Some thoughts on narrator, structure, etc:
The omniscient narrator is an incongruous figure in the landscape of the modern novel. In recent decades he has taken a spectacular fall from grace. Once the best friend and narratorial staple of the literary novelist, he is now a wildly out-of-fashion vagabond, occupying a no-man’s-land of narratology; thrown aside in favour of the more populist first-person narrator and the (seemingly ubiquitous) free-indirect discourse of the sympathetic third-person.
The recent onset and dominance of new narrative forms has shifted the omniscient narrator to the marginalia of literary significance: post-modernism, psychological realism, modern gothic – they all eschew the omniscient narrator as perverse and lacking in responsibility; his all-knowing position as a neutral observer seems somewhat…embarrassing. Indeed, when this narrator does find brief employment (for example, in a single, mid-novel chapter of Enduring Love, or the ending of Hilary Mantel’s Fludd), he is dismissed as merely “ironic”; a frivolous indulgence.
Birdsong, however, defies modern convention by exclusively employing this out-of-fashion itinerant of the book world to tell its harrowing story. It must have been a long time since I last read a novel told by an omniscient narrator (third-person objective singular past-tense, if you want to be pretentious about it… which I do), because I felt strangely uncomfortable and voyeuristic as I read the first hundred pages. Penetrating into the deepest thoughts, pasts and even, in some cases, futures of every single character seemed unnervingly invasive of me; but once I’d re-accustomed myself to the style, I found such an all-encompassing narratorial rubric to complement perfectly the difficult subject matter.
And Birdsong is difficult. Posited as historical fiction, it’s a World War I novel with an explicit focus on trench warfare; that most horrifying and unimaginable of all wartime terrors. While the public conscious may have a vague notion of the awfulness, the sheer horror of trench warfare, a true understanding remains forever ungraspable to the individual.
They had seen things no human eyes had looked on before, and they had not turned their gaze away.
This is one of the reasons why Faulks’ chosen narratology works so well; the lack of narratorial subjectivity creates a fiction that’s told from a distance; with no patronising pretentions to understanding what trench war was really like. The fact of the matter is, the likes of you and me will never know: a concept given further poignancy by the recent death of Harry Patch: the last surviving soldier of the First World War.
Birdsong has a tripartite plot structure, which I’ve decided to write about in three separate paragraphs. This may be shockingly linear of me, but I’ve tried (and failed) several times to write about all three parts of the novel simultaneously: I find myself lacking.
1) The novel begins with a long pre-war love story. Faulks’ intentions in doing this are obvious and multiple: put simply, this section serves to humanize the characters we are soon to see committing horrific acts of brutal killing and to drive home to the reader what’s at stake. There’s also more-than-a-little dramatic irony working here: the reader knows what’s coming, and as much as we want to yell a warning to the characters through the pages and ink of the novel, we’re powerless.
Stylistically this is also the most colourful part of the book. The writing here is metaphor-heavy, plentiful with adjectives and parenthetic digressions. There’s also an irritating linguistic fetishism for French street names.
This first part of the novel is full of sex – it’s copious and highly stylized. Sebastian Faulks is often described as a master of visual and physical description, and after reading Birdsong I can see why. There’s an explicit focus on the synaesthesia of sex: tactile and visceral descriptions of flesh, bodily fluids, smells and tastes abound. It’s easy to cynically label these scenes as soft-porn under the guise of literary eroticism; but to do so is to miss the point.
2) And the point is conflict. The second part offers the ‘meat’ of the novel. A jump-cut to mid-war trench life carries with it a drastic change in Faulks’ linguistic register. The synaesthesia of sex is replaced with that of war: now there’s blood, iron, mud and agony. There’re no more metaphors, few adjectives, many more concrete nouns and a focus on active verbs. The contrast with the first part of the book is abrasive and sudden – here there is no artificiality of language. While I usually argue that metaphors aid rather than hinder clarity of understanding and observation, their absence here just seems…appropriate.
The war-time passages are almost entirely without ‘plot’ – which makes for some heavy reading as they occupy 400 of this novel’s 600 pages. In a clever narratorial reflection of the true ambivalence and unbiased nature of war, major characters are killed off with a single line of un-glamorous prose, whereas some minor figures are given slow, ostensibly more heroic deaths that stretch over several paragraphs. It’s shocking, moving and unusual.
3) Unfortunately, after the brilliant contrasts, moving characterisation and sheer grit of the first two parts, Faulks feels a need to add a third: another jump-cut, this time to a modern-day setting. The characters that occupy this part of the novel are almost terminally dull and muted. If the only point of this third section is to create a dual sense of history and continuation, then I think the novel could have done without it.
I found the modern-day segments interfering; they break up the momentum of the war passages in an annoying and pointless way.
I don’t want to say that I ‘enjoyed’ Birdsong – it seems the wrong verb to use. It’s certainly gripping, interesting and very readable – but it’s also disturbing, upsetting and alienating. I suppose then, that the novel is successful. It’s let down by the ‘modern day’ segments, and I imagine that the majority of readers will find these sections more irritating than enlightening. But despite this minor flaw, Birdsong offers a unique reading experience. It’s a very mature war novel, with no pretences to hope, heroics or glamourisation.
I have more to say about this book, but this review is already nearing the 1000 word mark, and I don’t want to waffle on and on with every minor observation and technical analysis that springs to mind. So, I think I’ll finish by quoting one of the novel’s more memorable passages – a letter written home by one of the infantrymen and, apparently, based on a series of real-life letters kept in the Imperial War Museum. I think this passage perfectly demonstrates Sebastian Faulks’ narrative intentions, as well as highlighting the limited ability of words to articulate the reality of war:
No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand. When it is over we will go quietly among the living, and we will not tell them. We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us.