Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

Does being a writer make you mad?
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The Independent Culture

Jacques Rebiere and Thomas Midwinter meet in 1876 when they are both 16. Jacques' mother died giving birth to him and he yearns to know more about her. The only person who can tell him about his past is his mentally ill elder brother Olivier. Jacques is determined to become a doctor so that he can prise open Olivier's mind and create a connection with his mother. Thomas vows to become a neuroscientist for different reasons. His real love is literature, and, as in the psalm, he wants to "lift up mine eyes unto the hills...". He suspects that only by understanding the mind can humans aspire to true greatness.

Thomas and Jacques make a pact to work together. Jacques marries Thomas's sister, Sonia, and the three of them create a clinic in Austria. The two men apparently share the same aims to find "a theory that explains it all". But their relationship suffers a catastrophic break-down when Jacques, who has by now become a Freud-like figure, diagnoses a woman patient as a sexual hysteric. Thomas, reading her case notes, realises that she is suffering from a physical ailment which could kill her.

Ultimately the two scientists conclude that their endeavours have failed. They haven't found the explanation for madness they had hoped for. But Thomas fumbles towards a theory. He suggests that great literature and man's unique capacity to communicate via language comes at a price. Our ability to lift up our eyes unto the hills sometimes produces traces of madness. We "cannot have literature without misprints... If misprints were somehow taken out of the mixture, you would risk losing literature too. You might throw out the baby, humanity, with the bathwater, dementia."

The professor of psychiatry at Oxford University, Tim Crow, complained that Faulks had borrowed his ideas. Apparently Faulks and Crow argued before publication and Faulks allowed Crow to dictate his own acknowledgement at the end of the book: "Professor Crow considers that the concept of the genetic predisposition to schizophrenia as a component of the variation generated in the speciation event was first introduced in his papers, 'Constraints on concepts of pathogenesis; language and the speciation process as the key to the etiology of schizophrenia'."

What else could underline so neatly that it is literature which communicates the most complex truths? I suspect that Tim Crow would admit that not only does Faulks have the greater ability to communicate his ideas, he will reach a much larger audience too.

The conclusion of Human Traces bears all the hallmarks of Faulks's earlier novels. In Birdsong a bird gradually disappears from view; in Charlotte Gray a couple melt into a dark church; in On Green Dolphin Street the lights of a departing plane vanish in a dark sky; in Human Traces footsteps fade into the sand. But Human Traces improves on all its predecessors in its scale, its complexity and its scholarship. It may not be perfect, but neither is the human brain.