and 3 million worldwide. Initially Faulks had difficulty finding a publisher in the USA, but it was eventually published by Random House and has done well. Perhaps surprisingly sales in Germany have been good, while sales in France have been poor. Faulks has commented that the French were surprised to hear that any other nationalities were involved in WW1!

It was the unanimous view of the group that “Birdsong” is a great modern novel, and we look forward to reading more of Sebastian Faulks’ work.