Friday, October 28, 2011

433. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

History: This book was written in 1993. Birdsong has been one of the most consistent selling books of the last decade, continuously in the top 5,000 sales figures.
The literary retelling of the events and attitudes towards the Battle of the Somme and life in the trenches is highly acclaimed and is often grouped with work from writers such as Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway as a modern contrast to World War I literature.
Plot: The first stage is set before the war in Amiens, France. Stephen Wraysford is sent by his wealthy but disempassioned benefactor to work with René Azaire at his textile factory. He stays with Azaire and his family (Isabelle, Lisette and Grégoire). He spends the early part of the novel experiencing the comforts of middle class life in industrial Northern France whilst around him Azaire's workers foment unrest and threaten strike. He also senses an unease in the relationship between Azaire and Isabelle and is curious about her. Their friends, Bérard, Madame Bérard and Aunt Élise come round for dinner on occasions but there is always distance between them and Isabelle.
It is revealed that Isabelle is substantially younger than Azaire and is his second wife. Azaire is embarrassed by his inability to father a child with her and beats her in erotic-consolatory anger. Lisette, who is 16 years old and from Azaire’s first marriage, makes suggestive remarks to Stephen but Stephen does not reciprocate.
Lucien Lebrun, one of Azaire’s workers, gives food to the families of workers which he gets from Isabelle. This occurs behind Azaire's back and a rumour stirs that they are having an affair.
Realising that their lives have been similar battles for self-determination which have now crossed, Stephen and Isabelle engage in a passionate affair which they believe is 'right' and will last forever. Isabelle confronts Azaire with the truth and he evicts Stephen, telling him that he will go to hell. Stephen and Isabelle run away but Isabelle, finding she is pregnant, momentarily loses faith in the relationship. Without telling Stephen, she flees, returning to her family home and the one constant in her life - her sister Jeanne. Later, Isabelle’s father makes a deal with Azaire for her return in exchange for her maintained honour; Isabelle is forgiven but soon realises her mistake. Stephen hears no more of her and knows nothing of his child that she bears (a girl called Françoise) and later raises with a German soldier called Max.
We rejoin Stephen some years later as a Lieutenant in the British Army and through his eyes, Faulks tells the reader about the Battle of the Somme and Messines Ridge at Ypres in the following year. The energetic character described in the first chapter of the novel contrasts with the depiction of Stephen hardened by his experiences of war. During his time in the trenches, we learn of Stephen's mental attitude to the war and the guarded comradeship he feels for his friend Captain Michael Weir and the rest of his men. However, Wraysford is regarded as a cold and distant officer by his men. Stephen refuses all offers of leave; so committed is he to fighting and staying involved with the war.
His story is paralleled with that of Jack Firebrace, a former miner, employed in the British trenches to listen for the enemy and plant mines under the German trenches. Jack is particularly motivated to fight because of the love he has for his deceased son John back home. Faulks describes how a soldier called Hunt is terrified of going underground as an exploding shell could trap the soldiers underground causing them to suffocate. Stephen is injured in this chapter but survives.
The troops are told to make an attack on the Hawthorne Ridge but the attack seems doomed to fail with the senior officers being blamed. Gray states that Stephen should not tell his men that the attack will fail but to pray for them instead.
Stephen feels lonely and writes to Isabelle, feeling that he has no one else that he can express his feelings to. He writes about his fears that he will die, and confess that he has only ever loved her. This section of the novel ends with a bombardment leaving many soldiers in no man's land.
Alongside the main story, there is the inquisitive narrative of Stephen's granddaughter, Elizabeth, who, whilst struggling with her married boyfriend, Robert, unearths the stories of World War I and the remaining links to Stephen's experiences at Marne, Verdun and the Somme. Elizabeth finds Stephen's journals and endeavours to decipher them.
Weir is on leave and finds it impossible to communicate to his family how bad the war is. Stephen meets with Isabelle after meeting with Jeanne, Isabelle’s sister, and convincing her to let him, and finds that her face has been disfigured by a shell. Stephen discovers that Isabelle is now in a relationship with Max, a German soldier.
Stephen is able to return to England and feels relief at being able to enjoy the Norfolk countryside away from the trenches.
When Stephen meets Isabelle’s sister Jeanne, he tells her how he dreads returning to the front line after leave.
Stephen’s closest friend, Michael Weir, is eventually killed by a sniper’s bullet while in a trench out of the front line.
