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  • Written by Sebastian Faulks
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A Novel of Love and War

Written by Sebastian FaulksAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Sebastian Faulks

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: March 21, 2012
Pages: 496 | ISBN: 978-0-307-82038-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Published to international critical and popular acclaim, this intensely romantic yet stunningly realistic novel spans three generations and the unimaginable gulf between the First World War and the present. As the young Englishman Stephen Wraysford passes through a tempestuous love affair with Isabelle Azaire in France and enters the dark, surreal world beneath the trenches of No Man's Land, Sebastian Faulks creates a world of fiction that is as tragic as A Farewell to Arms and as sensuous as The English Patient. Crafted from the ruins of war and the indestructibility of love, Birdsong is a novel that will be read and marveled at for years to come.

Excerpt

FRANCE

1910

Part One

The boulevard du Cange was a broad, quiet street that marked the eastern flank of the city of Amiens. The wagons that rolled in from Lille and Arras to the north drove directly into the tanneries and mills of the Saint Leu quarter without needing to use this rutted, leafy road. The town side of the boulevard backed on to substantial gardens, which were squared off and apportioned with civic precision to the houses they adjoined. On the damp grass were chestnut trees, lilacs, and willows, cultivated to give shade and quietness to their owners. The gardens had a wild, overgrown look and their deep lawns and bursting hedges could conceal small clearings, quiet pools, and areas unvisited even by the inhabitants, where patches of grass and wild flowers lay beneath the branches of overhanging trees.

Behind the gardens the river Somme broke up into small canals that were the picturesque feature of Saint Leu; on the other side of the boulevard these had been made into a series of water gardens, little islands of damp fertility divided by the channels of the split river. Long, flat-bottomed boats propelled by poles took the town dwellers through the waterways on Sunday afternoons. All along the river and its streams sat fishermen, slumped on their rods; in hats and coats beneath the cathedral and in shirtsleeves by the banks of the water gardens, they dipped their lines in search of trout or carp.

The Azaires' house showed a strong, formal front toward the road from behind iron railings. The traffic looping down to the river would have been in no doubt that this was the property of a substantial man. The slate roof plunged in conflicting angles to cover the irregular shape of the house. Beneath one of them a dormer window looked out on to the boulevard. The first floor was dominated by a stone balcony, over whose balustrades the red ivy had crept on its way up to the roof. There was a formidable front door with iron facings on the timber.

Inside, the house was both smaller and larger than it looked. It had no rooms of intimidating grandeur, no gilt ballrooms with dripping chandeliers, yet it had unexpected spaces and corridors that disclosed new corners with steps down into the gardens; there were small salons equipped with writing desks and tapestry-covered chairs that opened inward from unregarded passageways. Even from the end of the lawn, it was difficult to see how the rooms and corridors were fitted into the placid rectangles of stone. Throughout the building the floors made distinctive sounds beneath the press of feet, so that with its closed angles and echoing air, the house was always a place of unseen footsteps.

Stephen Wraysford's metal trunk had been sent ahead and was waiting at the foot of the bed. He unpacked his clothes and hung his spare suit in the giant carved wardrobe. There was an enamel wash bowl and wooden towel rail beneath the window. He had to stand on tiptoe to look out over the boulevard, where a cab was waiting on the other side of the street, the horse shaking its harness and reaching up its neck to nibble at the branches of a lime tree. He tested the resilience of the bed, then lay down on it, resting his head on the concealed bolster. The room was simple but had been decorated with some care. There was a vase of wild flowers on the table and two prints of street scenes in Honfleur on either side of the door.

It was a spring evening, with a late sun in the sky beyond the cathedral and the sound of blackbirds from either side of the house. Stephen washed perfunctorily and tried to flatten his black hair in the small mirror. He placed half a dozen cigarettes in a metal case that he tucked inside his jacket. He emptied his pockets of items he no longer needed: railway tickets, a blue leather notebook, and a knife with a single, scrupulously sharpened blade.

