Human Traces (Sebastian Faulks)


This book is rather long. It’s also rather unclear what it is. Or to put it another was: it is clearly a history of psychiatry, so why is there a novel superimposed?

The basis is that in the middle of the 19th century we have two friends: Jacques (French) and Thomas (English) who want to discover how the human mind works. To aid them in this, Thomas masters French instantaneously and Jacques marries Thomas’s sister Sonia (was the name Sonia really used in deepest Lincolnshire back then?) Thomas doesn’t marry Jacques’s brother Olivier because the latter is mad (and maybe other reasons).

So they practise psychiatry in different places, and then together, and we see interesting vignettes of how it was done then. But the exposition of the plot in between these sketches is extremely dull, and for some reason I started thinking of musical parallels.

There’s Bruckner, who starts off with material of profound banality and then makes it into something interesting: and Mahler, who puts passages of extreme and arbitrary banality in amongst the good stuff, But they do add something least by contrast. Maybe the best analogy is with opera seria, where you start off wondering how you are ever going to survive such tedium, but after a while you get used to the small-scale emotions, unending banality and excessive length, and it all seems quite tolerable in its own way.

The local amateur orchestra gives a concert of Brahms, Beethoven and Mahler in provincial Austria in what I suppose must be about 1905. It it likely–indeed possible–that an amateur orchestra would have essayed Mahler then, given how difficult and unpleasant his music was thought to be? This is an example of the portentous foreshadowing or anachronism typical of the book–the savants and theories mentioned are essentially those that have some currency nowadays, whereas in reality the characters would have spent a lot of their time engaged with people and issues now forgotten (the First World War is similarly foreshadowed as starting in Serbia, and there are many many other examples…)

So Jacques becomes attached to what are essentially Freud’s theories (and we get what looks like a pastiche of a Freud case), while Thomas tries to develop what we would call a modern evolutionary-genetic approach without the necessary basis of for instance genetics.

Olivier has schizophrenia and Thomas (now tended by a woman he rescued from an asylum several hundred pages ago) develops Alzheimer’s disease–so far, so schematic.  At different places,  Faulks lays the Maupassant of Une vie and the Balzac of Le père Goriot under contribution, presumably to show that he has read something besides histories of psychiatry.

At the end, Sonia visits the dilapidated properties Jacques has inherited and reflects on her memories and that the day-to-day lived experience is what being human *is*, and that’s rather touching.  But in general the novel is like a group of pleasant enough people walking round an art gallery, looking at pictures showing various aspects of psychiatric illness and research into it, and having a low-key discussion about them.

If you want to write a novel about something, then that something has to be in your characters and their relationships  and the actions that flow naturally from them; it has to be inside, not painted on.


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