There are probably more sophisticated reasons for admiring Milton, but I always liked the way his Satan was ‘involved in rising mist’. Involved. There aren’t many writers who are such literalists when it comes to the etymological uses of words: you’d have to have Latin coming out of your ears to think of making the meaning of the word a word is derived from more significant than its actual English usage. The effect is perversely satisfying. Anywhere else but in Milton, you might feel grateful that a nice-sounding word has been chosen over one of its synonyms. Milton makes synonymity impossible. He doesn’t just choose the right word: he chooses the right word for the wrong – for the pleasingly obstinate – reason. One contemporary English novelist has nearly his way with words: particularly in the early parts of his novels, before the excitement takes over and the plot runs out of time for such niceties, Sebastian Faulks chooses his words – his participles, his adjectives, his compound nouns – with more scholastic care than any writer I can think of. And I doubt he gets much credit for it.
Birdsong (1993), Faulks’s most sweeping and successful novel, his Paradise Lost, has, as its third sentence: ‘The town side of the boulevard backed onto substantial gardens which were squared off and apportioned with civic precision to the houses they adjoined.’ At first glance, this has a certain orotund fineness to it which either you like or you don’t, but when you look closer – I had to use the OED – you find that the Latinate words are very purposefully derived by way of French: adjoindre is more common in French than its equivalent is in English; and ‘precision’, here, carries a meaning that is slightly less obsolete in French than it is in English, that of cutting off or trimming, making the sentence just tautological enough (‘squared off’, ‘apportioned’, ‘precision’) to turn it into a display of how elegant variation can be when you know your stuff.Elsewhere, it can get a bit tangled – ‘there were small salons equipped with writing desks and tapestry-covered chairs that opened inwards from unregarded passageways’ – but all the verbiage is appropriate to the setting: a well-to-do provincial French town in the years just preceding the Great War, with municipal meetings and busybody neighbours and the promise of much Bovary-like behaviour.
Despite that promise, which is more than fulfilled, the novel’s opening pages nearly risk sending readers to sleep with long passages of dialogue that discuss dyers’ complaints, wage disputes (the man of the house is a cloth manufacturer) and the difficulty of competing in an international market. There’s something about the antique, formal transcription of the French dialogue into English that’s reminiscent of Hemingway’s way of suggesting spoken Spanish in For Whom the Bell Tolls, with all his ‘thous’ and ‘thees’. Everything is exactly described and faultlessly detailed, just as it is in the novels that precede and follow it, The Girl at the Lion d’Or (1989) and Charlotte Gray (1998), which extend the territory of conjured French countryside, French manners and French war from the region of the Somme between 1910 and 1918 through 1930s Champagne-Ardenne to Drancy in 1942 and 1943.
The mystery about this large achievement is why Faulks should have worked so hard on certain effects, and with such writerly precision, for so little apparent recognition. Birdsong has sold three million copies, but not for the fullness of its account of the cloth manufacturing business in Amiens. Most of his novels are romances, in which the main characters come climactically together because of something special they sense in each other – the young man in Birdsong calls it his lover’s ‘pulse’ – and then move apart because of circumstance and society’s restrictiveness; by the end, the woman has learned something about life and personal liberation. They are also high-class bodice-rippers, though Faulks, being unreproachable on period detail, is never vague about the article of clothing that is ripped or otherwise removed. His care with adjectives extends to the sex scenes: there are some excellent transferred epithets (‘the frustrated tangle of her clothes’); many model examples of apposition (‘his tongue, lambent’); and a constant concern to get the description of an object exactly right (‘warm and inflated, almost pneumatic’).
It might seem wrong to single out these moments when so much else is going on in the books – war, politics and spying for the men; cheese, pigeonniers and bicycles for the Francophiles – but I suspect the sex is largely the point, and it’s possibly also to the point that as the novels have gone on, so the sex has been got to quicker: 1989 novel, p. 141; 1993 novel, p. 49; 2001 novel, p. 16. It’s true that 1998 (Charlotte Gray) seemed to take a step backwards in the sequence (to p. 64), but there the type was much larger, so it doesn’t count. It’s an accepted attribute of porn that the non-pornographic bits should be as tedious and dilatory as possible, which may be one explanation for the dyers’ disputes in Birdsong, but this means that in satisfying his readers’ requirements sooner Faulks is doing them a disservice by not giving them what they don’t want. Perhaps it’s because he has the hope of moving on to other things.
Here’s how the anticipated scene unfolds in On Green Dolphin Street (2001, p. 16). It’s not a French novel. The action centres on the British ambassador’s residence in Washington at the end of the 1950s, and includes an artist who is beguiled by a diplomat’s wife:
After lunch, Mary curled up on the sofa with a book, while he began to sketch, standing in the window where the light was best.
‘Would you like me to pose for you?’ said Mary, bored by the book.