He went downstairs to dinner, startled by the sound of his steps on the two staircases that took him to the landing of the first floor and the family bedrooms, and thence down to the hall. He felt hot beneath his waistcoat and jacket. He stood for a moment disorientated, unsure which of the four glass-panelled doors that opened off the hall was the one through which he was supposed to go. He half-opened one and found himself looking into a steam-filled kitchen in the middle of which a maid was loading plates on to a tray on a large deal table.

"This way, Monsieur. Dinner is served," said the maid, squeezing past him in the doorway.

In the dining room the family were already seated. Madame Azaire stood up.

"Ah, Monsieur, your seat is here."

Azaire muttered an introduction of which Stephen heard only the words "my wife." He took her hand and bowed his head briefly. Two children were staring at him from the other side of the table.

"Lisette," Madame Azaire said, gesturing to a girl of perhaps sixteen with dark hair in a ribbon, who smirked and held out her hand, "and Gr?goire." This was a boy of about ten, whose small head was barely visible above the table, beneath which he was swinging his legs vigorously backward and forward.

The maid hovered at Stephen's shoulder with a tureen of soup. Stephen lowered a ladleful of it into his plate and smelt the scent of some unfamiliar herb. Beneath the concentric rings of swirling green the soup was thickened with potato.

Azaire had already finished his and sat rapping his knife in a persistent rhythm against its silver rest. Stephen lifted searching eyes above the soup spoon as he sucked the liquid over his teeth.

"How old are you?" said the boy.

"Gr?goire!"

"It doesn't matter," said Stephen to Madame Azaire. "Twenty."

"Do you drink wine?" said Azaire, holding a bottle over Stephen's glass.

"Thank you."

Azaire poured out an inch or two for Stephen and for his wife before returning the bottle to its place.

"So what do you know about textiles?" said Azaire. He was only forty years old but could have been ten years more. His body was of a kind that would neither harden nor sag with age. His eyes had an alert, humourless glare.

"A little," said Stephen. "I have worked in the business for nearly four years, though mostly dealing with financial matters. My employer wanted me to understand more of the manufacturing process."

The maid took away the soup plates and Azaire began to talk about the local industries and the difficulties he had had with his work force. He owned a factory in town and another a few miles outside.

"The organization of the men into their syndicates leaves me very little room for manoeuvre. They complain they are losing their jobs because we have introduced machinery, but if we cannot compete with our competitors in Spain and England, then we have no hope."

The maid brought in a dish of sliced meat in thin gravy that she placed in front of Madame Azaire. Lisette began to tell a story of her day at school. She tossed her head and giggled as she spoke. The story concerned a prank played by one girl on another, but Lisette's telling of it contained a second level. It was as though she recognized the childish nature of what she said and wanted to intimate to Stephen and her parents that she herself was too grown-up for such things. But where her own interests and tastes now lay she seemed unsure; she stammered a little before tailing off and turning to rebuke her brother for his laughter.

Stephen watched her as she spoke, his dark eyes scrutinizing her face. Azaire ignored his daughter as he helped himself to salad and passed the bowl to his wife. He ran a piece of bread round the rim of the plate where traces of gravy remained.

Madame Azaire had not fully engaged Stephen's eye. In return he avoided hers, as though waiting to be addressed, but within his peripheral view fell the sweep of her strawberry-chestnut hair, caught and held up off her face. She wore a white lace blouse with a dark red stone at the throat.

As they finished dinner there was a ring at the front door and they heard a hearty male voice in the hall.

Azaire smiled for the first time. "Good old B?rard. On the dot as usual!"

"Monsieur and Madame B?rard," said the maid as she opened the door.

"Good evening to you, Azaire. Madame, delighted." B?rard, a heavyset grey-haired man in his fifties, lowered his lips to Madame Azaire's hand. His wife, almost equally well built, though with thick hair wound up on top of her head, shook hands and kissed the children on the cheek.

"I am sorry, I didn't hear your name when Ren? introduced us," said B?rard to Stephen.

While Stephen repeated it and spelled it out for him, the children were dismissed and the B?rards installed in their place.

