Faulks, Sebastian 1953-
Faulks, Sebastian 1953-
Born April 20, 1953, in Newbury, England; son of Peter Ronald (a judge) and Pamela Faulks; married Veronica Youlten, 1989; children: three. Education: Emmanuel College, Cambridge, B.A. (with honors), 1974. Religion: Church of England. Hobbies and other interests: Sports.
Home—London, England. Office—Independent, 40 City Rd., London EC1, England. Agent—Gillon Aitken Associates Ltd., 18-21 Cavaye Place, London SW10 9PT, England.
Writer, journalist, editor, educator. International School of London, London, England, teacher of English and French, 1975-79; Daily Telegraph, London, journalist, 1979-82; Sunday Telegraph, London, journalist, 1983—; Independent, London, literary editor, 1986-89, deputy editor of Sunday edition, 1989—. Radio broadcaster for British Broadcasting Corp.
Named Author of the Year, British Book Awards, 1995; shortlist, James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1998, for Charlotte Gray; CBE, 2002; Birdsong was voted one of Britain's 21 best-loved novels by the British public as part of the BBC's The Big Read, 2003; fellow, Royal Society of Literature.
NOVELS; EXCEPT AS NOTED
A Trick of the Light, Bodley Head (London, England), 1984.
The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Hutchinson (London, England), 1989, Vintage (New York, NY), 1999.
A Fool's Alphabet, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1992.
Birdsong, Random House (New York, NY), 1993.
The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives (biography), Hutchinson (London, England), 1996, Vintage (New York, NY), 2002.
Charlotte Gray, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
(Editor, with Jorg Hensgen) The Vintage Book of War Stories, Vintage (London, England), 1999, Vintage (New York, NY), 2002.
On Green Dolphin Street, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
Human Traces, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
Pistache (essays and parodies), Hutchinson (London, England), 2006.
Engleby, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals. Editor of New Fiction, 1978-81.
Charlotte Gray was adapted by Gillian Armstrong for Universal.
Sebastian Faulks has earned a critical reputation for his innovative novels exploring the life histories of ordinary people. A critic for Kirkus Reviews explained that Faulks has "unparalleled strengths as a writer of plain human life and high, high compassion."
A Fool's Alphabet is organized into twenty-six alphabetical chapters from Anzio to Zanica. The place names reflect locations important in the life of Pietro Russell, whose personal history Faulks explores at a gradual, careful pace. The novel's structure, Mark Illis explained in the Spectator, "is an arbitrary idea which seems to have become an enabling device, providing the patchwork approach which mimics memory, and also providing structure." Shaun Whiteside in New Statesman also noted the similarity of the book's structure to human memory. "Faulks," wrote Whiteside, "has understood the workings of memory, and realised that the alphabet, random as it is, is a surer way of marshalling reminiscences than straightforward chronology." "In the best sections of the book …," Nine Mehta wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, "Faulks coaxes the reader toward the slow realization that life occurs haphazardly and progresses chronologically, but is usually remembered thematically." As the novel completes the story of Russell's life, Whiteside explained: "Faulks deftly closes the circle, linking the grown man with the moment of his conception, while at the same time opening up new mysteries." Whiteside concluded that A Fool's Alphabet is "a delightful, low-decibel novel which … still conveys what it is to live a life."
In Birdsong, Faulks again presents a life story, this time that of a British soldier during World War I. The novel alternates between the battlefields of World War I and the London of 1978, as the war diaries of Stephen Wraysford are discovered and read by his granddaughter, Elizabeth, a fashion designer who finds herself oddly obsessed with her ancestor's story. "The device," Penelope Lively wrote in the Spectator, "works extremely well, supplying an added tension to the central preoccupation with Stephen's survival through the battle of the Somme and subsequent harrowing episodes."
