Sunday, December 25, 2005

Holiday reads part 1:
Sebastian Faulks, “Human Traces”

Headline: wildly over-hyped historical novel of mad-doctors, schizophrenia and evolution

Right, I’ve not read “Birdsong” or “Charlotte Gray” - which many rave about - but while “Human Traces” would comfortably fill a long weekend at the beach, it’s a trifle frustrating.

The historical detail on the origins of psychiatry as a field of study, and early theories on “mad-doctoring” is engaging. The provocative thesis of one of the central characters, the improbably named Dr Thomas Midwinter, that our capacity for language is also the origin of madness but that at one stage of (pre-literate) human development the ability to “hear voices” was vital to human existence is certainly engaging.

Indeed, the historical detail and evocation of place is usually pretty good.

It’s just a shame the characters are all so flat and either unsympathetic or laughably idealised. The women, to an indistinguishable one, have a near psychic ability to intuit what the menfolk are thinking and feeling and are - frankly - concerned with little else. In a depiction of what is meant to be life in all its vicissitudes, it must be said that success comes rather easily. Unless married off by unfeeling parents, characters seem to fall in love by a second meeting at the latest, and are unproblematically engaged soon after.

There is the tragedy of the first world war, and the campaign on the western front and in the Italian mountains. Pity that much the same territory was covered so much better in Hemmingway’s “Farewell to Arms”.

Most of the splash about “Human Traces”, other than suggestions the subject-matter was inspired by Faulk's mother's experience of mental illness, was made by the Oxford don Professor Tim Crow who was a little concerned (rather endearingly) about whether “it matters if the facts are right in a novel” - basically an accusation that Faulks had lifted a theory of his and anachronistically given it to a character who, on the basis of knowledge then available, could never have conceived it. Faulks apparently found the idea distressing. I have trouble appreciating the problem.

Faulks rather sententiously disclaims the practice of concluding a novel with a list of references “as though all art aspired to the condition of a student essay.” I find, however, some of the rather thinly veiled and clunking exposition of scientific thought rather much in a novel; though lamentably this category contains many of the novel’s most interesting passages.

Indeed, the most interesting idea in the novel, that all humans once “heard voices” and had a direct psychic (or psychiatric) experience of the divine is attributed in the acknowledgements (really a bibliographic essay) to Julian Jaynes.

I have no trouble with fiction presenting interesting ideas, but find the contemporary insistence on historical accuracy stifling and entirely unnecessary. I rather liked Bet Easton Ellis’ apologetic disclaimer of having done know research into the “true” events of “Lunar Park” and am rather looking forward to a novel that does not occasionally feel like a textbook with all the footnotes missing.

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