Elizabeth continues researching the war and talks to war veterans (Gray and Brennan) about their experiences. During this period, she also becomes pregnant with Robert's child.
The novel ends with Wraysford and Firebrace being trapped underground; Firebrace dies but Stephen survives and as the war ends he is rescued by Levi, a Jewish German soldier. An ending which is clearly inspired by- and deliberately echoes- Wilfred Owen's 1918 poem "Strange Meeting". Some 12 thousand Jews died fighting for Germany in the First World War.
Elizabeth finally decides to reveal her pregnancy to her mother, who is surprisingly supportive. Over dinner, she learns her mother was raised by Stephen and Jeanne, who married and settled in Norfolk, after Isabelle’s premature death due to an epidemic of the flu. Elizabeth and Robert then go on holiday to Dorset, UK. There, she goes into labour and has a son, naming him John (after Jack Firebrace’s son), therefore keeping the promise which Stephen made to Jack when they were trapped in the tunnels under No Man’s Land, over sixty years before.
The book ends with Robert walking down the garden of the holiday cottage and having an immense sense of joy.
Review: There have been many fictional accounts of the First World War, so if you write a new one it had better be good. The descriptions of the events of World War I and the deaths and injuries are graphic and disturbing but nowhere near as disturbing as it must have been to have lived through it so it felt totally warranted.
The book is not, perhaps, an unqualified success.
The author starts with a mini-version of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," oddly hybridized with Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover." While there is some nice writing here, it strikes me as self-consciously so, and the story lacks any freshness.
There are ridiculous improbabilities in this part of the book. Why would an English firm considering a business venture with a French firm send this young man, the protagonist, Stephen, to size up the opportunity? He isn't even educated in business. He is very young. And he proves emotionally unstable.
And why would the French proprietor - M. Azaire, husband of the beautiful woman, Isabelle, who becomes Stephen's lover - have Stephen spending time at lunches and other business of the floor workers in his plant? It's a genuinely silly idea.
The sentimentality begins shortly after Stephen and Isabelle become lovers, and, in cheap romantic fashion, Isabelle suddenly disappears with their young child, returning to her family.
When you get into the Great War, supposedly the real stuff of the book, you will wonder why you've had about ninety pages of rehashed Madame Bovary. You will find out towards the end, but it is a very unsatisfying idea of neatness and completeness that drives things.
Here and there in the war business, there are a few strong images and interesting stuff about the tunnel systems that were extensively used in the Great War.
But the author even manages to make the front sentimental and clichéd. Egad, there's even the proverbial friend who has never been with a woman and who is given the surprise present of a prostitute one night.
There's lots of hard drinking and calculatedly gruesome incidents - pure Hollywood. And the author has nothing fresh to say about the war we haven't all seen in movies or read in other books.
The end-of-war portion was clearly written with the hope of selling the book for movie rights. The idea of two men trapped in a huge tunnel far underground is gruesomely interesting, but the author draws it out to impossibly long time with an impossibly heroic series of efforts. People typically die after 3 or 4 days without water, but Stephen hangs in there for God knows how long.
Yes, he licks a bit of brackish water in a corner in his Herculean labors, but that just wouldn't do it.
His rescue would have been a good surprise - he is rescued by Germans digging in their own lines - had it been handled well. But we get an awkward effort by a couple of Germans, one of whom, we have explained at some length and repetition, happens to be Jewish. Why? Why is the author suddenly focusing on a man's religion? An intended irony about a good Jewish soldier in the German army? Whatever the intention, it simply does not work.
The ending is silly, the author bringing us what he regards as full circle.
I really do believe Faulks thought he was writing a racier, more action-filled "Gone with the Wind" for World War I in hope of a big movie contract.
I read this book wanting to like it, thinking from things I read that it might be another of those memorable books about people caught in the gears of war, but I found it impossibly flawed.
Opening Line: “The Boulevard du Cange was a broad, quiet street that marked the eastern flank of the city of Amiens.”
Closing Line: “In the tree above him they disturbed a roosting crow, which erupted from the branches with an explosive bang of its wings, then rose toward the sky, its harsh, ambiguous call coming back in long, grating waves toward the earth, to be heard by those still living.”
Quotes: “Perhaps human beings wer the natural continuation of the innocent goodness that all people brought into the world at their birth. If this was true, then his fellow human beings were not the rough flawed creatures that most of the them supposed.”
Rating: Good, but not that good.

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