Sebastian Faulks’ latest historical novel is a thing of the past

Snow Country Sebastian Faulks Penguin Random House; € 16.99

Apart from Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks is perhaps the only one among English novelists to combine substantial literary merit with enduring popularity: his France trilogy, which included The Girl with the Golden Lion, Birds singing and Charlotte gray, sold by the millions, and the second and third installments were adapted for the screen (usually a decent market value index).

His secret? Faulks cares deeply about his readers. Sensitive to style but not very experimental, he is also attentive to the plot in a way that forbids anything too avant-garde. His influences (especially Francophiles) are conservative, even outdated: Balzac, Flaubert and Zola, but also Dickens and George Gissing.

And then there’s the question of sex: Faulks’ novels tend to be historical romances of one sort or another, and no one could accuse him of prudishness (he won the Bad Sex in Fiction award. by Literary Review for Charlotte gray). Sex sells, as the cliché says.

Snow country has all the makings of a crowd pleaser for Faulks. Located in Central Europe – after Human traces, this is the second volume of what he hopes will become an Austrian trilogy – before and after World War I, he weaves the lives of Anton Heideck, a traumatized war veteran and aspiring journalist; Lena Fontana, the ambitious daughter of a drunk and impoverished mother; Rudolf Plishke, a young lawyer and Christian socialist idealist; and Martha Midwinter, a psychoanalyst at the Schloss Seeblick asylum, where all these characters end up converging.

Thematically richly varied, it is basically a story of lost innocence – both for the individuals through whom its complex tale unfolds and for the continent inhabited by these characters.

The novel imbues the novel with two lingering preoccupations of Faulks: the particular question of how the intellectual dynamism of Europe at the beginning of the 20th century coincided with the barbarism of its two world wars, and the more general mystery of human consciousness. herself.

For Faulks, these are bafflingly related. Charcot, Freud, and other pioneers of modern psychoanalysis and psychology, all came to life with the utter destruction of war, as Europe was suddenly filled with swathes of physically and mentally damaged young men and women. .

As the Freudian Martha says: “Of course there is hope… But we are trying to understand the deaths of 10 million men.

A more down-to-earth story of lost and rediscovered love reinforces the intellectual flights of the novel. Anton is desperately looking for his lover, Delphine Fourmentier, who disappeared at the start of the war. He eventually meets Lena, his apparent doppelganger, at the Schloss Seeblick, and is initially unsure whether she is a ghost sent to haunt him or his deliverance from torment.

In their union, Anton is cured, and Lena seems to achieve the security that a cruel world has long denied her. But this sentimental conclusion hardly coexists with the historical and intellectual context that Faulks places at the center of the novel. References to “Herr Hitler” suggest that Europe would not be complete.

Snow country is an ambitious but imperfect attempt to revive the European idea novel. that of Robert Musil The man without qualities, which is mentioned a few times, is the epitome of this genre, with its sprawling digressions and vast array of characters.

But Musil’s novel, like those of Thomas Mann, Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig, arose directly from the very context in which Snow country can only become nostalgic. No wonder he feels anachronistic, even where his thoughts on love, violence and history are still relevant today.

An author of immense talent, Faulks does not know how to do the impossible: go back in time.

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