This is how Ron Charles of the Washington Post begins his review of A Possible Life:
I’m not sure why Sebastian Faulks calls his new book “a novel” — I might as well call this review “a poem” — but labeling is the only thing he gets wrong here.
I share Charles’s puzzlement (and his approbation). Although there are some common threads running throughout, A Possible Life, to my view, consists of five novellas that don’t have much in common with one another, set as they are in different locales and eras.
The first one concerns Geoffrey Talbot and is set on the eve of the Second World War. Impatient and disillusioned with the military, Geoffrey decides to opt for intelligence work instead. Colossal bad luck lands him, along with a colleague, in a concentration camp. The description of what goes on there is excruciating; I nearly had to set the book aside. But I persevered, because I cared about Geoffrey and because the writing was so good. (This is something you can depend on from Faulks, author of Birdsong and A Week in December.)
In one scene, Geoffrey is attempting to tell his parents what sort of war work he’ll be doing, without telling them too much. This is the kind of luminous prose that keeps me continually returning to the works of this author:
For a moment the three of them, the small family unit, looked at one another and Geoffrey had the sensation of time stopping, as though all his childhood summers were rolled into that moment: the slow days when sun glowed on the brick of the village almshouses with their fiery beds of dahlias and wallflowers tended by old men in cardigans; the bubbling white of the water that ran beneath the bridge by the church in which, flat on the grass, he would dip his hands to cool them, then splash his face; the road when he bicycled past the cottage hospital on his way home from school and saw the patients wheeled onto the grass to lie in the drowsy afternoon with a wireless faintly playing through an open door.
Part Two is entitled “Billy 1859.” Billy’s family consists of himself, his three siblings, and his parents. The family is so impoverished that the decision is made to consign one of one of the children to a workhouse. It falls to Billy’s lot to go there. Again, we get a detailed description of an exceedingly bleak environment (but one that’s not nearly as ghastly as the concentration camp in the preceding novella). Billy’s resourcefulness in the face of daunting odds is deeply impressive and ultimately serves as a guide to the way out of the grinding poverty into which he was born. With it all, he never loses his humanity and his humility; yet at the end, he still struggles to make sense of things:
I don’t think you ever understand your life–not till it’s finished and probably not then either. The more I live the less I seem to understand.
This sentiment is a recurring trope in these stories.
(Oddly, I have a dim memory of my father saying something similar to me. That, and “every person has his pack on his back.”)
The best adjective I can think of to describe this novella is ‘Dickensian.’
Next, we meet Elena, an only child. The year is 2029. The place is Italy, initially a village near Mantua:
Elena Duranti was a wild girl who spent most of her time alone in the woods near her parents’ farm. Her mother said she was shy, but the truth was that she found other children irritating. She knew what they were trying to say even as they began to labor slowly towards it; and when they got there it hardly seemed worth the trouble.
Elena, brilliant and determined, is destined to make her mark as a researcher in neuroscience. But this comes after the solitude of her childhood is suddenly an unexpectedly breached. Roberto, her father, returns home from a business trip to Trieste with a young boy in tow. The boy had been rescued from an orphanage. He has no name, only a number. Roberto decides that he’s to be called Bruno. Dumbfounded by this sudden change in their domestic situation, Elena asks how long Bruno will be with them.
“‘For ever’ said Roberto. ‘We’re adopting him.'”
I was immediately reminded of the fateful arrival Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, but the similarities diverge, as the story progresses.
Elena’s evolving relationship with Bruno is the chief source of fascination in this novella.
One other point of interest – at least, it was of interest to me. Elena is an avowed atheist – a not uncommon conviction in the postmodern world she inhabits. Yet when she suffers a terrible loss, her grief is portrayed in a way that has a strong Biblical resonance:
She went out into the stony field, knelt and lowered her face between her knees. She picked up handfuls of soil and let them trickle from her fingers onto her bowed head. She had been snatched up violently and did not recognize the place where she had been put down. She lifted up her eyes to the hills, as though some help might be there; but all she sensed was how long it would take to realign herself to this new world.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the LORD,
which made heaven and earth.
The ancients may have sensed consolation coming from afar, but sadly, for Elena those same hills have no comfort to bestow upon her.
“Jeanne 1822” is the fourth novella. It takes place in the Limousin region, in southwestern France. This is how it begins:
Jeanne was said to be the most ignorant person in the Limousin village where she had lived most of her life.
Jeanne works as a domestic in the Lagarde household. Monsieur and Madame Lagarde have two children, Clémence and Marcel. Jeanne’s fate and that of the members of the Lagarde family are virtually inextricable.
At one point, just before she turns twenty, Clémence presents to her family a young man by the name of Étienne Desmarais. This forms the occasion for a diner party, to which the Lagardes also invite their friends Mosieur et Madame Mechenet. At one point, Mme Michenet asks Desmarais if he intends eventually to reside on his family’s estates. To which he replies in the negative, and then adds: “‘The eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me.'”
It seems he is quoting a famous line of text from one France’s most famed philosophers. No one in the party recognizes it, however, and he needs must enlighten them: It is from the works of Blaise Pascal. Desmarais further informs them: “He was referring to the heavens, of course.'”
Knowing virtually nothing of Pascal’s Pensées except for the work’s general fame, I looked it up on Wikipedia. Wikiquote supplied it, and the lines preceding:
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?
The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.
I also found another quote, which I first heard in another context – I can’t remember which – and that has stayed with me: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” The original French reads as follows: ‘Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point.‘ I think I prefer this translation: “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.” This sentiment also is relevant to the story of Jeanne and her sojourn through life with the Lagarde family.
“Jeanne 1822” possesses narrative and descriptive elements which are reminiscent of the evocation of provincial life often encountered in nineteenth century French fiction. (Une Vie by Guy de Maupassant comes to mind.) Of the five novellas that comprise A Possible Life, it is my favorite.
The Wikipedia article on Limousin features this photograph, with the caption ‘Small river in Creuse, Limousin.’ I long to be there, for some reason.
Finally, there is “Anya 1971.” For me, this was the least satisfying of the five. Anya is a young woman with exceptional gifts in the fields of singing and songwriting. Faulks expends considerable effort in describing the qualities that make her music so special. Alas, it didn’t work for me. In fairness it must be said that writing about music is exceptionally difficult; one is trying describe a phenomenon that is almost entirely sensory, by a means that is primarily intellectual. When I attempt to do it on this blog, I am almost always dissatisfied with the results. What can I say about Mahler’s symphonies except that they give me gooseflesh and I think they’re fabulous? Ah well – I can refer you back to the recently mentioned Alex Ross, of the New Yorker. (By “recently mentioned,” I refer to one of my posts on the Met’s new production of Parsifal.)
Anya’s story is told by a young man who is a professional in the music business and is clearly astonished by Anya’s talent and in general very taken with her. I tried to care as much as he did, but I couldn’t. I felt as though Faulks were trying to imbue with profundity a story – not an especially gripping one – involving a group of rather unexceptional individuals.
That said, I mostly loved A Possible Life. In my view, Sebastian Faulks is one of the finest novelists at work today.