Sebastian Faulks (Vintage, 1994, ISBN 0099387913)
It might seem a strange choice for a 14-year-old girl, but Sebastian Faulks’ WWI period piece Birdsong was one of my favourite books through high school. Possibly the first properly ‘adult’ literary novel I ever read, it provoked a deep emotional response and stoked a brief obsession with the distant horrors of the 20th century. I am also quite certain it rekindled my childhood terror of birds, a fear I share with the novel’s chief character, Stephen Wraysford. I recently reread the book and was pleased to discover that most of my initial impressions of it remain true: the book is not a light read, but it is a marvellously fluid one. It is evocative and heartbreaking. Most importantly, like any good historical novel*, it works to reveal new aspects of a well-studied time period and of the people who endured the First World War. It does not glorify the war or its soldiers, both official and unofficial. As we near the hundredth anniversary of the war’s commencement, Birdsong still holds an important message about the nature of the First World War in the historical imagination.
The story is divided into several parts. It opens in 1910, introducing a young Stephen Wraysford as he arrives to stay with the Azaire family in Amiens. Stephen is drawn to, and eventually commences an affair with, the much older Madame Isabelle Azaire. This affair, while doomed, continues to haunt Stephen through his career as a soldier with the British army some years later. Stephen’s oedipal motivations in pursuing Isabelle are touched upon; Faulks has an evident fascination with human psychology and physiognomy. Many of Faulks’ descriptions of love-making, of human emotional responses, and later of the carnage in the trenches and on the fields, have a strong biological flavour. This is a common feature in Faulks’ writing—he went on to examine the foundations of modern psychology as a medical discipline in Human Traces. I tended to find the intimate physical details tiresome, especially in sex scenes where the feeling of passion between characters sometimes felt derailed by mechanics. However, they do provide an important thematic element, as the relationship between flesh, earth and spirit is explored in the interconnected plots. As characters become inured to the effects of explosive missiles, rifles and gas, it is appropriate that descriptions should be physiological and matter-of-fact. There is no feeling that Faulks is being gratuitous, yet the horrors are robbed of none of their shock. It is in this way, amongst others, that Faulks skilfully conveys the emotional toll of the war on its participants.
We revisit Stephen at several different stages of the war, including at the infamous Somme. He is regarded as a loner and an “odd fish” by his comrades, but forms a peculiar relationship with engineer Arthur Weir. The nature of this relationship is not made clear until almost the end of the novel. Stephen experiences the war as an officer and is thus in the position of both participant and observer. He fights alongside his men, but we also see his internal reflections on himself and them. He does not appear to feel camaraderie with anyone. Indeed, early in the novel he considers the soldiers along the Belgian trenches with contempt, for the lengths to which they have consented to be pushed. For this reason he may be a difficult character for readers to like. We follow him as he is changed by the long war and by the people around him.
Along with Stephen in the trenches, we meet Jack Firebrace, a tunneller, technically a civilian who is involved with undermining, surveillance, and planting charges beneath enemy trenches. In his author’s introduction to the 2004 edition of the novel, Faulks notes that the activities of the miners were what initially drew him to the war. He wished to tell their story, since they have received so little attention from historians. Despite their official civilian status, the miners experienced high casualties and, presumably, as much psychological damage as their combatant peers. They received higher pay than soldiers, yet as with most civilian participants in military efforts, little if any recognition upon their return. In Jack’s story, moreso than in Stephen’s, we see the daily life and various rituals of the men in the trenches. While Stephen exists in the narrative to reflect upon the psychological and spiritual elements of the war, Jack’s role is more to express the physical and emotional elements. There is of course some overlap, but Jack is less self-reflective and more emotional, whereas Stephen feels and so reflects distance from the people around him. Jack, as a married father, has a home and family to yearn for, unlike the orphaned, heart-broken Stephen. While Stephen is openly hostile towards the enemy, Jack has little feeling about them at all, except in pragmatic terms.
Meanwhile, in 1978-79, the novel follows Elizabeth Benson as she works to uncover the identity and experiences of her grandfather, Stephen Wraysford. Through Elizabeth we examine the legacy of the First World War and its toll on the survivors. Elizabeth has grown up largely ignorant of the reality of the war and many of the people she speaks to do not understand why she wishes to re-examine it. The ultimate futility of the First World War, the unfathomable loss of life and livelihood it caused, and the war’s eclipse in later horrors, are thus shown. Public ignorance of the war’s realities is not unique to Elizabeth’s time either: both Stephen and his friend Weir experience the naivety of civilians in the United Kingdom, and of higher-ranked officers away from the frontline. Elizabeth’s story also reflects the continuation of life and the renewal of hope. Though a return to normalcy may or may not be possible for Stephen or Jack, there is a sense that society as a whole can return to regular life even after extraordinary trauma, and that life will persevere.
In my initial reading more than ten years ago, I found Elizabeth’s chapters less compelling than those set in the trenches of 1916-1918. However they are valuable not only in exploring those themes mentioned above, but also from a narrative perspective in providing respite from the grim wartime narrative, from Stephen’s often bleak outlook and Jack’s grief and resignation. Elizabeth’s daily life, which does contain drama, seems positively mundane in comparison, but it is a necessary mundaneness, and not one that will go uninterrupted. Nonetheless I did find that some of the dialogue in Elizabeth’s early scenes, as she justifies her search for her past, scanned more theatrical than realistic. It feels somewhat as though Faulks is trying to justify his own investigation into this aspect of history, as well as to remind the reader of the importance of the story he is telling. However, as an avid student of 20th century history, perhaps I simply feel oversold on the issue. I am not someone who needs to be convinced. Other readers may feel differently.
It would be misleading to say Birdsong is an easy book to read. Though the writing is fluent and clean, Faulks is unsentimental and unafraid to describe with grotesque simplicity the horrific effects of industrial warfare. Some readers may find the imagery disturbing. Readers expecting a glorification of the armed forces or a tale of the nobility of the human spirit should be prepared for something completely different. For those with the emotional energy to commit to it, the novel should prove thought-provoking and insightful. It challenges modern complacence. It challenges readers to interrogate the history that has been taught to them. Such a message can surely never lose its importance.