Azaire seemed rejuvenated by their arrival. "Brandy for you, B?rard? And for you, Madame, a little tisane, I think? Isabelle, ring for coffee also, please. Now then-"

"Before you go any further," said B?rard, holding up his fleshy hand, "I have some bad news. The dyers have called for a strike to begin tomorrow. The syndicate chiefs met the employers' representatives at five this evening and that is their decision."

Azaire snorted. "I thought the meeting was tomorrow."

"It was brought forward to today. I don't like to bring you bad tidings, my dear Ren?, but you would not have thanked me if you had learned it from your foreman tomorrow. At least I suppose it won't affect your factory immediately."

B?rard in fact appeared to have enjoyed delivering the news. His face expressed a quiet satisfaction at the importance it had conferred on him. Madame B?rard looked admiringly at her husband.

Azaire continued to curse the work force and to ask how they expected him to keep his factories going. Stephen and the women were reluctant to give an opinion and B?rard, having delivered the news, seemed to have no further contribution to make on the subject.

"So," he said, when Azaire had run on long enough, "a strike of dyers. There it is, there it is."

This conclusion was taken by all, including Azaire, as the termination of the subject.

"How did you travel?" said B?rard.

"By train," said Stephen, assuming he was being addressed. "It was a long journey."

"Aah, the trains," said B?rard. "What a system! We are a great junction here. Trains to Paris, to Lille, to Boulogne . . . Tell me, do you have trains in England?"

"Yes."

"Since when?"

"Let me see . . . For about seventy years."

"But you have problems in England, I think."

"I'm not sure. I wasn't aware of any."

B?rard smiled happily as he drank his brandy. "So there it is. They have trains now in England."

The course of the conversation depended on B?rard; he took it as his burden to act as a conductor, to bring in the different voices, and then summarize what they had contributed.

"And in England you eat meat for breakfast every day," he said.

"I think most people do," said Stephen.

"Imagine, dear Madame Azaire, roast meat for breakfast every day!" B?rard invited his hostess to speak.

She declined, but murmured something about the need to open a window.

"Perhaps one day we shall do the same, eh Ren??"

"Oh, I doubt it, I doubt it," said Azaire. "Unless one day we have the London fog as well."

"Oh, and the rain." B?rard laughed. "It rains five days out of six in London, I believe." He looked toward Stephen again.

"I read in a newspaper that last year it rained a little less in London than in Paris, though-"

"Five days out of six," beamed B?rard. "Can you imagine?"

"Papa can't stand the rain," Madame B?rard told Stephen.

"And how have you passed this beautiful spring day, dear Madame?" said B?rard, again inviting a contribution from his hostess. This time he was successful, and Madame Azaire, out of politeness or enthusiasm, addressed him directly.

"This morning I was out doing some errands in the town. There was a window open in a house near the cathedral and someone was playing the piano." Madame Azaire's voice was cool and low. She spent some time describing what she had heard. "It was a beautiful thing," she concluded, "though just a few notes. I wanted to stop and knock on the door of the house and ask whoever was playing it what it was called."

Monsieur and Madame B?rard looked startled. It was evidently not the kind of thing they had expected. Azaire spoke with the soothing voice of one used to such fancies. "And what was the tune, my dear?"

I don't know. I had never heard it before. It was just a tune like . . . Beethoven or Chopin."

"I doubt it was Beethoven if you failed to recognize it, Madame," said B?rard gallantly. "It was one of those folksongs, I'll bet you anything."

"It didn't sound like that," said Madame Azaire.

"I can't bear these folk tunes you hear so much of these days," B?rard continued. "When I was a young man it was different. Of course, everything was different then." He laughed with wry self-recognition. "But give me a proper melody that's been written by one of our great composers any day. A song by Schubert or a nocturne by Chopin, something that will make the hairs of your head stand on end! The function of music is to liberate in the soul those feelings that normally we keep locked up in the heart. The great composers of the past were able to do this, but the musicians of today are satisfied with four notes in a line you can sell on a song-sheet at the street corner. Genius does not find its recognition quite as easily as that, my dear Madame Azaire!"

