Day 22 – 37
Sebastian Faulks is an author with a soaring imagination. I have no idea how much of the book comes from borrowed experience and how much from fantasy, but his writing, especially his descriptions of happening events detail every step by step moment with an honesty that carries its own brand of authenticity. I applaud this author for the amount of effort that he must have put into this book- for the research alone would have taken a lot out of him.
That said, this was one of the most difficult books I have ever read. It was not that the subject matter didn’t carry much interest for me, but rather the style of writing. He is one those authors who are poets at heart (like William Golding) and who would rather form a long convoluted sentence with a lot of conjunctions than small, pithy, divided ones. There were times, when I would reach the end of a sentence and have no idea of where I’d begun it or why. But, at the same time, such sentences add to the character of his story, they enrich the setting he created for his people and they help in taking you to a world that you had earlier believed was far above your reach.
His characters inhabit a world that is rich in passion, that is pretentious in sentiment and that makes love with the very act of making love. He makes you believe in his characters even while being a little repulsed by the blatant vulgarity of their exposed desires. At the end of it all, you will agree with Elizabeth that what their generation had in intensity, we lack in ours. They had a war that built them up to the pinnacle of humanity and then, brought them down with such a devastating fall, that its reverberations were felt for generations beyond. They were a lost generation and we are still picking up their pieces.
Faulks describes war. He describes it in all of its power, in all of its glory and in all of its inhumanity. He details each scene vividly and drives home the point with ruthless forcefulness about how you could be a whole person one moment and pieces of flesh and scattered entrails the next. He introduces a character, gives us a teaser about his life, his fears and desires only to put a bullet/shell in him few pages later. He doesn’t give you time to mourn one character, before the story repeats with someone else. These are no special characters, no people who stand out; they are just ordinary people with their ordinary lives and ordinary dreams, until the war came and suddenly, claimed them. He weaves with such cruelty that every time he came back to France, my gut clenched and a fear took hold of my heart, even while I was safely ensconced under my blankets, in my bed, at home.
I couldn’t help but draw unbidden comparisons with the other war centred book I read recently- Catch-22. While in that, we get to hold on to our protagonist- Yossarian, who seems to have some reserve of humour left in him even while war ripped humanity to shreds; in this book, no such respite is offered. Our primary protagonist- Stephen- was never an uplifting character to begin with and war seems to bring out the worst in him, even while it makes a great warrior out of him. I couldn’t hold on to him. For how could you hold on to a person who was slowly losing the hold on himself? He feels exulted as he walks away at the end of the war. But, you know even then that he would never be the same again, that he would have his worst fear realised because he could never reclaim his life as it was. Faulks doesn’t need to spell it out for you. Over the 400-odd pages, he brings home that fact to you in a way that you accept it without even noticing it.
Faulks writes this book by placing it between the two great pillars of death and love. He explores both unabashedly and shamelessly. He questions the foundations of both inquisitively and quite impertinently. He crosses the conventional bounds of propriety that make us turn away from the unfettered versions of these two and confronts them with a sort of bare-faced boldness that comes across as quite shocking. But, for all the pink in your cheeks he causes, he gives an explanation for death and for love that has you gasping suddenly, because it sounds so true, so self-affirming and it touches some deep part of your heart that you didn’t even know existed.
Faulks is a great writer indeed, because while sitting at home, when I closed the book, I walked away with a piece of myself left behind in those war trenches and a slice of my innocence, lost forever. He is a great writer, because he writes a love story that can leave you cold and a tale of self-discovery that doesn’t seem to make sense, and yet, you turn the pages with more feeling than you have felt in a long while. So, as a final warning, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks will take you on a rollercoaster of emotions that will leave you feeling lost with a smile on your face and a sob in your heart. If you are not prepared for that…I can only hope that one day you will be.