Near the end of Sebastian Faulks’ World War I novel Birdsong, the stoic, lonely protagonist Stephen Wraysford comes face to face with a German soldier who has pulled him from the depths of a collapsed tunnel, saving his life. At the sight of the German uniform, Stephen instinctively reaches for his revolver, which isn’t there. He then aggressively raises fighting fists. And then: “Far beyond thought, the resolution came to him and he found his arms, still raised, begin to spread open.” The German soldier in turn sees “this wild-eyed figure, half-demented” and without knowing why “found that he had opened his own arms in turn, and the two men fell upon each other’s shoulders, weeping at the bitter strangeness of their human lives.”
It’s a stunning event on page 483 out of a total of 503 pages in my paperback edition. For three years in this fictional masterpiece, Stephen has fought on the front lines in France with the German enemy, and I had long been with him in all the pages before through the Battle of the Somme and the Battle at Messines Ridge. Thinking surely they would shoot one another, their reaction caught my breath.
Birdsong is Faulks’ fourth novel that became hugely popular in the UK, when it was published in 1993, and thereafter in the US. In other words, it’s not a new book but among past-published books offering a gold mine of good reading. Sometimes a good book for a beach bag is an old book. This one certainly is a top candidate.
While the compelling central drama of this epic story is the horrific trench warfare in Northern France, the book begins in 1910, when Stephen arrives in a small French town to observe the manufacturing practices of a textile factory. He falls in love with the owner’s wife, Isabelle, and what follows is a torrid love affair, with erotic scenes perfectly tuned to the characters’ passion. Six years later, Stephen is a lieutenant in the British infantry, boldly leading men into enemy fire and watching them die in the inhuman devastation of the crushing battles. He’s a survivor, and his men see him as a lucky charm. His cold yet not dispassionate eye to the carnage allows him to live with the ongoing senseless killing and keep moving through his days without burden of despair.
His affair with Isabelle is long over, and yet 1978 to 1979, in parts three, five and seven of the story, Stephen’s 38-year-old grand-daughter, Elizabeth Benson, born of Isabelle, reads Stephen’s diaries found in her mother’s attic. She also visits the battlefields in Northern France. While some of Elizabeth’s queries about her grandfather feel a bit over-excited, this part of the narrative gives a meaningful look-back from a generation that’s clueless about their World War I ancestors. To be so involved in reading about Stephen’s war and then catapulted ahead to a time when people can’t possibly understand it creates an eerie feeling in the narrative flow.
Faulks writes with focused, realistic detail. For some, the war scenes might be too much. The Battle of the Somme is described in history books as one of the bloodiest military battles ever fought. Indeed, the Brits and French charged toward the Germans across No Man’s Land falsely believing their enemy had been successfully shelled into vulnerability. But this war story comes across neither as too violent nor gruesome. It’s more forthright and sincere.
One hundred or so pages before the scene of Stephen’s rescue from the tunnel, Stephen takes a short leave home to England. When he’s alone outside in the fields of a countryside untouched by war — where there are standing trees and a silent sky — he’s overwhelmed with a presence of love and forgiveness that he senses in the created world: “…nothing was immoral or beyond redemption, all could be brought together, understood in the long perspective of forgiveness.” This spiritual connection deeply changes him. It is a small but mighty thread that’s tightly woven with many other threads in the tapestry of his daily life that lead to Stephen letting go of his fists and opening his arms, as the war comes to an end in this profound epic.