Engrossed in Birdsong, and Sebastian Faulks' vivid recreation of the British trenches at the Somme--and the network of tunnels beneath no man's land--I wondered, not for the first time, why it is I'm so fascinated with the Great War. I've burned through accounts fictional, critical, historical, biographical, autobiographical, poetic, illustrated, from both sides of the conflict. And yet I keep reading more, even though I know what to expect, i.e. rats, mud, bombardments, despair.
I think it's this: World War I caused human experiences that had never occurred before. Millions of men--millions of minds--were under the constant threat of death, in a constant state of fear, for days and weeks and months at a time. The scale of it, the accumulation of all that terror, the human psyche being subjected to strains it had never faced, seems from my near-century distance a breach in reality, a catastrophe that in some ways will never be overcome. It's something I can't possibly understand, and so I substitute secondhand facts and stories.
Birdsong, while the bulk of its pages are devoted to Englishman Stephen Wraysford's war service, it begins with a love story. At 20, Stephen visited Amiens to learn about the textile business there, and fell consumingly in love with his host's wife, Isabelle, and she with him. Their affair is linked to the horrors of battle by Faulks' visceral prose, grounded in the body, as sure and evocative writing about pleasure as pain. (One passage describes Stephen's tongue as "turning like a key in the split lock of her flesh," which is the best erotic image I've ever read.)
Less compelling for me are interspersed chapters that take place sixty years later, concerning Stephen and Isabelle's granddaughter, Elizabeth. She's largely ignorant about the war, its impact having been forgotten and blunted over the decades, but decides on a whim to learn more about her grandfather and the conflict that shaped him. She is dumbfounded by what she discovers--standing at an enormous monument for the British soldiers lost in a single battle, "[s]he looked at the vault above her head and then around in panic at the endless writing, as though the surface of the sky had been papered in footnotes. . . . 'Nobody told me. . . . My God, nobody told me.'" But beyond her role as learner, I just didn't find her that interesting. (And I always want to shake modern characters with married boyfriends.) Still, the prose is just as beautiful, and these sections are much shorter, so they hardly affected my overall love of the book. Highly recommended.