Birdsong not only enjoyed bestseller status in England, but also received favorable critical reviews as well. "Ambitious, minutely observed, recounted in plain naturalistic prose, Birdsong attempts a great deal," according to Robert Carver in New Statesman. Carver found, however, that "the bold attempt unfortunately doesn't come off." Despite what he sees as the novel's flaws, Carver concluded that "Birdsong remains an impressive achievement as a new literary hybrid: the literary-blockbuster." Writing in Contemporary Novelists, Geoffrey Elborn called Birdsong "almost an unqualified success, but one wonders if the extreme length of the novel was necessary for the statement of the theme." In a New Yorker review, Simon Schama called Birdsong an "overpowering and beautiful novel…. One of the book's few faults is its title, a symptom of Faulks's penchant for avian symbols…. Ambitious, outrageous, poignant, sleep-disturbing, Birdsong is not a perfect novel—just a great one."
Charlotte Gray is set during World War II when a young Scottish girl travels to London in order to contribute to the war effort. She quickly falls in love with a British pilot and mourns him when he is reported missing while on a mission over France. Charlotte then crosses the English Channel to fight with the French Resistance and, possibly, find her lost love. Calling the novel a "somewhat old-fashioned romantic adventure," John Skow in Time noted similarities between Charlotte Gray and Birdsong: "The new novel is not so bloody, but like Birdsong it evokes vividly the erosion of nerve worked by fear, hunger, illness and the dimming of peaceful life to an unconvincing, half-remembered fantasy." A Publishers Weekly critic believed that Faulks's depiction of wartime France is marked by "authenticity, irony and pathos," while Mary Ellen Quinn in Booklist concluded that Faulks, in a work that combines both love and suspense, does not let "either element … overwhelm the book and turn it into a romanticized depiction of war with a too-easy happy ending." A critic for Kirkus Reviews called Charlotte Gray "a war novel that should take its place among the masterpieces of the genre."
Faulks's 2002 novel, On Green Dolphin Street, moves ahead in history, a love story set against the backdrop of the Cold War. Set in the United States during the presidential campaign pitting Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy, Faulks's novel focuses on career British diplomat, Charlie van der Linden, his wife Mary, and the American journalist Frank Renzo. Mary is having an affair with Frank, creating a separate peace with the world in this "joyous book with a glow of pleasure … about two people awake to their lives and offering each other the best that is in them," as Book contributor Penelope Mesic noted. Less positive was the assessment of a Kirkus Reviews critic who felt that "the historical resonance and dimension usual for Faulks has for once eluded him." A similar complaint was registered by a Publishers Weekly contributor who observed: "The novel feels unformed and inert, with reportage substituting for imagination." Other critics had a much higher estimation of On Green Dolphin Street. Booklist contributor Bill Ott, for example, praised the author's use of detail: "Sights, sounds, and smells of [New York are] perfectly evoked." Ott went on to term the novel "exhilarating yet heartbreaking fiction." Award-winning novelist Anita Brookner commented in the Spectator that On Green Dolphin Street is "a sizeable literary undertaking, a modern epic in the tradition of those British adventure stories from which it takes its inspiration."