Stephen watched as Madame Azaire turned her head slowly so that her eyes met those of B?rard. He saw them open wider as they focused on his smiling face, on which small drops of perspiration stood out in the still air of the dining room. How on earth, he wondered, could she be the mother of the girl and boy who had been with them at dinner?

"I do think I should open that window," she said coldly, and stood up with a rustle of silk skirt.

"And you too are a musical man, Azaire?" said B?rard. "It's a good thing to have music in a household where there are children. Madame B?rard and I always encouraged our children in their singing."

Stephen's mind was racing as B?rard's voice went on and on. There was something magnificent about the way Madame Azaire turned this absurd man aside. He was only a small-town bully, it was true, but he was clearly used to having his own way.
Sebastian Faulks

About Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks - Birdsong

Photo © Jerry Bauer

Sebastian Faulks worked as a journalist for fourteen years before taking up writing full-time in 1991. In 1995 he was voted Author of the Year by the British Book Awards for Birdsong. He is also the author of Human Traces, On Green Dolphin Street, Charlotte Gray, The Fatal Englishman, The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Engleby, and the James Bond novel Devil May Care. He lives in London with his wife and three children.

Praise

Praise

   • "With Birdsong Faulks has produced a mesmerizing story of love and war... This book is so powerful that as I finished it I turned to the front to start again." --Sunday Express 

   • "Engrossing, moving, and unforgettable." --The Times
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong. We hope they will enrich your understanding of this overpowering and harrowing novel, a Tolstoyan epic of love, war, and redemption.

About the Guide

In 1910 a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, goes to Picardy, France, to learn the textile business. While there he plunges into a love affair with the young wife of his host, a passion so imperative and consuming that it changes him forever. Several years later, with the outbreak of World War I, he finds himself again in the fields of Picardy, this time as a soldier on the Western Front. A strange, occasionally bitter man, Stephen is possessed of an inexplicable will to survive. He struggles through the hideously bloody battles of the Marne, Verdun, and the Somme (in the last named, thirty thousand British soldiers were killed in the first half hour alone), camps for weeks at a time in the verminous trenches, and hunkers in underground tunnels as he watches many of the companions he has grown to love perish. In spite of everything, Stephen manages to find hope and meaning in the blasted world he inhabits.

Sixty years after war's end, his granddaughter discovers, and keeps, Stephen's promise to a dying man. Sebastian Faulks brings the anguish of love and war to vivid life, and leaves the reader's mind pulsating with images that are graphic and unforgettable.

About the Author

His first novel, A Trick of Light, was published in 1984. By this time he had become a feature writer on the Sunday Telegraph and in 1986 moved to the new national daily paper the Independent as its literary editor. His second novel, The Girl at the Lion d'Or, was published in 1989.

In 1991 he gave up journalism to concentrate on writing. In 1992 his third novel, A Fool's Alphabet, was published in London (New York: Little, Brown, 1993), and in 1993 he published Birdsong to huge critical acclaim. It has so far sold more than 400,000 copies in Britain. In January 1997 a television and bookshop poll among British readers placed it in their top fifty books of the century. He was named Author of the Year in the British Book Awards of 1995.

He has since published a nonfiction book, The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives, which was also a bestseller, and is nearing the end of a new novel. He married in 1989, and he and his wife have three small children. They spent 1996 in France but are now back in London.

Discussion Guides

1. What does Azaire's conduct as a businessman say about his character, and what is Stephen's response to it? How does Azaire's treatment of the men who work for him reflect his treatment of his wife?

2. Does Stephen see Isabelle as a captive? Does she see herself the same way? How does Stephen's perception of Isabelle and her predicament differ from her own self-perception?

3. Why does Isabelle leave Stephen? How does her departure affect his identity as a soldier, the way he approaches the war, and the manner in which he conducts himself during it?

4. What premonitions of war and death does Faulks give us in the 1910 section of the book? Where and when does Stephen have visions of death within the lush beauty of prewar Picardy? Do you feel that these visions are simple premonitions, or is the predisposition to such images a part of Stephen's character?

