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My first book to read this year and I’m giving up on it

I mentioned as an aside in a previous post that I wasn’t getting on with Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong very well, and the time has unfortunately come where that lack of book/reader comradeship has slipped beyond the point of no return and into me becoming outright angry with it.

The problem isn’t that the book is immediately and egregiously bad, per se: if it were, I would have done what I usually do with bad books, and hurled it across the room in a fit of indignant melodrama (everyone I am friends with is by now familiar with the sadly entirely true story of how I managed to split the spine of a friend’s copy of Narcissus In Chains after one short chapter by pitching it out of my room in halls and into the opposite wall, taking Dorothy Parker’s literary critique very seriously indeed).

In fact, Sebastian Faulks has shown himself to be a competent (if dull) writer in delivering the minutae of small-town pre-war French life, painting an idyll with enough realism laced through it (strikes, oppressive heat, foul odours) and segues into rather clumsy pontification about death which is probably intended as foreshadowing to prevent it from reading as a saccharine waltz through an idealised past.

Because of this relative skill it took a few chapters for the prickling feeling of dislike to settle in. I found his prose sneakingly pedestrian in places, but I thought I should press on in spite of this: after all, something about China Mieville’s prose occasionally knocks against a button marked “trying too hard” in my head, but I was rewarded for my reading there by the scope of his ideas and the pleasure in his impeccable pacing. But there was something else, something beyond the uninspiring dialogue, and the dragging pace of the countryside pleasantness which was getting between me and what I had picked the book up for (World War 1, which has still not started at the point at which I’m giving up).

After [spoilers, although not really because it's obvious from the outset that this is going to happen] Stephen had begun sleeping with Isabelle regularly, and started talking about taking her away to England, I realised that this wholly unlikely path of his nobility and her blamelessness had been married up against Azaire’s cruelty (which stemmed from his impotence, of course) and the tiresome fact of Azaire’s sexual deviance (naturally the main deviant thing about it was that he didn’t consult with his wife about it, but it’s presented as his desire being the repellent thing) for a reason: to make Stephen and Isabelle’s affair without moral impediment. The entire set-up was intended to present Isabelle as a poor bird, trapped in the cage of a marriage, to be freed by the silent Stephen, who has mastered his emotions and now fallen in love; Azaire’s unrestrained temper, violence, and impotence are all written as reasons why the reader should have no doubt in their mind as to the validity of Isabella’s escape.

I find all of this unedifying. I would prefer conflict, both in my mind and in Stephen’s. I would have liked guilt. I would have been happier for the question of adultery to have been a burning coal on the conscience or at least more of a threat to the stability of the situation than the mild and insulting run-in with Lisette, where the 17-year-old girl is presented as – if never directly called – silly and unworthy of attention, and some kind of sexually aggressive temptress; Stephen, of course, remains steadfast in his loyalty to Isabelle.

I would also have preferred if Sebastian Faulks had been able to rein in his genius sufficiently to abide by one of the simpler rules of writing fiction: one character’s point of view per scene, and if you’re going to swap between them, have a clear and obvious break between one point of view and another. This is usually given as “avoiding confusion”, and Faulks or his editor has gone to some trouble to ensure that the change of perspective is signposted, if not always very well. However, the introduction of different points of view seems only to act as explanations and excuses rather than the inner lives of the characters bringing them into conflict and progressing what little plot there is.

It would be unfair to compare Faulks to Pat Barker, whose Regeneration trilogy is my touchstone for World War 1 fiction (even Barker didn’t live up to the promise of those books and I found Another World a little of a come-down and Life Class such a change of pace that I couldn’t finish it), so I will try to compare like with like a little, based on my knowledge gleaned from the book so far.

Faulks sets the opening ten million boring chapters of Birdsong in pre-war rural town France, on the banks of the Somme. This resonates immediately with anyone who has any knowledge of the upcoming struggle, but Faulks feels the need to bestow a heavy foreshadowing hand upon the location by having Stephen ramble about death every so often and even offer up a prayer to save himself and Isabella from being buried in the soil of France.

In The Charioteer, one of my favourite books, Mary Renault opens with the pre-war period of idyll (in this case, pre-WW2), but with an incident of conflict and high emotion which is formative in the character of the protagonist. She goes on to demonstrate the development of his personality and his relationship to the romantic lead through scenes of further conflict, crisis, and resolution at both trivial and vast levels. Sebastian Faulks, on the other hand, tells me in passing about Stephen’s personality but fails to demonstrate anything of it. Stephen might as well be an eyepiece held up to my face through which to view a postcard.

In The Charioteer Mary Renault, like Faulks, devotes passages to the countryside in which her protagonist resides. She describes locations, individuals, and weather states as they come into contact with Laurie Odell. She uses far more poetical, and some might say purple, turns of phrase than Faulks; the pedestrian nature of Faulks’s prose is entirely down to my personal taste, as someone who prefers narrative to either flirt with floridity and wrap itself in poetry or to be sharp and pared down and to the point. But the cloying sense of having my sensibilities directed by someone who doesn’t have the skill to conceal what they’re about remains, and I am not going to read any more of Birdsong when I have so many other unread books sitting on my shelves awaiting my attention.

For all of these reasons: a persistence of telling rather than showing; refusal to move between points of view in a logical, useful, or story-progressing fashion; uninspiring prose; attempts to manipulate my sympathies through telling me who I should like rather than giving me demonstrations of layered complexity from the characters; and the overall feeling of authorial contempt – I am sorry, lauded author Sebstian Faulks, but I do not enjoy your work this time.

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One Response

  1. I once read a book where on three different occasions there was a build-up to a big cliffhanger, only for the resolution to be the (obviously) unexpected. Cheap author tricks make me feel insulted.

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