A Possible Life, By Sebastian Faulks

These five interlinked stories build into a deeply personal stock-taking

Boyd Tonkin
Thursday 06 September 2012 19:28

The final act or movement of this quietly mysterious book – a "novel" cast in the form of five linked stories – gives us a 100-page account of the career of an American singer-songwriter who blossomed at the end of the Sixties. As Anya King's English former manager and lover traces the creative miracle of a "fragile world… made real by the force of her imaginative belief in it," long-memoried rock geeks may think back (say) to Graham Nash's partnership with Joni Mitchell. To do so both utterly misses the point, but somehow makes it as well.

Like any true artist (and Sebastian Faulks, via his narrator's perplexed, devoted voice, makes us believe that Anya was a great one), in every song she makes a new thing, remote from the events that prompted it. More than that: Anya's seemingly autobiographical numbers observe other lives; her detached character-studies come closest to confession. Thanks to the "outreach of imagination", in art, love or sympathy, the borders between self and others blur. As Anya sings, in a keynote lyric for these braided stories, "Another life would be the same/ My heart existing by a different name".

In the first section, a decent, dull cricket-loving schoolmaster of the 1930s finds himself – thanks to the accidents of war and parentage - parachuted into undercover warfare in occupied France. After capture, he endures the hell-on-earth of a death camp in Poland, captured in horrifying bravura prose. Mild, kind Geoffrey's "desire to live at any price" fits him with a savagely capable new self. He does survive; "A Different Man". Then the aftermath looms. The trauma of unbearable memory, so often a Faulks theme, strikes blow after blow in these pages. Yet, for Geoffrey and others, an "unsought grace" awaits.

In "The Second Sister", a resilient mid-Victorian child of the workhouse and the streets makes himself over in fortune and in love, from humiliated Dickensian urchin to slum landlord and paterfamilias in a discreet ménage-à-trois. For unsinkable Billy, "I don't think you ever understand your life". Then the centrepiece story, "Everything can be explained", puts self-awareness at its core as – in a near-future Italy half-wrecked by chronic crises – a gifted farm girl grows into a pioneer neuroscientist who unlocks the secret of consciousness. Elena's breakthroughs (plausibly outlined) appear to slay the self and soul, with personhood now just an ever-shifting neural feedback loop.

Still, as the back-story of her one true love kicks from a long-buried past, "Knowing… that selfhood was delusion did not take away the aching of the heart". As for Jeanne, our penultimate heroine, she scarcely owns a self. A docile, malleable pauper in Napoleonic France (and cousin to Flaubert's Felicité in "Un Coeur Simple"), she serves others as housemaid and helpmeet. But as she learns that "people change", Jeanne – like Flaubert's drudge – finds a "A Door into Heaven".

Critics often underestimate Faulks's versatility: his protean restlessness, half-disguised by mainstream bestsellerdom. The author of Birdsong and A Week in December has dug deep into the history of psychiatry in Human Traces, fashioned a deluded narrator in Engleby and, early on, bowed to the witty avant-garde of Perec and Calvino in the A-Z construction of A Fool's Alphabet. His TV series - and critical study - Faulks on Fiction delighted in Bond and Fagin; in Jeeves and Emma. Somehow those disparate lives morphed into a single narrative.

So it is here. The tone, those excoriating Holocaust passages aside, often veers towards the leisurely and even ruminative; as if the author cared less for edge-of-seat storytelling than for trapping an elusive truth as it scampers from age to age. One review of Anya's debut album praises its "deeply moving songs of lost love and fractured identity": clichés that, for her and this book, still hit a mark. All these "possible" lives, as they echo and overlap like Anya's own motifs, add up (I suspect) to a self-portrait of the artist as he approaches 60.

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