Echoing & Twinning: Sebastian Faulks’ Thoughts on Time & Self


“Who were we?” is a question that poses the same conundrum for our present-day selves. Arguably, the process of answering is the quintessence of all history writing, but fiction authors can explore it more freely.

Sebastian Faulks will be well known to many for his exceptional evocation of the First World War, known as the French trilogy: The Girl at the Lion d’Or (1989), Birdsong (1993) and Charlotte Gray (1999). The period is one that has always interested him, whether for the heights of bravery and abysses of suffering, or the plain incompetence of the rulers and politicians. Later wars form the background of much of his later work, too, but so do the enigmas of the human mind, our strangeness as a species, how prone we are to mental instability, our struggles to understand each other. This second strand occupies his acclaimed 2005 novel, Human Traces, the first of another trilogy focused on Vienna and the development of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. It is now followed by Snow Country (Hutchinson, September 2021).

Faulks describes the relationship between his books as “cousins”, since some sections of Snow Country are set in 1910, before the First World War, but the main action takes place in 1933, with Europe precariously placed between two wars. Readers might find themselves enjoying the books in reverse order (as he quips, lives can’t be), particularly since many of the characters appear in the earlier book, and those that were on the sidelines, are now in full focus. These arcs prompt questions, too, about how our younger selves develop in later life, how insights into past lives can spark understanding of our own.

The books also in part share a setting. In Human Traces two cousins, Jacques Rebières and Thomas Midwinter, establish a sanatorium at Schloss Seeblick, a train ride from Vienna. Faulks confirmed that the institution is “entirely invented, though some of the buildings are based on houses I saw and visited.” In Snow Country, the sanatorium is now run by Martha, one of Thomas and Kitty’s twin daughters.

Faulks has been said to write about women disarmingly well, with strong female leads in many of his earlier novels. This is true of Martha, whose deep understanding brings unison to the whole story. Another is Lena, whom we first meet as a child and then follow through a poignant coming-of-age. Her mother, Carina, a complex character, had worked at another asylum owned by Rebière and Winter, the Wilhelmskogel clinic. One of Egon Schiele’s portraits of a red-haired woman gave me the idea that Faulks might have drawn inspiration for her character there. But no.

“The idea for Lena came from a book about nursing by Christie Watson in which she mentioned in passing a female patient who could only be happy when pregnant. This woman was also a heavy drinker. I wondered what it might be like to be a child of such a mother. It is a nice idea to think of Lena as depicted by Schiele with that staring, slightly desperate look. But I think she is by her nature less wanton than some of the women in Schiele’s paintings. She can be sensual, but only as part of her fuller nature.”

Summoned to Schloss Seeblick after her mother’s death, Lena “felt proprietary about the view” from the lake, and she tries to capture the sanatorium, a “new world” which for a time she called home, in paint. Faulks describes the building through many eyes, also Anton Heideck’s because, later, in 1933 he is sent to report on its mysterious history, at once luxurious retreat and place of healing, a place in turmoil and a trove of secrets.

We first meet Anton in Vienna where, after university and through his early years as a journalist, he experiences his tender first love for the Frenchwoman Delphine. Faulks gives a masterclass in timeline management, by arching back and forwards throughout the book: the powerfully mysterious first chapter – a gripping scene of open surgery in a field hospital – only makes sense when we read later episodes, first with Delphine, then Lena and finally Martha.

Snow Country is the English translation of a title previously used by Yasunari Kawabata, the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1968: I was surprised to discover that Japan is indeed the world’s snowiest country. Faulks acknowledges this borrowing, as well as the inspiration of the book itself, in an afterword. However, when asked about any other connections, it proved a red herring: “There is no Japanese link that I am aware of, apart from my borrowing of the translated title of Kawabata’s book.” Instead, it is to South America that Anton heads, where he is sent by the newspaper for which he works to cover the last stages of the digging and flooding of the Panama Canal: filthy work in every respect. The year is 1913, and the Panama Canal is quite literally clogged up in politics, financing scandals, and horrendous mud that kills thousands of the workers. I was curious to know why Faulks chose to start Anton’s story there.

