Failed visionaries?: Sebastian Faulks’s “Human Traces” (2005)

Growing up, I became used to the covers of Sebastian Faulks’ novels, which were frequently strewn over our living room coffee table, or lay on the back seat of the car during our long summer drives across Europe. The face of the “Girl at the Lion D’Or” particularly haunts my memory; the cover photographer captured that sense of “lostness”, isolation and emotional intensity which Faulks depicts so well in his writing. Despite Faulks’ considerable presence on the bookshelves in my house, I didn’t actually read any of his novels until just before the Oxford Book Festival of 2010 (I had tickets to hear him introduce his BBC Two series “Faulks on Fiction”). Over ice-cream afterwards in G&Ds we discussed “Birdsong” – that most controversial of war novels – in which Dickensian coincidences litter a psychologically complex narrative which seeks to humanise the vast expanse of the First World War. Although I enjoy the intensity of Faulks’s descriptions of the personal experiences of historical events – recovering them from the sterility and anonymity of history books – the focus on reflection can often slow down the pace too much for my liking.

Although this is also a problem in “Human Traces” (2005), the depth and perspicacity of the novel outweighs its slow pace. If you haven’t read it, the novel is hugely ambitious in scope, beginning just after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species and navigating developments in history and psychiatry until just after the First World War. Once the reader has grappled with the sheer weight of Faulks’s research into the development of psychiatry as a respected and evidence-based discipline, he or she reaches the heart of the story: the way in which visionaries are incessantly haunted by the fear of defeat and their continual struggle to leave behind a trace of their contribution to humankind. When a battered and worn PhD student droops into the office to see their supervisor, they are feeling something of the Faulksian existential crisis. I’m sure that when a writer sets pen to paper, they feel something of the same conflict within them.

Crucial to the novel’s struggle between vision and defeat is Switzerland, the setting for a significant chunk of the text. The protagonists – psychiatrists Jaques Rebiere and Thomas Midwinter – have a vision for a modern sanatorium in the Swiss Alps; this will be a place where they can not only alleviate patients’ symptoms, but also research the elusive “cure” for mental illness. The setting itself symbolises their desire. Constructed on a mountain plateau, the sanatorium is at once reaching for the heavens and also almost inaccessible. Its location in a fashionable part of Europe (several of the wealthy characters in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night also frequent a Swiss sanatorium) speaks of the necessity of balancing financial support with altruism.


I’m finally bringing this back round to the pictures of chocolate and caramel torte which are garnishing this particular soliloquy on Faulks! Although the torte is not specifically mentioned in the novel, I imagine it is the type of dessert the characters would enjoy in their mountain-top dining room after a long day’s work. And it captures something of the experimental essence and the unresolved conflicts of the novel. At the same time as Faulks’s characters were involved in developing in psychiatry, engineering, science, art, and politics, so too were Swiss chocolatiers experimenting and pioneering new methods of producing vast quantities of chocolate to export to the world. Yet sugar and chocolate still remained expensive products at the turn of the twentieth century, and so would have been an appropriate food for the super-rich patients who funded the progressive sanatorium.

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Unfortunately, I am not going to give you the recipe for this particular chocolate and caramel torte. The reason for this is that I made it at a workshop in the York Cocoa House – so if you want to taste it or get the recipe, then I advise you to visit them!



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