Books: Interview - Sebastian Faulks: The bitter taste of Vichy bottled out

Why is Sebastian Faulks still haunted by France and the world wars? E Jane Dickson finds out

There is an incidental detail near the end of Sebastian Faulks's new novel, Charlotte Gray (Hutchinson, pounds 15.99), which hits you like a smack in the throat. A woman is staring at a small boy, her face distorted with a glaring intensity that looks like hatred. She is trying to imprint her son's face on her brain as he boards the train that will take him to Auschwitz.

"This book is supposed to make you cry," says Faulks, and it is not clear whether this is a caution or a command. Faulks, with his frank, cricketer's looks and considered manner, does not look like a man who enjoys making people cry, but he makes a thoroughly professional job of it. His 1994 novel, Birdsong, was a point-blank account of slaughter in the trenches of Flanders. It had an almost national impact, selling half a million copies in paperback and drawing tears that had been saved for the best part of a century.

Charlotte Gray, set in South-west France during the Vichy regime, turns once again on the pity of war. This time it is not the brutality of the battlefield but the anglings and accommodations of a people pushed to the wall which leave the reader choking. The real horror of the deportation scene is that the people on the other side of the holding camp's perimeter fence are not goosestepping gauleiters but French men and women out buying their morning baguettes.

With Birdsong and The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Charlotte Gray forms a loose trilogy of "French" novels. "It's taken me a long time to discover why I have this thing about France." says Faulks. "When I first started trying to write fiction in the mid-1970s I found I just couldn't set a book in England without feeling terribly self-conscious about it. I didn't feel comfortable writing fiction that had all these social pointers in it about whether you lived in Hampstead or Camberwell or whether you ate quiche or chips. All this stuff just bored me to tears and I suppose one of the attractions of France was that it wasn't England."

Faulks's France is not the thyme-scented terrain of Cyril Connolly or Elizabeth David. Provincial life is carefully and clearly observed - Faulks and his family spent a year in the Bordeaux region while he was writing Charlotte Gray - but an affective distance is maintained. Somehow the country remains an Englishman's Neverland.

"When I first visited France as a student, it inspired this strange romantic yearning in me," he says. "I couldn't understand it for a long time but I know now that it was a yearning for the past. At that time France was a terribly old-fashioned, unmodernised country. You could branch off any main road in any of the provinces and in five minutes you would be back in the 1930s.

"I have this tremendous greed for the experience of the near past. I never wanted to be a centurion on Hadrian's Wall or to live in 18th-century London but I would fantastically like to be alive in the 1930s and 40s and France offered me that imaginative access to the past."

The process of history and its slow workings down the generations is a central theme of Charlotte Gray. The eponymous heroine, a Scots SOE agent on a special mission in France, is the daughter of a character in Birdsong and her psychology depends, quite explicitly, on her father's experience in The Great War. Other characters from Birdsong and The Girl at The Lion D'Or pop up along the way, with personal histories meshing into realpolitik as we watch.

"I like the idea that everyone's life is a complete story, with tiny overlappings and long roots in history," explains Faulks. "My generation is uniquely privileged in that we haven't had to go to war, but my father and my grandfather were there and because of that, it's part of my life. I don't think I had really grasped that until my first son was born in 1990. That, more than anything else, has been the engine behind my writing."

Faulks is conscious of, but unembarrassed by, the weight of his mission: to articulate the horror which, for so many, was literally and devastatingly incommunicable. "I felt that these things needed to be explained to people of my generation," he says. "That may seem rather odd because there have after all been some great war memoirs and poetry written, but they weren't giving the kind of experience that I wanted to write about. I felt there was something else to say."

Certainly, Faulks's appraisal of Petain's policies and Whitehall's bet- hedging is a bitter pill for patriots on both sides of the Channel. An effective Resistance, he argues, only kicked in when it was clear the Allies were going to win. "There is such a lot of cant and hypocrisy talked about who did and who didn't collaborate," he says. "The whole country was collaborationist. And it wasn't a shameful thing. It was the stated policy of the government. If you have been forced into a surrender of arms you have to find a way of living. Petain chose to `cooperate', to use a more neutral term, and it wasn't such a dreadful policy. It just became dreadful later."

Faulks marks out the moral slalom from Vichy to Auschwitz with awful clarity. "I wish the book would make a controversy in France, but it won't." he says resignedly. "The French response to criticism is very odd. It's not to be furious or outraged; it's to look at the critic with puzzlement and a slight sense of pity. My next novel won't be set in France. It was a kind of love affair, I suppose, but the heat has gone out of it now."

There is plenty of heat, however, in the central relationship between Charlotte and her lover, an RAF pilot who goes missing in France. Our resourceful, if somewhat po-faced heroine finds herself transfigured by sexual desire and Faulks slips into college-chaplain mode - all open-necked informality - as he delivers his prepared talk on "sexual love".

"I like writing about sexual love because it is one of the few transcendent experiences that are available. My books are, to some extent, about pushing the limits of experience. The normal way of pushing the frame of the everyday is through religion or some mystical or spiritual experience. I'm trying to communicate the transcendent without actually being religions. Charlotte risks everything for love. Her view - and it is a view I have some sympathy with - is that if you are offered this one possibility of transcendence in your life and you deny it, what are you supposed to spend the rest of your life doing? What are you supposed to be interested in? Breathing?"

It takes considerable nerve, these days, for a man to write a sex scene from the heroine's point of view. (Joyce's Molly Bloom did not have the shade of Camille Paglia snorting at the end of the bed). Faulks handles it with a degree of grace. The virgin Charlotte is - like all of Faulks's heroines, come to think of it - a quick learner, and Faulks's erotic imagination is supple and unabashed.

"The traditional view of writing about sex is that it can't really be done because the vocabulary doesn't really exist for it; it's either medical or lavatory wall grafitti. That just seemed to me like a challenge. It's like when people say `we can't have censorship or obscenity laws because it would be impossible to frame them'. Well, why don't we just get the best writers in the country to sit down with half a dozen legislators and thrash it out?

"I suspect," he says, warming to his theme, "that it's slightly easier to describe men having sex, because men's physical actions seem more eloquent of their feelings. Women's sexual response seems to be slightly more pre- verbal. But I don't accept that you can't write about it simply because it's an experience you've never had. I've never been in the trenches and I've never been interned either".

Of course, you risk falling flat on your face, Faulks allows, "But then" he says, leaning back into his seat, elbows in, like a nervous flyer coming in to land, "you risk that so much anyway."

Sebastian Faulks, a biography

Sebastian Faulks was born in Berkshire in 1953 and educated at Wellington and Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He worked as a journalist for 14 years and became deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday at its launch in 1989. He left journalism in 1991 to become a full-time writer. Charlotte Gray is his fifth work of fiction, after A Trick of the Light (1984), The Girl at the Lion d'Or (1989), A Fool's Alphabet (1992) and the phenomenally successful Birdsong in 1994. He has also written The Fatal Englishman: three short lives (1996), a triple biography of Christopher Wood, Richard Hillary and Jeremy Woolfenden. Sebastian Faulks lives with his wife and three children in west London.

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