Books

Sebastian Faulks
Where My Heart Used to Beat

The number of contemporary English writers who seem at home in France can be counted on your fingers: Julian Barnes, John Berger, Adam Thorpe, perhaps William Boyd. None of them have parlayed that cultural intimacy into popular success as Sebastian Faulks has.

Having first visited France as a student, Faulks has maintained a lifelong fascination with the nation, particularly its experience during both World Wars. For him, France is an England that lost its innocence during the first half of the 20th century. It has served as a cauldron of modernity brought to a furious roil by shifts in politics and technology via war, while his home country (even as generations of its menfolk were mown down on the Somme or drowned off Normandy) simmered on the Aga. 

That experience was explored in the loose trilogy of novels – starting with 1989’s The Girl at the Lion d’or, reaching its popular peak with Birdsong in 1993 and concluding with 1999’s Charlotte Gray – that made the author’s name. While most of Faulks’s more recent books have been set in Britain, far from the grounds of conflict and closer to our present day, one exception was his “problem” novel of 2005, Human Traces. Set largely in Europe though wide-ranging in its settings, it returned to the idea of mass conflict by way of two men engaged in the emerging field of “mind medicine”, from 1870 to the Great War. Critical response was evenly divided: somewhere between a didactic muddle and an intriguingly ambitious project. 

Where My Heart Used to Beat – the author’s 13th novel – is a part-return to France and the Gallic enticements of his best-known works, and a partial recapitulation of that ambitious meditation on madness and the modern world. The new work returns again to the idea first bruited in Human Traces, that lunacy may be a form of genetic inheritance; the price we pay as a species for the gift or curse of human consciousness. But there are more rhymes than this between the works.

The doctor at the heart of the new novel is Robert Hendricks, a sixtysomething specialist who gained minor notoriety during England’s countercultural decades with a book that argued for a wholesale reappraisal of madness (R. D. Laing, a notorious Scottish psychiatrist of the same era, similarly argued that insanity is a “perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world”). The novel opens at the hinge of the 1980s, a grey interregnum between the doldrums of the ’70s and the Thatcher era, a time perfectly appropriate for a man caught between middle age and the long slide to nothingness.

However, Hendricks turns out to be more than the sum of his lonely, bachelor parts. He is a war hero, for starters, who showed unusual valour in North Africa, Italy and France during World War II. And he is a man who has devoted his postwar medical career to dealing with the most intractably damaged members of society: schizophrenics, trauma sufferers, and so on. A bright grammar school boy raised by his mother following his father’s death during World War I, Hendricks strikes us as a man who concentrates on the maladies of others as a means of keeping his own demons at bay.

Exactly which demons those are emerges only piecemeal. Hendricks is invited by an elderly French neurologist named Alexander Pereira to his home on a small island off the coast of France. He makes the trip without knowing his host, who claims to have served with Hendricks’ father during the war, and to have mementoes of the man whom Hendricks barely knew. But the Englishman’s reluctant interest is piqued when he learns that Pereira too, albeit in an earlier era, sought in his research for a biological cause for insanity. For several days the pair settle in to discuss their work, along with the distant past.

But it is Hendricks who, initially at least, does most of the telling. He speaks to the Frenchman of his wartime experiences: the fierce attachment he held for his wartime friends, and his love for a woman – a Ligurian beauty named Luisa, met during the Italian campaign – who was his one and only passion. The recounting is two shakes Eric Newby’s Love and War in the Apennines and one shake Casablanca, yet the human aspect comes as a great relief after an excessive amount of disquisition between the two on the subject of memory, selfhood, trauma, war and the costly blood price by which democracy and modernity in general was achieved.

Faulks has always been an interesting writer, but a bifurcated talent: he can essay on subjects that take his interest, and he can run smoothly through the gears of human sympathy – but not always simultaneously. The tacking back and forth between thesis and war, philosophy and love story would test the patience of a reader who simply loves event and human drama, and it would test the intellectual engagement of those who find more interest in the clash of ideas. That said, there are virtues in these pages that should speak to both.

The author is, for instance, a lover of the real. His passages of sensuous description, whether of landscape, food or the human body have a rapt, grateful attentiveness; they reflect an honest if old-fashioned appetite. And his sense of the ways in which a life may be derailed by larger events beyond carry wattage. Hendricks, particularly in the latter sections of the novel, returns to aspects of his past with as much bravery as he exhibited running a German line at the Battle of Anzio. When we first meet him, the man is a portrait of Larkinesque bitterness, one for whom death may be met only with “wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers”. At the conclusion of this intermittently clever, intermittently engaging novel, a moving change may be noted. The dry old man has rescinded his loneliness and isolation, and has come to agree with R. D. Laing that, “Whether life is worth living depends on whether there is love in life.”  AF

Hutchinson, 352pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 12, 2015 as "Sebastian Faulks, Where My Heart Used to Beat". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: AF

Continue reading your one free article for the week