David raised his eyebrows. ‘It’s rather cold.’
‘David! I didn’t mean –’
‘Of course not. I was being silly.’
She looked at his suddenly serious face, with the light coming through behind it, and she thought how much she liked him.
Flushed by the cocktails, she said: ‘I will if you like.’
David said nothing for a moment, then: ‘Are you sure?’
Mary laughed and sprang from the sofa. ‘You look so solemn!’
He grimaced and exhaled, as though he didn’t know what to do.
‘You could start by lighting the gas,’ said Mary.
‘All right. You can undress behind that screen. There’s a dressing-gown on the chair.’
As she stepped out of her skirt, Mary was aware that something more than art was happening. She had made no plans, but so great was her confidence in being loved and not betrayed that she barely hesitated, unfastening the hooks and clips of her underwear; she followed some light instinctive purpose, immune to the cautious gravity of self-questioning …
Apart from parents and doctors, Mary had never stood naked before anyone in her life. She had been so used to think of herself in the diminutive, her own body reflected back through the loving eyes of those who still viewed her as a child, that she had little sense of her breasts and the dark, filmy circles that spread from their centre; she was unaware of any effect the sight of her pale skin and its inverse, hidden folds might have on the clothed man standing opposite.
Those inverse folds contain not only a great Miltonic word but also the notion, recurrent in Faulks’s fiction, that certain things are turned away from those who don’t have the capacity to notice them. The women in Faulks’s period novels – his women are heroes, and Cate Blanchett even played Charlotte Gray in the 2001 movie – are invariably more alive than the people around them, because they are noticeably more modern. The books are set in detailed and localised versions of France, England, America and Vienna at certain points in the last century or just before it, in places where he can identify repression, where those with life might have been waiting to break free, waiting for the key to unlock them, or unwind them. If that seems an empty metaphor, Faulks seeks to replenish it in Birdsong, in which his lover’s tongue – he’s a charmer – turns ‘like a key in the split lock of her flesh’. This is the appeal of history: we can measure our gains against it. By seeing those who fought to be liberated before it was generally possible, we realise how glad we should be to be free.
But if the women are special because they’re more modern than their surroundings, they also make Faulks’s readers feel special because they’re begging – or, more usually, ‘imploring’ (as in ‘her body, independent of her, implored his attention’) – to be made aware of things we know but they have yet to discover. They are attractively virginal, or effectively so, apparently innocent in a prelapsarian sort of way, but they aren’t the passively naive recipients of male attention that Mary (above) presents herself as being, with her ‘little sense’ of the effect her inverse filmy stuff might have on the ‘clothed man standing opposite’. They will their man to do to them what they want, or what he wants and they know – but don’t exactly know – that they want too. Sometimes, as in Birdsong, Faulks is happy to have his woman be the seemingly uneager quarry of a determined man (though being unlocked obviously changes her mind); but usually the heroine’s basic message is: ‘Ravish me.’ The man in Charlotte Gray, a Hurricane pilot with a roving eye and chicken legs, says, ‘You’re a very determined woman, Charlotte,’ after she makes it impossible for him not to have his way with her thanks to a stray movement of her hand. So if these women are the fantasies of a sensitive modern male, they are also autonomous enough, as fictional creations, to be fantasising into existence the very type of sensitive male who has created them. This is quite a metafictional trick.
I find it embarrassing to admit that I can take seriously a writer who disguises inventive thinking in spy capers and gun-plots, or, like Patricia Highsmith, in the simplest murders, whereas I can only laugh at someone of comparable cleverness who’s into chemises and silk shifts. Formally, there shouldn’t be a difference. It’s a genre: games are played with it. But historical romance isn’t, on the face of it, the hippest of modes to be stuck with, and the fear of being seen to be in a rut may explain why in recent years Faulks has been stretching his legs a bit. Engleby (2007) is the first-person parade of a misfit grammar school boy and newspaper journalist through a 1970s Britain he doesn’t like or understand. And now A Week in December steps into the actual present, being set in London at the end of 2007. Its major and minor characters include a hedge-fund manager, a radicalised young Muslim, a Polish footballer, a pickle magnate, an embittered literary critic, and the wife of ‘Britain’s newest MP’, who is organising a party for all the rest (with the exception of the radicalised young Muslim). This gathering – which is due to take place at the hostess’s beautifully appointed Notting Hill home – promises to be explosive, though the explosion won’t be one of personalities so much as the forces they represent, since each of them stands for one of Britain’s many classes, and since the novel presents itself as satire, romance’s polar opposite.
