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.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz