Sebastian Faulks.jpg

One of the UK’s finest novelists on enlightening literature, identity politics and the essence of a great bookshop

Interview: Clare Finney
Portrait: Muir Vidler

In Birdsong, you describe the savagery of the First World War in such vivid terms, I felt sure when reading it that any kind of repeat would be impossible. Now I’m not so sure. To what extent can we learn from the past?
The war was a low point for Europe. This continent thought of itself as the best in the world. It had had the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, fantastic scientific and cultural discoveries—and then, when weapons of mass killing were developed, had little compunction about using them. And to achieve what, exactly? And yet, if you compare the Europe of 1910 and the Europe of 1990, we had moved from a world of kaisers, kings and archdukes to democracy. Speak to NATO and they’ll point out that the number of people killed in war since 1954 has fallen to the lowest since the early 19th century. So, there are grounds for optimism. My view is that history is partly linear, partly a mess—and it only tells us so much.

To understand humanity, you really need to bring in anthropology and look at the very strange nature of the animal you are dealing with. We are a recently evolved creature, and a very unstable one. The First World War wasn’t the war to end all wars. It wasn’t the end of anything: it was the beginning of a strange, benighted century, and we don’t know if it will go down as a horrendous blip in the history of humanity, or the beginning of a new savagery in humankind.

Do you think literature has the power to inform and enlighten?
I think fiction has the power to tell people things in a way that’s uniquely powerful. If you think of George Orwell, a lot of people’s understanding of totalitarianism comes from having read 1984 and Animal Farm. Of course, there are numerous people who understand it from having lived through it, but for those of us who didn’t, I certainly got a much clearer idea from those novels than I did newspapers or contemporary history. The same goes for Solzhenitsyn’s novels, which give a much clearer account of how the Soviet Union worked than anything written at the time, not least because of censorship.

Of course, films and documentaries have a powerful role to play, but I think the novel is unique in that it can take you deep into the consciousness of an individual, and so give you an insight into a historical situation you might not otherwise have had, as Hilary Mantel did with Thomas Cromwell. 

In your latest novel, Paris Echo, one of the lead characters is a 19-year-old Moroccan boy. Is your ability to inhabit such characters ever stifled by identity politics?
I think novelists have to believe they can inhabit the lives of the characters they have created. Tariq didn’t exist before I created him. My belief—and it is partly because I am a child of the sixties—is that what unites us is far greater than what divides us, and therefore there is no reason why a young woman in South Korea shouldn’t, with sufficient research and talent, be able to write a book about a man like me. Spin that round, and it is possible for me, too. Unfortunately, this view, that liberal consensus, has failed because not enough people believe in it. The president of the United States doesn’t believe in it. And that gives rise to identity politics, because people believe they have to fight to be the loudest: to seize the mic and say, “My grievance is greater than yours.”

Interestingly enough, my American publishers were far more sensitive about this cultural aspect of my book than my London publishers, who weren’t remotely bothered. Their problems with race are different to our problems, for obvious reasons, and their way of dealing with them is different. I wouldn’t say one is ahead or behind, but they are on different journeys. All I can do is listen respectfully.

What drew you back to France for this novel?
I actually don’t think about it as going back to France. I think of this book as being about Paris in a way that is very particular. I first went to Paris when I was 17 to study after I left school, and I felt I had unfinished business. I have never really liked the city, and I was curious to find out what it was that people do like. I thought going somewhere I didn’t very much like would help me to avoid writing a terrible touristic love letter—which this most certainly isn’t. If you think you are going to read about having a café au lait and a croissant in St Germain, you can forget it. You will be in places you will never have seen as a visitor, and you will be eating some pretty disgusting food, too.

Paris Echo.jpg

Is there much difference in your authorial approach to Paris compared with London?
Not really, but then I am not writing from the view of a Parisian. My two lead characters are both seeing the city from the outside, just as I was—though I did live in Paris for three months for research. In some ways it is more difficult to set a story in London, because I know it so well. I don’t look around Piccadilly Circus and have a feeling for a character or a story, I look around and think, god, this again?

So did you struggle with setting A Week in December in London?
No, I felt that was a version of the city, really. What united the characters was that they all lived in a virtual reality—whether that was drugs, dealing in financial derivatives, or on the internet as a religious fanatic. It enabled me to look at London in a new light.