With Human Traces, Faulks looks at the beginnings of psychology and psychiatry. Set in the nineteenth century, it tells the tale of two friends who set up a pioneering asylum. Thomas Midwinter, an English Darwinist, and Jacques Rebière, a French researcher of unconscious mental processes, are oddly linked by marriages: Rebière to Midwinter's sisters, and Midwinter to one of Rebière's patients. The novel follows their careers in the nascent discipline of psychiatry from the 1880s to World War I. For Washington Post Book World contributor Peter D. Kramer, the work was an "ambitious historical novel." However, the same reviewer also complained that at times it "descends to the tone of middlebrow romance." Kramer went on to comment, though, that the author "conveys the excitement of neurology as it turned its attention to mood, memory and behavior," concluding: "Despite its shortcomings, the book should serve as a popular vehicle for reassessing the history of psychiatry and confronting the mystery of consciousness." A similar mixed review came from Booklist contributor Sarah Johnson, who observed that Human Traces "hardly wears its research lightly." At the same time, however, Johnson noted that this "intellectual epic explores the uneasy relationship between madness and humanity." Steven Heighton, writing in the New York Times Book Review, also found problems with the structure of the novel, including "a good deal of mechanical exposition," but concluded. "A generosity of vision, an integrity of intelligence and feeling lift [Human Traces] above the level of its own elements." Higher praise came from a Kirkus Reviews critic who concluded: "Epic in scope, this is an imaginative look at the rise of medicine for the mind," and from a Publishers Weekly reviewer who felt the author "marries extensive research with a satisfying narrative arc to create a novel that is compelling as both history and literature." Penelope Lively, reviewing the novel in the London Times Online, added to the praise, terming the work "ambitious and thoughtful," while for a London Telegraph Online critic, Human Traces was a "a bold and remarkable work of imagination, particularly in its daring remastery of the 19th-century novel form and the sustained grace of its prose."
The 2007 novel Engleby is a major departure from the rest of Faulks's postmodern historical fiction. David Mattin, on the London Independent Web site, described that novel as a "closeted, strange first-person narrative [that] takes aim at truth via the seemingly prosaic life of Mike Engleby." The book follows Engleby from when he was a Cambridge student in the 1970s and the disappearance of his Jen, a close female friend, through the 1980s in London where Engleby has gone into journalism. Jen, his college obsession, continues to be so in two dimensions, as Engleby reads her stolen diary over and over, trying to make sense of his life with such ruminations. Mattin wrote that Engleby is "a subtle, perceptive work, and a compelling read."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Book, January, 2002, Penelope Mesic, review of On Green Dolphin Street, p. 70.
Booklist, February 15, 1996, Gilbert Taylor, review of Birdsong, p. 990; February 1, 1999, Mary Ellen Quinn, review of Charlotte Gray, p. 961; December 15, 2001, Bill Ott, review of On Green Dolphin Street, p. 704; April 1, 2002, Michael Spinella, review of The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives, p. 1296; September 1, 2002, John Mort, review of The Vintage Book of War Stories, p. 61; September 1, 2006, Sarah Johnson, review of Human Traces, p. 54.
British Book News, February, 1986, review of A Trick of the Light, p. 74.
Christian Science Monitor, June 3, 1993, Nina Mehta, review of A Fool's Alphabet, p. 14.
Contemporary Review, May, 2000, review of The Vintage Book of War Stories, p. 280.
Economist, October 10, 1998, review of Charlotte Gray, p. 89.
Entertainment Weekly, March 5, 1999, review of Charlotte Gray, p. 60; September 15, 2006, Jennifer Reese, review of Human Traces, p. 79.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Ft. Worth, TX), April 1, 2002, review of On Green Dolphin Street.
Guardian Weekly, October 31, 1993, review of Birdsong, p. 29.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1993, review of A Fool's Alphabet, p. 243; December 1, 1995, review of Birdsong, p. 1652; December 15, 1998, review of Charlotte Gray; November 15, 2001, review of On Green Dolphin Street, p. 1567; March 1, 2002, review of The Fatal Englishman, p. 305; August 1, 2002, review of The Vintage Book of War Stories, p. 1075; June 15, 2006, review of Human Traces, p. 591.
Kliatt, September, 2002, E.B. Boatner, review of The Fatal Englishman, p. 32; March, 2003, Daniel J. Levinson, review of The Vintage Book of War Stories, p. 41.
Lancet, November 19, 2005, "Faulks' Guide to Psychiatry," p. 1765.
