According to the puff-pieces for the forthcoming London stage adaptation, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong has sold more than two million copies in the United Kingdom and three million worldwide.
I’ve been re-reading the novel.
It’s a well-made book, and passes the basic test for fiction. Even on a second reading, I have been caught up in the narrative, turning pages eagerly. Faulks is good at physical decription, whether of fighting, tunnelling or sex.
Part of the book’s appeal, however, must be that it precisely states our modern myth of the Great War, and never says a single thing that might disturb conventional estimates of the conflict as utterly futile.
Stephen, Faulk’s hero, is not a character typical of his period, but is one that modern readers probably find it easy to identify with. He is reserved, always an outsider in the social contexts in which he has been placed (yet despite his shyness he is sexually rampant). He enlisted in 1914 not out of idealism, but because he was at a loose end after his mistress had left him. He never gives any sense of believing that the war is justified, and sees it only as endless meaningless carnage. He “did not believe there was a purpose to the war or an end in sight.”
The war is presented as uniquely appalling (“This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded.”) and the centrepiece of the novel is the bloodbath of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, depicted with crushing irony. Ordinary soldiers and junior officers realise in advance that it will be a massacre, but the generals and staff are blithely confident. The book presents one general giving a banal and unrealistic pep-talk to the men, “like a character from a comic opera with his attempted grandeur and indolently snorting horse.” A character quotes the myth that two generals committed suicide after the failure of the first day became clear. He is never contradicted. Elizabeth, a character from the late twentieth century, appears half-way through the book, to express the appalled indignation that a modern reader should feel about the War.
The most interesting parts of the book are about the tunnellers who mine beneath enemy positions; Faulks makes their operations vivid – the claustrophobic tunnels, the danger that at any moment the tunnel might cave in, and the ever-present fear that enemy tunnellers may be undermining your tunnels with their own, packed with explosive that could blow you up at any moment. Much of the tunnelling described is before the battle of Messines. Typically, Faulks describes in detail the sufferings of the tunnellers, but has very little to say about the final explosions and the battle that followed them (one of the most successful and well-planned of the War).
In the last chapters, there is a sense that the Allies are winning, but when a British military operation of the time is described as “another triumph of planning”, the words are heavily sarcastic.
Stephen finishes the War underground, trapped until rescued by a Levi, a German Jew whose brother has been killed. His story ends with a climactic moment of triumphant feelgood sentimentality:
Levi looked at this wild-eyed figure, half-demented, his brother’s killer. For no reason he could tell, he found that he had opened his own arms in turn, and the two men fell upon each other’s shoulders, weeping at the bitter strangeness of their human lives.
The novel shows no comprehension of why the War was being fought, or why millions were willing to risk their lives. Faulks has done rather well at conveying the sensory experience of the trenches in a way that convinces the reader, but he hasn’t got inside the heads of the men of 1914-18. His hero-as-outsider, who embodies the cynicism about war of later decades works well as an identification figure for the modern reader, but stands in the way of a full understanding of the period.
How well will this translate to the stage? Trevor Nunn is directing, and he managed the great surges of emotion in Les Miserables very well (though he wasn’t so successful with Gone With the Wind). Maybe he and the writer will manage to make the rather bitty narrative cohere into a powerful play. But the West End already has one show about the futility of the Great War, and that is War Horse, which has the advantage of spectacular puppetry. It will be interesting to see what happens.