In his weighty 2005 novel, Human Traces, Sebastian Faulks tells the story of two late 19th-century doctors, Jacques Rebière and Thomas Midwinter. Pioneers in psychiatric medicine, they come together to open a sanatorium, the Schloss Seeblick, on a lakeside in Carinthia, part of modern-day Austria. It is a time of great hope and even greater ambition. The two men draw up plans for a state-of-the-art clinic at the summit of a nearby mountain. From this exalted position they intend to unravel the mysteries of the human mind.
Sixteen years and many books later, Faulks has returned to Carinthia and to the Schloss Seeblick. Snow Country, intended as the second in a loose trilogy of Austrian novels, begins in 1914. As the dark clouds of war mass on the horizon, Anton Heideck, an aspiring journalist in Vienna, meets Delphine, a French woman several years his senior, and falls deeply in love. When war breaks out, however, he is in Paris and Delphine is suddenly the enemy.
Meanwhile penniless Lena is growing up in small-town Carinthia. The sixth child of a drunk and chaotic mother and the only one not to be given up at birth to the local orphanage, Lena is torn between her hunger for love and her determination to take control of her own life. Disappointed first by her father and then by the idealistic lawyer who persuades her to come to Vienna, she takes a job at the Schloss Seeblick where her mother once worked as a cleaner.
In 1933 Anton, commissioned to write a magazine article about “where psychological medicine stands today”, himself travels to the Schloss. Much has changed. Midwinter is dead, Rebière long retired. Politically and economically, Austria is in turmoil. The clinic, now run by Midwinter’s daughter Martha, has been forced to sell its mountain-top premises and is once again housed in the old sanatorium by the lake.
The clinic’s lofty ambitions have also been brought down to earth. The carnage of the first world war has destroyed the old certainties. What Martha calls “the great age of belief” in the medicine of the mind is over: Anton dismisses the early ambitions of the clinic as a “well-intentioned but fatal overreaching; or, if you were of a religious bent, a doomed attempt to see into the mind of God”. And yet, for all his scepticism, he finds comfort there. His wartime experiences have left him deeply scarred. The Schloss, he admits, holds out “possibilities for change”.
Human Traces is a novel of ideas in the 19th-century tradition, a sweeping epic that tackles big questions about the nature of cognition and the human predisposition to madness. Snow Country, like the turbulent interwar years in which it is set, is more provisional, less sure of its ground. It is a love story that doubts the nature of love, an exploration of the redemptive capacity of psychiatry that grapples with the possibility that the self might not be real but only the “flickering wave of some electromagnetic field”. At the Schloss, Anton finds himself increasingly preoccupied with the unsettling idea, first explored by Faulks in his 2012 novel, A Possible Life, that all human existence consists of a single consciousness, every individual so unsatisfactorily differentiated from any other that everyone is caught in “some loop of eternal return”, condemned to fail and to suffer the torments of those failings in the same way over and over again.
If this sounds bleak, it is surely Faulks’s intention. As he acknowledges in an afterword, the title Snow Country is a homage to Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s 1935 novella of the same name, published in English in 1956. Faulks even borrows Kawabata’s famous first line to describe Lena’s arrival at the Schloss: “The train came out of a long tunnel into snowfields.” And yet, while Kawabata’s desolately beautiful story about a love affair doomed from the outset seems almost to exalt in its sadness, Faulks’s Snow Country allows room for hope. The answer, he seems to say, lies neither in grand theories of psychiatry nor indeed in the great tradition of romantic love, but in the present-tense accretion of small joys and kindnesses that make up a life.
Anton may “have a low opinion of the human creature, the male in particular”, but he is capable of deep friendship and his love for Delphine is true. The impulsive Lena has little education and, like her mother, a weakness for alcohol, but she possesses a fierce and loyal heart. Damage cannot be undone but it is possible to reach an approximate understanding of oneself and to find solace, even love, amid the world’s uncertainties. It is a conclusion that should offer reassurance but, after Anton’s anguished existential wrestlings, contrives only to feel rather pat.
• Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks is published by Hutchinson (£20).