Sebastian Faulks Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Newbury, 1953. Education: Wellington College; Emmanuel College, Cambridge, 1974, B.A. (honours). Career: Teacher of English and French, International School of London, 1975-79; journalist, Daily Telegraph, London, 1979-82; feature writer, Sunday Telegraph, 1983-86; literary editor, Independent, London, 1986-89. Since 1989 deputy editor, Independent on Sunday. Radio broadcaster, British Broadcasting Corp. Editor, New Fiction Society, 1978-81.
A Trick of the Light. London, Bodley Head, 1984.
The Girl at the Lion d'Or. London, Hutchinson, 1989; New York, Vintage, 1999.
A Fool's Alphabet. London, Hutchinson, and Boston, Little Brown, 1992.
Birdsong. London, Hutchinson, 1993.
Charlotte Gray. London, Hutchinson, 1998; New York, RandomHouse, 1999.
The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives. London, Hutchinson, 1996.
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Although Sebastian Faulks had already published A Trick of the Light in 1984, it was his second novel, The Girl at the Lion d'Or (1989), that received attention. This novel is the first of a "French trilogy" that was published to critical acclaim. Faulks earned praise for his sensitive characterization of a love story set in 1930s France. The small town of Janvilliers is still haunted by the First World War and uneasy with rumors about fascism and communism. At the hotel Lion d'Or, young Anne Louvet becomes a waitress. Like so many heroines of romances set against the backdrop of war, she is an orphan with a dark past.
The opening of the novel, when Anne is driven from the train to the hotel, is detailed and sets the pace and style of the prose. Everything en route is observed with the fidelity of a camera, as are the appearances and nature of the characters. Anne falls for a middle-aged lawyer, Charles Hartmann, who with his wife Christine lives in a rambling country house. Hartmann hires her to work as domestic help, and soon they start an affair.
Faulks sympathetically conveys Anne's naïveté as her past gradually unfolds. She tells Hartmann how her father, a brave soldier in the Great War, refused an order from a bullying officer and was shot. The lies and gossip about her disgraced husband were too much for Anne's mother, who took her own life.
Hartmann, who cares little for his wife or indeed for others, loses his self-absorption. As his name suggests, he learns sympathy from listening and recalling his own experiences of the war. The dominant image is of Hartmann's brooding house, with its clutter of bric-a-brac and old books, metaphors for the general malaise of France. Shoddy repairs result in the collapse of part of it, presaging the unhappy conclusion of the romantic liaison. When a troublemaker reveals their affair to Christine, Hartmann ends the relationship very abruptly, although broken-hearted. Anne has no choice but to begin life again in Paris. After many thoughts on free will and the possible circularity of destiny, she now knows that love is possible and life enriching, which makes her new wound endurable.
A Fool's Alphabet (1992) is accomplished but perhaps too contrived and inadequately characterized to succeed as memorable fiction. Pietro Russell, of partial Italian descent, searches for influences on his own personality. He decides to pass a night in various Italian towns according to the letters of the alphabet. Twenty-six chapters in alphabetical order but random chronology reveal the shaping forces on Pietro's life, such as his mother's death and his ongoing quest for love. Pietro achieves his goal with the exception of X—Xianging in China, the symbolic dream city, representing theplaces he can never visit.
In 1993, Faulks produced a companion novel to The Girl of Lion d'Or. Birdsong, a chronicle of the lives of three generations of an English family, topped the bestseller charts in England for over a year. Birdsong opens with a callow Stephen Wraysford lodging with a family in Amiens. Faulks describes an erotic, passionate affair between young Stephen and Isabelle, the lady of the house—an affair that led romantic reviewers to write blurb-ready copy in their appreciation of "heated passions and seething hatred," "swollen emotion, in whose heat is forged an epic kind of love," "a story so intense that at times the reader must put the book aside in order to catch her breath."
