There are books with factual accounts of more or less detail about the Great War. They are called history books. There are stories about human life, relationships, personal development and growth and they are called fiction. ‘Birdsong’ is one of those.
Faulks has taken a set of characters and examined the way that life, including episodes in the Great War, have affected those people. In real life, no-one develops in a preordained, unchangeable pattern: we are all affected by our experiences and that applies equally to fiction.
It isn’t a Great War novel, but has some episodes that are set in the Great War. My personal preference is for Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ trilogy, because I find them more intellectually satisfying, and the characters’ growth more accurately reflects the turbulence of life, but I was gripped by ‘Birdsong’ too. Most good fiction based in the Great War is not actually much about the Great War.
Were Faulks to embark on detailed descriptions of actions in the Great War to set the background to his characters’ progress through the events thrown at them by life, the majority of the readership would be bored stiff within pages. Insisting that a clearly fictional piece is rigidly based on minute attention to military detail is effectively to reduce interest in the Great War to the equivalent of train spotting. I regret if that offends anyone, but it really is how it seems to people who do not share the interest. I suggest that Sebastian Faulks was not writing with military obsessives as his target readership. However, because the novel is enthralling fiction, it’s likely to generate an interest in the Great War where none existed beforehand.
It isn’t a memoir; it isn’t an historical account by an eye-witness; it isn’t solely dependant on the War for its interest. It would be absurd to expect a novel to take the place of an historical text analysing the complexities of the War. ‘Birdsong’ is informed in a modest way by the historical events, but it is driven by the need to engage a non-specialist reader and to illuminate the human response to a variety of events which include some aspects of the Great War: indeed real-life protagonists would have seen only a very small part of the whole picture.
Had Sebastian Faulks decided to write a detailed novel solely based on and within an episode in the Great War, I imagine that he would have been criticised for being imitative or even plagiaristic. (It would also have been largely unreadable.) Therefore, it appears that the only satisfactory outcome is that no-one writes novels which are based in part on the War. I suspect that is what some people see as the ideal. What an insular, excluding attitude.
I could also comment on his skills as a writer: his ability to tell a story, to use language effectively, to make interesting use of imagery, to address themes, to create convincing characters, to maintain a creative vision, to change readers’ thinking. These are the essentials when analysing whether or not a piece of fiction is a good novel. Fixing on minor inaccuracies which only bother Great War experts or enthusiasts is to withdraw into a circle of expertise from which most people are deliberately excluded.
Recently I met an elderly woman whom I knew in the past. She has an excellent degree in English from the University of Bristol, and she is the most acutely incisive analyst of English literature whom I have ever known. She was wildly enthusiastic about ‘Birdsong’, especially the tunnelling episodes. It can, it seems, touch readers at both ends of the age range. Not many novels can do that.
Faulks, Sebastian, 1993, Birdsong ISBN 978-0099387916
(I wrote this in 2007 and posted it on a forum for Great War enthusiasts. As ‘Birdsong’ is again in the news and is attracting the same repetitive criticisms, I decided to blog it.)