Published: 1 Jan 2011
Also available in hardback, audiobook and ebook:
Faulks’s fourth novel and the second in his French trilogy has become a classic of modern English literature. It is taught at school and university on both English and History syllabuses; it has sold more than two million copies in the United Kingdom and three million worldwide; in polls it is regularly voted one of the nation’s all-time favourite books.
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The story begins in Amiens, northern France in 1910. A young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, is on attachment from London, working in the textile industry and lodging with the Azaire family. René Azaire runs a large factory where Stephen works; his second wife Isabelle is a woman of unfulfilled hopes, ill-treated by her husband. In the stultifying atmosphere of their town house, Stephen develops a concealed passion for Isabelle. At first, she resists; but this only intensifies his feeling, which she soon begins to share. They finally come together in a series of frankly described sexual encounters, whose physical detail foreshadows the bodily tests that await both of them in the coming war. Stephen and Isabelle flee together to Provence. She becomes pregnant and, for reasons she does not disclose till later, she leaves him..
The story moves on to Flanders in 1916. Stephen is an infantry officer on the Western Front. He is friendly with an engineer called Michael Weir, whose men dig tunnels under no man’s land to undermine the enemy. The narrative dwells on the lives of both infantrymen and tunnellers, notably Stephen, his commanding officer Captain Gray, Michael Weir, and a tunneller called Jack Firebrace. It gives a minute evocation of the daily life of the soldier, the horrific effects of wounds and gas, but also the intense friendships of men under pressure. In the summer, they move south to the Somme area and in a single arc of narrative the novel gives the whole of the first day of the Battle of the Somme from Stephen’s point of view, from the wait at dawn to the fall of dusk when he lies wounded in a shell hole, among 60,000 British casualties.
Stephen is a man almost broken by love and by war, but full of a passionate perversity. While some of his fellow-soldiers are happy to die, unable to comprehend the sights they have seen, Stephen becomes more and more determined to survive. In this, he is encouraged by Captain Gray. Their philosophical exchanges about what they have witnessed are terse, but Stephen gives fuller vent to his feelings in a coded diary, which he keeps in spite of military regulations.
The diary is found by his grand-daughter, Elizabeth Benson, in the 1970’s. With the help of a friend at work, she eventually decodes it and learns that her mother is Stephen and Isabelle’s daughter. Birdsong
frequently returns to the pain of parenthood, especially that of those who lost sons on Western Front. ‘It is a book about sons,’ Faulks once said. ‘Ten million of them killed for no reason. And the grief of twenty million parents.’ Elizabeth manages to track down Gray, now an old man living in Scotland, and, in an upsetting scene, visits a former member of Stephen’s platoon in a Star and Garter home in London.
Back in 1917, Stephen, while on leave in Amiens, meets Isabelle again. There is to be no reunion, but he forms a friendship with her sister Jeanne who, like Gray, wills him to carry on. In the autumn of 1918, Stephen is trapped underground when an explosion brings down the roof on a tunnel where he has gone with Jack Firebrace, the miner whom he had once threatened to have court-martialled. Jack dies in his arms, but not before Stephen promises that if he ever has children he will name one of them John, after Jack’s only son, who has died of diphtheria in London. After days underground, Stephen, himself close to death, is rescued by a German search party led by a Jewish doctor looking for his brother. The war is over.
In the final scene of the book, Elizabeth gives birth to a son. Having read her grandfather’s promise in his diary, she calls her infant John. She has made the final effort of love and redemption to the men who died, and the circle with the past is closed.
'Ambitious, outrageous, poignant, sleep-disturbing, Birdsong is not a perfect novel – just a great one.’
Simon Schama, New Yorker
‘One of the finest novels of the last forty years.’
Mail on Sunday
· Faulks’s American publisher, Little Brown, said they could not publish Birdsong
unless he cut the war sections and relocated them to a ‘more recent conflict’. He declined to do so.
· A film of Birdsong
was in development for 14 years. Directors at one time associated with the project include: Justin Chadwick, Joe Wright, Paul Greengrass, Iain Softley, Sam Mendes, Peter Weir and Michael Whyte. Eventually, a television adaptation was made for BBC-1. Directed by Philip Martin from Abi Morgan's script, it aired in January 2012 and was generally well received. It starred Eddie Redmayne and Clémence Poesy.
· Stephen’s experiences are not based on those of any real person. ‘My grandfather Philip Lawless was at the Somme, but with a trench repair unit, not in the front line,’ said Faulks. ‘And I didn’t find that out till ten years after I had written the book. My father’s father was too old to fight in the War. Stephen came out of nowhere.’
· Faulks wrote Birdsong
in a study on the top floor of his brother Edward’s house in London between May 1992 and January 1993. Its provisional title was ‘Flesh and Blood’. It is dedicated to Edward Faulks.
· The jacket image for the hardback came from a book of paintings in the Louvre that Faulks had at home. It’s an academic 19th century painting by the French painter Hippolyte Flandin. ‘It’s not especially appropriate,’ Faulks said in 1995, ‘but we needed an image that suggested male strength and vulnerability.’
was edited by the Canadian-born Sue Freestone, who remained Faulks’s editor at Hutchinson until she left the company in 2006.
· On a staff attachment in 1917, Stephen goes to Arras, where he has lunch with two French officers: Hartmann and Lallement, both characters in The Girl at the Lion d’Or