Interview Lit for Life

Sebastian Faulks thinks that Homo sapiens is a deeply peculiar creature

Sebastian Faulks’s latest book, Where my Heart used to Beat, has been described as “a novel of memory and madness”. It shows him at the height of his narrative powers as he trawls through the depths of the 20th century, dredging the glittering fragments of a civilisation that holds within its magnificent promise the genome for its destruction. Excerpts from an email interview.

You’ve been, and no doubt, you still are, a journalist, broadcaster, novelist and writer of both fiction and non-fiction. How do you juggle all these roles, do they feed off each other?

I am only a novelist, really. I do about one piece of journalism a year and half a dozen radio things, mostly to publicise a new novel. So there is no juggling involved.

The difficulty is this: the kind of novels I write are not just a single idea, but carry two or three major themes and several subsidiary ones. That kind of package, which can then be made into a coherent and entertaining piece of fiction, doesn’t come around all that often. So I would say I spend perhaps five per cent of my time on the ancillary things, 45% on fiction and 50% looking for the next book.

Birdsong, your breakthrough novel, set the tone of your interest in the First World War as the defining event that changed the world. Did you write When my Heart with a view to picking up the threads of that initial closing of the Western mind?

You don’t quite see the patterns among your books while you are writing them; it’s only in retrospect that I can see that the first five or so novels I wrote, including Birdsong, Charlotte Gray and The Girl at the Lion d’Or (the French trilogy) are about Who Are We? How did humans get to be in the state that I found us in as I came to consciousness in the 1960s?

Having answered that question (at least to my own satisfaction!), I learned that Homo sapiens is a deeply peculiar creature, a sort of evolutionary freak.

So the next group of books, especially Human Traces, but also Engleby and A Possible Life, are concerned with What Are We? What exactly is wrong with the human animal?

Where my Heart is a novel that brings to a conclusion my interest in both these ideas. It is a summary and precis of all that I have explored in the previous novels. And it is quite short!

It’s interesting that both the Magus (in John Fowles’s novel of that name) and your preceptor Pereira, the retired neurologist, inhabit obscure islands from where they conduct their experiments with the human mind. Was that accidental, to make the ordinary exotic, or necessary to suggest a laboratory where fresh beginnings might germinate?

For reasons connected to a book review (my annual piece of journalism) I re-read about five years ago quite a few of the writers who were popular when I was growing up, including Iris Murdoch and John Fowles. I enjoyed The Magus again (having first read it as a student, as one should), but, of course, Fowles could not find a way to end his story.

What works so well for Fowles is the intrigue and the slow release of information, leading up to the full disclosure of events during the Occupation.

The technique of teasing the reader, giving her/ him only little bits at a time, is as old as story-telling itself — but can still be made to work.

Are you an incurable romantic? Though the sex episodes power the narrative it’s love that heals both Hendricks and some of us.

I don’t think love is seen as a healer in this novel. Its force seems to be destructive. Had Hendricks loved Luisa less, he might have been able to make other loving connections in his life and would have been less lonely.

I think that the book also casts a pretty cold eye on the sex act itself, as when Hendricks can find no interest in Anna’s naked body, which he sees only as a doctor or a parent might. And it begins with a paid transaction with a hooker. Not very romantic!

I don’t have views on love or sex that I want to persuade people of; but I do think they can be interesting in fiction — and I will make my characters have different experiences of them in any way that helps further the underlying themes of the book.

I’m sorry if that sounds cold. But I am novelist, not a preacher.

The chapters on the radical treatments used to re-direct the effects of mental aberrations are fascinating. The effects have been left open-ended in the novel, but do you see yourself exploring this further, what may be termed loosely as the Nietzschean paradox, the desire for a Superman in a simian mind?

I did an enormous amount of reading into psychiatry, psychology, neurology and evolution while writing Human Traces, which is the Everest of my little mountain range. I had always been fascinated by the idea (which I came across in passing) that schizophrenia, which poses such enormous evolutionary and philosophical questions, which seems to probe at the very heart of what Homo sapiens is, might be nullified by a simple fever!

In my researches I met a woman with acute chronic schizophrenia who, with the right medication, had intervals of such lucidity that she could explain her condition. Though even in these ‘sane’ periods she was assaulted by voices. I suppose I see it like this: In Darwinian terms of natural selection, Homo sapiens needed only a small advantage over his rivals to secure a niche.

But a major mutation, or series of mutations, produced a freak who could not only feed and reproduce more effectively than rival omnivores, but could also build the Taj Mahal and write all of Beethoven and Shakespeare.

That is just WEIRD.

And with the unnecessary music came the curse of consciousness, the knowledge that we will die, the burden under which — uniquely in creation — we labour day by day. That is the curse, as the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno put it, that has made us humans “lower than the jackass or the crab.”

What can we do about it?

Enjoy the music, I suppose.

The interviewer is a Chennai-based writer and critic.

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