Among the book’s targets are certain aspects of modernity. The third sentence, with Faulks’s customary care, describes the ongoing construction of the Westfield shopping centre, Europe’s largest, which reveals ‘skeletal girders and joists under red cranes, though a peppermint façade had already been tacked onto the eastward side’. The words, as always, hide the hard work being done. ‘Tacked’ brings with it an air of the ‘tacky’, which sets the tone for the novel’s view of shopping malls and everything they bring with them. And, sitting alongside the word ‘eastward’, ‘tacked’ also carries a hint of the sailing term: these skeletal and flimsy ‘girders and joists’ (in the old books the preferred words might be ‘girdles’ and ‘joins’) are like the rigging of a yacht, susceptible to backing winds and unpredictable seas. This is a fragile edifice, liable to be brought down at any moment by countervailing pressures. And then there’s that Blackpool overtone of the ‘peppermint façade’. On the whole the language is more Anglo-Saxon than in the previous books, as befits the setting, but the subtlety is the same. And the message is insidiously brought home: this world is sustainable – just – so long as no crisis blows it away.
But of course crisis is on the horizon. The hedge-fund manager is planning a trade of epic magnitude that threatens to bring down global markets; the radicalised young Muslim is planning to deploy a rucksack containing 25 bottles of hydrogen peroxide and an HMTD detonator. One of these two will have the last laugh, literally – ‘laughed’ is the book’s final word. But although the capitalist and the jihadist represent the deadliest currents under the surface of modern Britain, there are other deep tides that exert a nasty pull. Among the novel’s many narratives – which take place simultaneously over the course of the December week – is the story of the hedge-fund manager’s teenage son. Ignored by his workaholic father and alcoholic-shopaholic mother, he has addictions of his own: he likes to curl up in his room with an eighth of hardcore skunk, a pizza, and the latest episode of It’s Madness – a hit reality TV show in which people with mental disorders compete not to get voted off by viewers (the last one standing gets psychiatric treatment). There is also the story of the Tube train driver – she works on the Circle Line, a choice of routes that neatly suggests a subterranean connection between the other characters – who spends most of her off-duty time immersed in Parallax, an alternative-reality computer game in which her online avatar dresses herself up in sexy clothes and decorates her boudoir.
These characters’ leisure activities – altered states, alternative realities, the unreality of reality TV – stand for the seductive power of fantasy and escape. Even if elsewhere Faulks goes in for a bit of this himself, here they are represented as a contemporary sin. Where there is sin, of course, there is also the possibility of redemption – and it is the temptation this offers Faulks that makes his satire less than secure. The train driver is befriended, and admired, by an impoverished and sympathetic barrister, who takes her out on dates – Chinese food, bottles of wine neither of them can really afford – and expresses an interest in her intellectual life. She should read more, he says, and waste less time with her computer. She has books, and wants to learn; the sympathetic barrister is the very man she might have willed into existence. Had this been a realist novel, their flourishing romance would be called improbable; in a satire of the kind the book begins by being, it’s impossible. And she isn’t the only character the novel wants to save. The radicalised young Muslim has a beautiful Iranian woman friend, who finds it hard at first to confess her feelings for him but is worried about the turn his thinking has lately been taking. She wears jeans (she has long legs) and drinks alcohol, but they have an understanding and, in the comfort of her apartment, he listens avidly to her arguments. Even the hedge-fund manager is momentarily distracted from his destructive course when he encounters the angelic real-life woman whose naked picture, in a sylvan setting, he keeps as his screensaver after downloading it from a porn site. The trouble with all this brotherly love – as well as the other kind – is that a warm glow doesn’t do much for wintry discontent, and upsets the strict order of the novel’s anatomy of modern disaster.
But it’s worth looking more closely at what the elements of that anatomy are, what vices and follies its satire seeks to uncover. Faulks describes in detail the complex financial machinations that can bring a major international bank to the point of collapse; and the process of indoctrination and training which can lead a thoughtful young person to kill people by detonating a home-made bomb; and the cannabis-growing operations in secret suburban facilities that produce schizophrenia-causing drugs. These things all involve potent and recognised threats (the latter particularly recognised by the wealthy liberal parents of older children, some of whom have recently loudly campaigned on the issue in print and the broadcast media). But there are also more quietly upsetting events. At several moments in the book, while they’re travelling around London on their various business, several characters come across a cyclist who swerves unexpectedly or aggressively, nearly causing an accident. The cyclist – either the same fast-moving figure, or one of an interchangeable number – functions as a small device to tie together the multiple narratives of the book. But he also functions, more simply, as the representative of an urban scourge. When you read all the novel’s minor incidents as features of its larger litany of complaints, the list of the really grave problems of the age includes laissez-faire capitalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and cyclists who ignore traffic signals. Also: skunk, reality TV, snarky literary critics, and secondary school teachers who can’t spell. This isn’t satire. It’s the background noise of breakfast radio, the endlessly repeated catalogue of modern ills, reassuring the nation’s listeners and confirming them in their view that what gets their goat is – yes – deserving of urgent public notice. It, too, is a form of fantasy.