Unfortunately, Isabelle becomes pregnant and deserts Wraysford. Shocked into an emotional stupor, he joins the army in 1916, only to find himself behind German lines. Faulks's depiction of the horrors of war is graphic. No detail of deprivation, lice, filthy food, or the aroma of rotting corpses is spared, because for Faulks there is no glory in war, only horror, which has to be experienced to be understood. As a soldier, Wraysford is considered cold-hearted, and his frigidity is contrasted with the other soldiers who each cope with the daily threat of death in their individual ways. The men who dig the trenches are significant in their representation of self-reliance. For Jack Firebrace, who digs the mine tunnels under enemy lines, the conditions of war are better than his life of poverty in London. His survival of every disaster with courage, including the death of his son, makes a deep impression on Wraysford, whose suppressed feelings are freed when he is wounded and left for dead in a tunnel.
From 1910 and 1916, the novel jumps to 1978 and the point of view of Elizabeth, the daughter of the child he had with Isabelle. Elizabeth desires to research her family, and after discovering her grandfather's coded diaries, she translates them and learns the truth of his scandalous affair, the torments of trench warfare, and the happiness he eventually finds. While decoding his story, she diagnoses her own life as lacking in the intensity that earlier generations had experienced.
Wraysford's conclusion that the meaning of life is the continuity of human love is metaphorically represented by the exuberant birdsong of the title, the twittering of birds that starts when the gunfire stops, and which echoes through to the epilogue. Faulks accentuates his belief in redeeming the past when Elizabeth's baby, the fourth generation, is born in a symphony of rapture as the living proof of goodness from past tragedy.
In 1995, Faulks was recognized as Author of the Year by the British Book Awards for Birdsong. The following year, the novel was nominated for the 1996 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and in 1997, a television and bookshop poll among British readers placed it in their top fifty books of the century. A nonfiction work, The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives (1996), was another best-seller; it dealt with three young men, all heroic in their own ways, whose lives were tragically cut short.
Faulks returned to war-torn Europe—this time during World War II—with a third romantic best-seller, Charlotte Gray (1999). Again Faulks examines the insidious way that war affects individual lives. In 1942, Charlotte Gray, a young Scotswoman, has a brief love affair with a Royal Air Force fighter pilot, Peter Gregory. When his plane is lost on a mission to France, she arranges to go there herself as a British secret courier, sent over to help support the French Resistance against the invading Germans. Intensifying the suspense, Faulks shows that British intelligence is prepared to sacrifice her if necessary. Instead of returning to England when the undercover assignment is accomplished, Charlotte stays in France to search for Gregory.
In the small town of Lavaurette, Charlotte befriends some assimilated French Jews—the orphans André and Jacob, whose parents have been murdered in the death camps, and the Levades, father and son, who lead the local resistance. Once there, she witnesses the ugliness of French collusion with the Nazis, but also the tremendous courage of those who fought and died for the Resistance. Though unable to help the French in any serious way, Charlotte gains insights into herself and her family through living with them—and growing increasingly attracted to idealistic young Julien Levade. Faulks draws metaphorical links between the struggle for France and Charlotte's own struggles to take control of her life.
Reviewers complained that Faulks did not achieve the emotional impact in Charlotte Gray that he did in Birdsong, that the settings and physical props are more believable than the somewhat flat characters, that he too often dips into old-fashioned melodrama. However, his fans loved the book, and like the previous novel, it was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1999.
Faulks's early career as a journalist provides his greatest strength, his masterful skill at detailed description and historical accuracy. To evoke each of the senses, his settings are gritty with the realism conveyed by the mind-shattering sights of war, the precious touch of a lover's skin, the stench of the decomposing dead, the taste of the carefully described meals eaten by the wealthy or the starving. Such verisimilitudinous detail enhances Faulks's power and credibility as a story-teller.
In Faulks's fiction, love and heroism are the two most important and valuable qualities of life, and each strengthens the other. Another recurring theme is the human capacity for hope beyond reason. Faulks calls himself a romantic writer and admits that his influences are "old-fashioned." Among these influences he lists the French writers Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, and Emile Zola. When it supports the physical and historical settings, he employs long sentences to convey a highly formal and stifling atmosphere. This elevated diction matches his grand themes about human experience, about the healing powers of love and the determination to survive despite tremendous pain and horror. Like William Faulkner's, the heroism of Faulks's characters is that they endure.
updated by Fiona Kelleghan