5. Where and to what purpose does Faulks use images of birds? Why does Stephen fear birds, and what do birds symbolize for him? What do they seem to mean to the author? How might you explain Stephen's dream on page 44?

6. While staying with the Azaires, Stephen writes, "I am driven by a greater force than I can resist. I believe that force has its own reason and its own morality even if they may never be clear to me while I am alive" [p. 49]. Where else in the novel does Stephen sense that sort of force, and how does he respond to it?

7. How would you describe the character of Jack Firebrace? How does it change during the course of the war? What "dies" in him when Horrocks hurls his cross away? What do his letters to Margaret reveal about his character, his values, his code of behavior?

8. The soldiers tend to forget very quickly the names and characters of their friends who die. Do you find this shocking? Is such willed oblivion necessary in order to give life to the men's own delicate instinct for self-preservation?

9. "I think [the men] will do ten times more before it's finished and I'm eager to know how much. If I didn't have that curiosity I would walk into enemy lines and let myself be killed. I would blow my own head off with one of these grenades" [p. 145]. Is Stephen's curiosity ever finally satisfied?

10. Throughout the war, Stephen feels a real hatred for the enemy--see page 156, for example. Do you believe that this hatred is genuine, or that Stephen has persuaded himself of it so as to give meaning and order to his existence? How does the fact that it is German soldiers who ultimately rescue him change his life--and theirs?

11. Stephen is a brooding and enigmatic figure who is repeatedly described as "cold" by the narrator. Is Stephen a cold character? How do the other soldiers see him [on pages 141, 143-44, and 211]? When Gray asks Stephen whether he would give his life for his men, Stephen answers in the negative [p. 159]. Do you think he would give the same answer if he were asked this question during the last year of the war? What keeps him going during the war [pp. 156, 171]? Do you think that the war changes Stephen?

12. In the life of the trenches, Stephen reflects, "There was only violent death or life to choose between; finer distinctions, such as love, preference, or kindness, were redundant" [p. 194]. This is Stephen's view of events, reading his story. Do you find that the soldiers have really lost their sense of finer distinctions?

13. Haig and Rawlinson typify the World War I staff officers who lost the respect of their men because they didn't share the danger and squalor of the front line. High commanders on the Western Front usually established their headquarters in châteaux well behind the lines: historian John Keegan has called this phenomenon "château generalship." How did this manner of conducting war affect and form the way the twentieth century has looked at war? How did it change our ideas of military glory and our vision of our military leaders?

14. Stephen and Weir enjoy an unlikely but intense friendship. What is it about Weir's character that makes Stephen love him more than any of the others? What emotional need does Stephen fill in his turn for Weir? Does Stephen change in any way after Weir's death?

15. The soldiers "were frightening to the civilians because they had evolved not into killers but into passive beings whose only aim was to endure" [pp. 340-41]. How do civilians, in general, treat and respond to these soldiers? How do you explain the attitude of the clerk in the men's store where Stephen tries to buy shirts [pp. 342-43]? Do you find the behavior of Weir's parents extraordinary--or understandable in people far removed from actual battle? Have soldiers from later wars, such as the conflict in Vietnam, reported similar experiences and attitudes?

16. Why do you think that Stephen displays such an overpowering will to survive, in spite of the loneliness of his life and the unhappiness he has undergone? What elements and events of his life have contributed to his instinct for self-preservation?

17. Elizabeth is spurred on in her research by a feeling of the "danger of losing touch with the past" [p. 240]. Does her ignorance of recent history surprise you, or do you find it characteristic of her generation? Do you find that you, and the people around you, are similarly detached from the past?

18. What does Elizabeth, the granddaughter, represent? And her baby? In what ways does history repeat itself in her life?

19. Why has the author set this story about war against the backdrop of a passionate affair? Explore the various parallels drawn between desire and death, love and war, in the novel. In what ways are the love scenes similar to some of the battle scenes? How does the body take on different meanings [pp. 130, 197-98]?


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