Wednesday, 7 November 2007

A novel of big ideas

There are books you like and books you admire. Occasionally, if you’re lucky, they are the same book. Far more usually, they aren’t.
For the last ten days I’ve been reading Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks. It wouldn’t have been my choice – it’s a book group read – but I am glad I’ve read it. Not one of the rare ‘both like and admire’ ones but definitely an admire.

Why not like too? It’s a book of ideas and - for me at least - big ideas rarely sit entirely happily in a novel. The novels I enjoy are about people, their emotions and the actions which provoke those emotions. In my ideal novel, ideas are there but are used sparingly.
In Human Traces, they’re present in industrial quantities.
Actually, having said that, it’s not the number of ideas which is huge but the page space given to those ideas.

In no particular order, some of the main ideas are:

What are we to make of the human condition in the post-Darwinian era? Are we animals biologically driven, or has our evolution raised us up to a sphere where biology is no longer destiny?

In the context of the above, was the First World War a biological inevitability, the human animal just being nasty, brutish and the most selfish bunch of bastards that ever lived? Or was it the result of human-dictated circumstances which could have been avoided had the same humans only been a little more humane?

Is madness the price we pay for being human? Has evolution gifted us with intelligence and language only to exact insanity as the terrible cost of those gifts?

Did our evolutionary path mean that everybody heard voices once upon a time? At this evolutionary stage did we externalise our own moral thoughts and call them God? Are schizophrenics the last human vestige of the evolutionary tendency to hear voices when stress provokes their brain chemistry to action?

Is madness a result of our animal nature – a merely physical disease caused by malfunctions in our neurology, chemistry or endocrinology? Or is it a problem entirely brought about by the use of freewill – ie do we bring madness on ourselves or inflict it on others by the things we choose to do?

These ideas and questions are explored through the lives of two men as they experience the development of psychiatry in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth; Frenchman Jacques Rebiere and Englishman Thomas Midwinter.

Thomas is solidly English middle class, whilst Jacques is the son of a Breton farm steward. Whilst Thomas’s adolescence is spent reading and being odd, Jacques’ is spent doing manual labour and being the sane one whilst his brother Olivier quietly descends into madness.
Both men become doctors, though we do not see the process of Jacques transformation from village savant to medical student, this difficulty being skimmed over by a leap of several years in the narrative.

Life as a medical student in Cambridge (at the dissecting room called, graphically, Meaters) and the Salpetriere hospital in Paris is very well conveyed. I could have done with less of it all and still got the point – about, I think, humans being very definitely composed of animal parts, though transcending them via the mind – but Mr Faulks is nothing if not thorough.

Jacques and Thomas meet on holiday in Deauville when they are sixteen and form a passionate alliance (no, not that kind of passionate alliance) which sustains them both through the rigours of medical training and sees them setting up ‘shop’ together - along with Thomas’s sister who has become Jacques’ wife - in a specialist neurological institute in Carinthia (which is in the mountains around borders of modern Austria, Italy and Slovenia – thank you Google).

Though their lives and loves are beautifully portrayed, though there are excursions to America and Africa, though we see the horrors of the First World War, I was not really emotionally engaged by the activities of Messieurs Rebiere and Midwinter.
Perhaps because I knew how the psychiatric bit of the story would unfold. I used to be married to a psychiatrist and so have a passing acquaintance with the history of the profession.
Perhaps because their emotional lives are strangely dispassionately conveyed. Perhaps because there was too much intellectual cogitation and not enough emotion. Whatever. It was a fascinating book but, for me, not an engaging one.

There were moments where I was touched, though. When Thomas is on a cartographical expedition to Africa (as medical officer and all round good egg) he encounters the footprints of prehistoric humans and realises that he is looking at a family group. The proximity and pattern of the footprints indicate that mother and child were hand in hand. The past may be a different country but maybe they don’t do things so very differently there.

At the book’s end, when Thomas is looking back on a life in psychiatry and concluding that he has done no good whatsoever as a doctor, his former patient and friend, Daisy, tells him not to be so silly. He has touched her life and that of her friend Mary and made them unbelievably better. ‘You gave us a life’ she says. He meant that he had not made any great breakthroughs, he had cured no one of the diseases we now know as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. What Daisy saw was a hugely compassionate man who could not help making a difference just be being there.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s one of the big things to take away from this hugely thought-provoking book. That we may be caught up in the great moments of history, we may aspire to extraordinary things, bend our every sinew to achieving them but that what we are actually remembered for is the acts of human kindness we have done those around us.

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