Sebastian Faulks’ new novel, Snow country, does not allow light reading. But then, as he will tell you himself, “I have always been intrigued by what makes a human being different from other creatures, looking at our genetic heritage, our neurological diseases and our talking remedies, which assumes that if you talk to someone long enough, you can untangle the knots that make us unhappy.
These gravid themes run throughout this book. At one point, two of its main characters discuss how dysfunctional we are.
“I have come to have a low view of the human creature, the male in particular,” said one.
“We behave in ways that are contrary to our own interests, harmful passions that drive us crazy with love or the need to slaughter each other… We don’t seem very evolved.
Faulks, 68, has been here before, casting his disappointed gaze on the myriad of human failures in the poignant World War I epic Birdsong of 1993, which sold three million copies. The world is flawed, he seems to say, and is filled with walking casualties.
Snow country is the second part of his Austrian trilogy, which began in 2005 Human traces, in which he examines the evolution of psychiatry. If this book was gnarly – an 800-page discourse on psychiatric care that was, as Faulks now admits, “very difficult to write, and perhaps not entirely successful” – then Snow country is less theoretical, more plot-oriented… and noticeably shorter.
Apparently a love story set between 1914 and 1933, it concerns a young journalist, Anton, who loses the love of his life at the outbreak of World War I, and a woman, Lena, who first meets Anton. in his most distressed moments. , then again, years later, in an Austrian sanatorium for the mentally ill.
As the novel progresses, it becomes more and more existential.
“I believe that we are lost, at the mercy of chance and history,” he writes. “You end up with your legs torn off. Die from the flu. Or in a dementia serve, dribbling and alone. That’s life. “
When I tell Faulks that sometimes I didn’t really know where this was going (this, by the way, meant like a compliment – it might be dark, but it’s utterly captivating), he smiles.
“That’s exactly what I was trying to do,” he says. “I like to read books in which you sometimes have the impression that the author does not know where he is going. It creates tension, and I’m very interested in how an author can speak to the reader, almost behind the characters’ backs, and gradually draw them in. “
Faulks had been a journalist before turning to full-time fiction, after being voluntarily fired in his late thirties. Birds singing, his fourth novel, changed his life – even though he was adamant not to write the same book twice.
He has since written eight more historical novels alongside modern controversies, with intermittent diversions in Jeeves and Wooster’s updates. In 2008, he even tried his hand at writing a new James Bond opus, The devil can care, at the request of the estate of Ian Fleming.
“I wrote it in six weeks, that’s how long it took Fleming to write them. A huge pleasure, ”he says.
He may be unpredictable, but the common theme in much of his work is sadness. Faulks does melancholy very well. “I don’t know why my books seem to come out so sad, because I’m not a particularly sad person. Around the dinner table on vacation, for example, I think people would find me humorous.
“In fact,” he adds, “when I was finishing my last novel, Paris Echo, I felt that the characters were leading me inexorably towards something called a happy ending. I was, of course, appalled “- he smiles now -” because happy endings are the prerogative of airport novels. But I went with it.
Ultimately, for him, writing is a way to engage in big thoughts and face life. “I like books that have big themes,” he admits. “I am fascinated by how our private and personal lives are affected by the movement of history, and how humans have a propensity for violence and instability.
“These are endless topics, and the trick is to approach them from different angles. There are always different angles.
What I’m reading now …
Do not say anything by Patrick Radden Keefe
“This is a non-fictional account of half a dozen characters who were in the IRA during the Troubles. It’s superb investigative journalism, told like a thriller.
What I read next …
Perplexity by Richard Pouvoirs
“He’s another writer who talks about ideas and characters, and how you get married and fit the two.”
Snow country is published by Hutchinson, at £ 20