“Panama is partly a way of getting to know Anton, seeing him in action and measuring how he reacts to being separated from Delphine. I also knew at the time that he would discover Jacques’ letters home from the USA when he was at the sanatorium, and I wanted to prefigure the feeling of being isolated in the face of a great wilderness, wondering whether you have any real physical existence at all. The idea of echoing and twinning became important as the book went on. Panama also touches on the idea of Old World incompetence that led to the 1914–18 war. It is also a thrilling story in its own right.”

Vienna is also in some sense a character in the book. We meet the city at various times, from the early 20th-century society with its idealisms and inequalities to the short-lived Civil Wars of 1934. The history is a very light touch and more efficacious for that. Details are picked out with great attention and remain impressed in the mind after reading: the line girls that so appal Anton, the famous cafés, the detailed observation of the everyday clothing shop where Lena works. The internal troubles of the country surface at various moments and climax when Lena and Anton find themselves in Karl-Marx-Hof as it is attacked by government tanks. Faulks tells me:

“I knew a fair bit about Vienna and Austria from the research into Human Traces and from having visited Carinthia (especially the area round Klagenfurt) many times. I went to Vienna in December 2019 with a view to more intense research, and I would have gone back, had it not been for the ‘plague’.”

This reference to the curb on research imposed by Covid-19 will be familiar to many. It meant that “most of the background came from reading books, both histories and contemporary fiction and psychological writing.” It is also a link to an earlier pandemic: the influenza pandemic that swept away countless lives in the years immediately following the War. Strangely, it also provides another of the interconnecting links between Faulks’ novels.

“I wrote much of Snow Country during the Lockdown during which journalists repeatedly told us how ‘unprecedented’ such a virus was. It added a certain poignancy to the historical setting and to the fate of the two Fourmentier sisters, but I can’t say Covid had a big impact otherwise on my writing.”

The Fourmentier sisters mentioned here are Isabel and Delphine, another of the character arcs that Faulks inserts, minor characters in previous novels who re-emerge or are remembered in later ones. A French governess and language teacher in Vienna, Delphine meets Anton in the 1910s. But at the time she is holding something back, which we only understand much later. As Delphine says her life has “cloudy contours and jagged edges”. What is crucial to the themes of Faulks’ writing is the way our lives are affected by great political events, leaving us impotent to act. At the outbreak of the First World War Delphine is “stuck” in Vienna, while Anton gets stuck in Paris, with life-changing consequences.

Faulks’ fascination with our human make-up – minds as well as bodies – is also apparent in Where My Heart Used to Beat (2015), in part about the Anzio campaign in 1944. “It’s the story of the 20th century – how we moved from emperors, tsars, kaisers, archdukes and kings to social democracies, via genocide and huge slaughter.” The option of war and the possibility of mass destruction is “linked to the terrible instability of the human being. We are a genetic freak”. In Snow Country, Anton relates to Jacques Rebières’ letters which he finds in the attic archive at the Schloss, and these parallels allow Faulks to explore Anton’s yearning and desire, at memories true and false, at lives led separately but in synchrony.

Faulks’ novels are told on many levels. The relationship between Anton and Delphine and ultimately with Lena forms a deeply poignant love story, even as all the while their lives are being shaped by the inescapable events of their time. The lake, over which the desk in Marta’s office looks, offers the characters a chance to see themselves reflected in its waters, whether turbulent or still.

Faulks will return to the “strange nature of the human creature” in his next novel, this time set in modern Britain. Given the “unprecedented” events we too are living through, the wait will be tantalising. But I look forward to hearing more about Anton and Lena, too, in the final book of the trilogy.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Lucinda Byatt is a historian and translator. She is also HNR Features Editor and blogs occasionally at “A World of Words,”

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 98 (November 2021)

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