Library Journal, April 15, 1993, Joanna M. Burkhard, review of A Fool's Alphabet, p. 126; October 1, 1993, Betsy Levins, review of A Fool's Alphabet, p. 152; February 1, 1999, review of Charlotte Gray, p. 120; January 1, 2002, Sheila Riley, review of On Green Dolphin Street, p. 151; April 1, 2002, Gail Benjafield, review of The Fatal Englishman, p. 118; September 15, 2002, Ali Houissa, review of The Vintage Book of War Stories, p. 95; February 15, 2003, Jodi L. Israel, review of On Green Dolphin Street, p. 184; August 1, 2006, Jim Coan, review of Human Traces, p. 68.
Listener, July 26, 1984, review of A Trick of Light, p. 28; August 24, 1989, review of The Girl at the Lion d'Or, p. 27.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 7, 1996, review of Birdsong, p. 4.
New Statesman, July 17, 1992, Shaun Whiteside, review of A Fool's Alphabet, p. 46; September 17, 1993, Robert Carver, review of Birdsong, p. 40; April 26, 1996, Carole Angier, review of The Fatal Englishman, p. 30.
New Yorker, April 1, 1996, Simon Schama, review of Birdsong, p. 97.
New York Times Book Review, September 19, 1993, review of Birdsong, p. 56; February 11, 1996, review of Birdsong, p. 11; February 3, 2002, Julie Gray, review of On Green Dolphin Street, p. 24; October 15, 2006, Steven Heighton, "Head Cases," review of Human Traces, p. 27.
Observer (London, England), July 30, 1989, review of The Girl at the Lion d'Or, p. 45.
People, May 6, 1996, review of Birdsong, p. 38.
Publishers Weekly, March 1, 1993, review of A Fool's Alphabet, p. 38; December 11, 1995, review of Birdsong, p. 58; December 14, 1998, review of Charlotte Gray, p. 55; November 22, 1999, review of The Girl at the Lion d'Or, p. 44; December 24, 2001, review of On Green Dolphin Street, p. 42; February 25, 2002, "Passion at the Edge of Things," p. 35; April 8, 2002, review of The Fatal Englishman, p. 219; June 19, 2006, review of Human Traces, p. 37.
Spectator, September 15, 1984, review of A Trick of the Light; August 5, 1989, review of The Girl at the Lion d'Or, p. 35; July 18, 1992, Mark Illis, review of A Fool's Alphabet, p. 30; September 18, 1993, Penelope Lively, review of Birdsong, p. 39; November 25, 1995, review of Birdsong, p. 49; April 28, 2001, Anita Brookner, review of On Green Dolphin Street, p. 37; September 3, 2005, "When Doctors Disagree," p. 30.
Time, March 1, 1999, John Skow, review of Charlotte Gray, p. 78.
Times Educational Supplement, November 5, 1993, review of Birdsong, p. 12.
Times Literary Supplement, August 18, 1989, review of The Girl at the Lion d'Or, p. 901; July 10, 1992, Toby Fitton, review of A Fool's Alphabet, p. 21; September 10, 1993, David Horspol, review of Birdsong, p. 21; May 17, 1996, Mary Ritter Beard, review of The Fatal Englishman, p. 29.
Washington Post Book World, February 18, 1996, review of Birdsong, p. 3; October 15, 2006, Peter D. Kramer, review of Human Traces, p. 7.
British Council Web site,http://www.contemporarywriters.com/ (June 7, 2007), "Sebastian Faulks."
Guardian Online (London, England), http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (September 10, 2005), Adam Thorpe, review of Human Traces.
Internet Movie Datatbase,http://www.imdb.com/ (June 7, 2007), "Sebastian Faulks."
London Independent Online,http://arts.independent.co.uk/ (May 27, 2007), David Mattin, review of Engleby.
Telegraph Online,http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ (April 9, 2005), "Faulks: A Tolstoy for Today," review of Human Traces.
Times Online,http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/ (August 21, 2005), Penelope Lively, review of Human Traces.
USA Today Online,http://www.usatoday.com/ (September 14, 2006), Eliot Schrefer, review of Human Traces.