Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks


I loved Sebastian Faulks’ early works: The Girl at the Lion D’or (1989), Birdsong, (1993) Charlotte Gray (1998) and On Green Dolphin Street (2001). Birdsong is one of the few books I’ve reread and after reading this latest book from Faulks, Snow Country, I feel I should go back to Birdsong and reassess it in a 21st century, 30 years later light. Would I still rate is as one of my favourite books ever?

I’ve been less taken by Faulks’ later books; some have been okay and some I’ve given given up on (as a book editor who has to sometimes carry on reading books I don’t like, word by careful word, I don’t ever feel I have to struggle on with a book I’ve chosen and bought but am not enjoying). Despite the fading of my enthusiasm for Faulks, I still can’t resist a new book of his and carry the hope it may transport me once again to the delights and power of his early novels.

Snow Country takes us into familiar Faulks’ territory around the time of the First World War and moves towards the Second and is mainly set in Austria. It is the second in a proposed trilogy, the first being Human Traces, which was published in 2005 (so quite a long gap until the 2nd!). Faulks notes at the beginning though that the book stands on its own.

The book opens dramatically with a detailed description of a surgeon operating on a man in the war zone. When the operation is completed and the surgeon is sewing up the wound, a nurse asks, ‘Is he going to survive?’ ‘Of course he is. Poor soul,’ answers the surgeon. The wounded man is the protagonist of the book, Anton, and the surgeon’s answer, ‘Poor soul’, is less about physical scars that Anton will carry and more a signal of what lies at the heart of the book – the question of what makes a good life; a life worth living.

Faulks has always been good at examining the internal lives of his characters, which is a large part of his books’ appeal to me. It was interesting to note in the short biography at the beginning of Snow Country that Faulks was given an honorary doctorate by the Tavistock Clinic for his contribution to the understanding of psychiatry in 2007 and that he has spoken at psychiatry conferences in London and Venice. Psychiatry is not his background, he read English at Cambridge. However, his interest in psychiatry forms a base for this novel (and also its preceding Human Traces), as much of the story takes place in a sanatorium for the mentally ill, Schloss Seelick, and in Vienna at the time of Freud.

The young Anton rejects going into his family’s sausage business and instead he becomes a journalist, hoping this will enable him to travel the world. In Vienna he meets Delphine, a French pianist and slightly older than him. He falls madly in love, but then, finding himself working in Paris as war breaks out, when he eventually manages to return to Vienna, Delphine has disappeared without trace. He feels guilty he put work before her and didn’t return earlier. They are now enemies, of course, but he would have urged her to return to France. The guilt adds to his devastation at the loss of the love of his life. And it is a loss that he spends the whole book trying to reconcile and affects not just his view of love, but life itself, its meaning and purpose.

Lena is the sixth child of an alcoholic prostitute in a small Austrian town. Surprisingly, her mother decides to keep her rather than send her to an orphanage, as she did with her other children. Hungry for love, even the kind of love she might expect but doesn’t receive from her mother, Lena is determined to control her own life. She moves to Vienna where she meets the idealistic young lawyer, Rudolph, who takes her on as a kind of cause, wanting to help her. But the relationship is confusing, Lena thinks eventually he loves her but can’t say it, and thus she instigates sex one evening thinking this is what he wants. It goes horribly wrong and Rudolph recoils from the physical contact. Lena at first throws herself into drinking and prostitution but then leaves Vienna and goes to work in Schloss Seelick where she hopes to leave her past behind her.

Meanwhile, Anton is enjoying increasing success as a writer and is commissioned to visit Schloss Seelick to look at its methods and investigate an earlier scandal. Attracted by the quiet calm of Martha, who has taken over the running of the clinic from her father, and her modern methods of psychoanalysis, he decides to undergo ‘the talking cure’ himself, to try to at last process the lingering melancholy at losing Delphine and never finding out what happened to her.

There are a lot of long conversations about psychoanalysis, Freud, etc. I found it fascinating yet it is also quite heavy going. We are witnessing the lives of Anton, Lena, Rudolph and Martha and while they are all intertwined to some degree, the threads never really seem to come into a cohesive whole. In the background is the love story of Delphine, yet after so many years – twenty years later – is it still a love story or more an indication of Anton’s troubled mind? And Lena, who recognises Anton as a man who visited her for sex in Vienna and is terrified her secret will be revealed and she’ll be thrown out of Schloss Seelick, is her attraction to Anton love as she comes to believe or something else? And what of the confused Rudolph who comes to the Schloss too, in an official capacity as a lawyer but also seeking out Lena? And Martha, who hides surprising secrets of her own, and her views of modern psychiatry?

There’s quite a lot of confusion in the lives and relationships of the characters, yet that’s the very meat of psychoanalysis. We are asked to consider past lives and future lives; what being alive means; and in the end whether life itself is just a joke: ‘There was no love that lasted, no life afterwards …’

I was definitely hooked on this novel and read it almost straight through, yet it wasn’t a totally satisfactory read. It’s described by some critics as a love story, yet for me it’s not really that. Yes there is love and an examination of what love is, but there’s no burning love story; even the Delphine story is coloured by all that goes with it and it feels more like something Anton refuses to let go of rather than a true deep love. The book is also in part a war story, with the loss of loved ones and the nature of the politics at the time. But the love, the characters, the events, are all a bit disjointed; the final story of love doesn’t quite hold true. For me, the book is mostly about life itself, its purpose and meaning, and the nature of love. And, if it’s not a perfect book, it does throw up some interesting ideas to think over.

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