No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand.
When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them. We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings.
We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us. (Birdsong, p 340)
The generation that lived through WW1 almost managed to keep its horrors to themselves. As time passed, survivors died and other atrocities succeeded it, the Great War risked becoming a forgotten war. Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong was part of a renaissance of remembrance when it was published in the 1990s.
Birdsong recounts the life of Stephen Wraysford, before, during and after the war. It opens in 1910, where the young Englishman is visiting the Azaire home in Amiens to learn the intricacies of the French textile manufacturing trade. He is taken by the tense labour relations between owners and workers. He has a fervent affair with Azaire’s neglected wife, Isabelle. She leaves her husband and runs away with Stephen, then runs away from him in turn.
Six years later, Wraysford is back in the area, leading an infantry group that works closely with a tunnelling company. The unrelenting terrors of war – from the mass destruction of the Battle of the Somme to the claustrophobia of digging underground trenches – are well depicted. So too are the emotional shocks. I held my breath.
I am curious to see what’s going to happen. There are your sewer rats in their holes three feet wide crawling underground. There are my men going mad under shells. … This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded … There is no depth to which they can’t be driven. (p 122)
The war scenes are interspersed with chapters that show Wraysford’s legacy through the eyes of Elizabeth Benson, a granddaughter who never met him. Looking for information about her grandfather in the 1970s, she is stunned to discover the extent of the losses in the war. She becomes fixated on understanding him through his coded diaries. In doing so, she learns the lasting meaning of the war in her time. And she ultimately fulfills his promise to a tunneller killed in the closing moments of the war.
What makes Stephen Wraysford tick? He’s a cold duck, detached, self-contained, yet capable of great passion. He is not the most sympathetic character, yet we pity him. His love and trust leads to abandonment. Yet hope survives and grows through his cynicism.
So what about the birds, whose songs lend themselves to the title? They appear as symbols throughout – crows, larks, pigeons, canaries are the source of fear, the proof of life. They remain, unconcerned about the chaos of the war.
A story of redemption, Birdsong continues to resonate.
Things you couldn’t pay me enough to do: miner is pretty close to the top of the list. Had to skim several underground scenes. Literary version of closing my eyes with my heart in my throat.
I’m planning to watch the most recent TV adaptation of Birdsong soon. Will report on how it compares to the book.
13 July 2016 update
I probably should have known better than to watch the 2012 TV adaptation of Birdsong right after reading the book. I do understand that page and screen require different approaches to storytelling. That a three-hour TV serial will not have the detail of a 400 page novel. And the TV version does clearly state that it is an adaptation of Faulks’ novel. So read on with those caveats.
These are two different stories. The same main characters are there, as is WW1. But events are altered and evolve in a different order, changing motivations and indeed the finer points of the story. The nuance is lost. Take the quote above, for example … “This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded” is part of a conversation with a friend about the meaning of the war. On screen, it’s a short retort to a superior officer.
And where were the birds?
Not saying the TV adaptation is bad. Watch it if you have three hours to invest, but don’t then try to pretend to your literary friends that you’ve read the book. Better still, invest time in the book.