Paris Echo explores the reverberations of the city’s past through the protagonists—yet unlike Rome or London, the architecture of Paris is almost uniformly 19th century. Does Paris echo?
I hope that when you read the book and see the epigraph from Victor Hugo, you’ll understand it. The thing about France is every metro station, street and square is named for historical reasons. In London they are named after families, or because there was a river there or a market; in France, everything is named after a soldier, statesman, politician, inventor, artist, explorer, doctor or a significant historical event. Paris is basically one huge self-advertisement for French glory.

Yet at the same time—and this is the paradox—the people of Paris are extremely... unforthcoming. And they have a lot to be unforthcoming about. That is the echo. For me, the fact the architecture is of a piece—from 1851 to 1870, during which period the city was rebuilt—creates a slightly sinister uniformity. Every building, every street, looks the same as the next, but it isn’t. That’s part of the intrigue. The past is available in Paris if you choose to tune into it. 

Your protagonists, Tariq and Hannah, could not be more different, one a runaway teenager from Morocco, the other an American post-doctoral researcher. Where did you find them? 
To be honest, I can’t really remember. Initially I needed two characters to exemplify very different ways of looking at the world. The book is about many things, but perhaps most critically it asks whether if you are well informed, like Hannah, you will necessarily lead a better, more worthwhile life than if you are less informed, like Tariq. However, I didn’t want puppets—they needed other aspects to them as well. I wanted someone from north Africa because an important part of Paris is its relationship with former colonies, particularly Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Tariq was initially Algerian, but I thought it might seem a bit heavy-handed—like I was trying to make a point about the Algerian War, which indeed I am, but it’s better to come at that from an angle.

I can’t remember why Hannah is American. I’m not very good at English characters and it might also be something to do with the relationship between America and France, which has always intrigued and amused me—this long and completely unrequited love of one country for the other. Mention the word Paris to an American and they say, “Oh, I just adore Paris.” Mention America to a Parisian and they have nothing but loathing.

In the book, Tariq has what appears to be an out of body experience. Is that a real thing?
It is indeed. You can look it up. It’s believed to be a connection thing: your brain is slightly lagged, everything is out of sync, then it syncs again—but no one really knows. It does, however, play nicely into my strange romantic idea of the double or doppelganger. It was also a way into the book: when I was in Paris, I went to an evening class to improve my French—I could speak it, but my comprehension wasn’t always great—and the teacher there gave us poems. One of them was a haunting poem by Alfred de Musset about a double-type person, and it was just the key. I strongly believe in those little moments that open doors for you—but you have to do the research, and more importantly you have to be there. If I hadn’t been heaving myself into a child’s desk on a damp February evening in suburban Paris, I would never have got this clue.

Is there a connecting thread in your work?
The way that intensely private emotions and private individual decisions are, in ways you might not be aware of, affected by public events and the movements of history. That is one thing. Then, looking back, I feel that the first eight books I wrote ask, who are we and how did we get ourselves into this mess? The ‘we’ being human beings. The next eight ask what we are: why is the human animal so strange? But that is a broad brush, in retrospect.

You have the rare ability to be both popular and literary. Do you feel there is often a disconnect between the two? 
There is a disconnect, if you think of a very literary poet like John Berryman then think of James Patterson, who barely writes English really. One sells very few copies, the other more than 100 million. But then Shakespeare—the greatest writer in the language, as well as the most popular and enduring—gets performed every night all over the world. I think my books are pretty serious, so I’m constantly surprised they sell in the numbers they do. It goes against the perceived wisdom. But I think you can get hung up on these things and I am certainly not going to complain that they sell.

Come September you’ll be in Daunt Books to discuss your novel. What makes a good book shop?
I can answer that quite simply: I stumbled upon Daunt’s in Marylebone once and thought, “I want to buy everything.” I wanted so much it was almost frustrating: it was brilliantly well chosen and displayed. Daunt’s makes books feel urgent and important. It’s nothing like a warehouse, but it looks plentiful and well curated. There is a Daunt’s near where I live, on Holland Park Avenue, and the feeling in there is similar. You feel like you can get anything in there, but can be steered towards just what you need.