Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Week four: John Mullan discusses readers' responses

Invariably, readers at the Guardian book club want to ask an author about his or her choice of an ending for a novel. Near the end of Birdsong, Stephen Wraysford is rescued by enemy soldiers after being trapped for days underground. Though his return to the light is not the end of the novel, it is the end of his part in it. Sebastian Faulks contradicted a reader who found hope in the narrative structure. Stephen, after all, gets little life in the novel beyond the war. Another reader was puzzled by the "true ending" of the novel, a section set in the late 1970s, with the "last word" being given to Robert, the father to Elizabeth's child (Stephen's great-grandchild), a minor character "and not anyone I really warm to". "I did realise that it was an odd thing to do," the author acknowledged. But this choice, prepared for by an earlier scene in which we are allowed into this character's thoughts, seemed to show how lives would go on, as if in defiance or neglect of the forgotten horror of the war.

Forgetting was a theme. Several readers spoke of the novel illuminating exchanges that they had had – or failed to have – with elderly relatives who had fought in the war. Stephen's literal silence after the war's end spoke of a reluctance among the real-life veterans to share their experiences. Faulks doubted very much whether his grandfather, who had fought in the first world war, ever spoke to his mother about it. "But perhaps there wasn't a great deal to say." And perhaps there were always people who did not want to hear. Birdsong makes room for a peculiar scene in which Stephen's friend and fellow officer, Weir, on home leave, begins to tell his father the truth about the front and meets with complete, almost hostile, indifference.

An American member of the audience wondered what the research for and writing of the book had told its author about Englishness. Faulks did not think his novel was a national story, but that the history it reimagined was "part of who we are". The nature of the war meant that its effects were appallingly concentrated. He spoke of being sent a photograph of a Rosslyn Park rugby team from 1913, every one of whose 15 members was killed. The recruitment of men from particular areas made the war "part of the landscape of Britain".

A constant theme of the author's responses was his surprise that the book should have struck such a chord with readers. Some members of the audience asked whether he had known as he wrote it that he was "on to something". He had known, he replied, that this was a subject that mattered to him and that he had the momentum to carry it through, but not at all that it would find a large readership. "You cannot have expectations." Readers clearly had felt put in the place of a person enduring and witnessing the horror of the war. Given the emotions, especially of terror, that the book aroused, what emotions accompanied the writing of it? Faulks remembered the process as "selfishly cathartic". He had found himself sometimes overcome with passionate indignation or sorrow, but had never written when taken by emotion. Another member of the audience, reflecting on the novel's attention to trauma, wondered if Faulks ever thought about the age of his readers. "I do think about the age of my readers," he said, recalling his surprise when discovering that 14-year-olds were reading Birdsong. "I think that's too young."

"I'm sure that I'm not the only English teacher here …" began one questioner. We could not but be aware that this is a book that has entered the bloodstream of A-level studies. One reader, speaking of how the character of Isabelle seemed to repel the reader's sympathy in the novel's first section ("I have to agree," added another member of the audience), referred to her own response and that of "some of my students". A teacher asked what Faulks had thought about suddenly finding himself on an examination syllabus, with classrooms of students now "second-guessing" what he had been doing when he was planning his novel. "It's wonderful," he answered, adding that he thought it was "quite an easy book to teach – because it's a book in primary colours. You can see how it is put together."

He reflected that Birdsong gives a past and a background to each of its characters in a rather "traditional" way, and that this too makes it a book that A-level students might easily discuss. It was a narrative method he no longer used but one that he looked back on with a certain nostalgia. His main narrative influence, he agreed, was "filmic". A reader had picked up on his description of his narrative "jump cuts". How conscious was he of using techniques that are "drawn from a grammar of film"? The novelist agreed that in this book he deliberately imitated cinematic narrative devices – particularly a movement from almost "unbearable close-up" to a view of events "on a long lens and a very wide shot". He ended the discussion hoping that Birdsong would eventually become a film for the cinema.

• John Mullan is professor of English at University College London.


John Mullan

The GuardianTramp

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