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Human Traces (Vintage International)by Sebastian Faulks
Synopses & Reviews
Sixteen-year-old Jacques Rebière is living a humble life in rural France, studying butterflies and frogs by candlelight in his bedroom. Across the Channel, in England, the playful Thomas Midwinter, also sixteen, is enjoying a life of ease — and is resigned to follow his father's wishes and pursue a career in medicine.
A fateful seaside meeting four years later sets the two young men on a profound course of friendship and discovery; they will become pioneers in the burgeoning field of psychiatry. But when a female patient at the doctors' Austrian sanatorium becomes dangerously ill, the two men's conflicting diagnosis threatens to divide them — and to undermine all their professional achievements. From the bestselling author of Birdsong comes this masterful novel that ventures to answer challenging questions of consciousness and science, and what it means to be human.
"What if Freud had never lived? Our everyday explanations of motives — repression, defensiveness — might differ. Novels might contain less stream-of-consciousness narration. But sexual intercourse would still have begun, as Philip Larkin put it in a much-quoted line, in 1963. And psychiatry might be right where it is today. This last claim is at the heart of Sebastian Faulks' ambitious... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) historical novel, 'Human Traces.' Faulks follows the careers of two fictional psychiatrists, each active professionally from the 1880s until the aftermath of World War I. Thomas Midwinter is an English Darwinist given to theorizing about the development of the brain. Jacques Rebiere is a Frenchman fascinated by unconscious mental processes. The men are linked by love and work. Rebiere marries Midwinter's sister; Midwinter, one of Rebiere's patients. The doctors open an asylum, where Midwinter treats Rebiere's psychotic brother. The novel is meant to succeed on two fronts: as a drama of intertwined lives and as a meditation on the nature of mind. Faulks, the author of 'Birdsong' and 'Charlotte Gray,' has a substantial literary reputation in England, but on this score 'Human Traces' disappoints. Often, it descends to the tone of middlebrow romance, with descriptions awash in local color and backstory tucked into subordinate clauses: 'Tante Mathilde was sitting by the door again, intent on her sewing, while Grand-mere, the mother of Jacques's own mother, who had died of childbed fever in the week of his birth, cleared the plates from the table and took them out with heavy steps to the scullery.' Even granting the intent to mimic 19th-century modes of expression, the love scenes are overwritten. ('My dearest, dearest boy, I adore you. I will make your life for you. I want no other destiny, just to be with you. Don't talk anymore. Just hold me tighter. Tighter. Always.') The characters are types. Any distinctiveness lies in the decades they pass through and the scientific theories they espouse. At the center of the book are two set pieces: a pair of public lectures, one by each doctor, and a matching pair of case reports. Rebiere's contributions sound Freudian, but he develops them from theories that predate psychoanalysis. Speaking in 1892, Rebiere tells his audience, 'In Vienna, the great neurologist Moritz Benedikt has recently described what he calls the `second life," by which he means the important existence of a secret life in many unwell people, which contains a `pathogenic secret," almost invariably of a sexual nature. He has given many examples of patients with hysterical symptoms, almost all of them women, who have been rapidly cured by confessing their secrets.' Rebiere goes on to discuss Karl Albert Scherner, who in the 1860s proposed 'that dreams are a language of symbols, which can be interpreted. ... Scherner listed such things as pipes, towers and clarinets as emblems of the male, while the female is represented by staircases or narrow courtyards.' Without Freud, Faulks suggests, we would still have gotten psychotherapy, dream interpretation, the symbolizing unconscious and an appreciation of the motivating power of sex — while bypassing penis envy, castration anxiety and other dead-end concepts. But even Rebiere's relatively level-headed therapy is no match for brain-centered psychiatry. The book takes a decided turn when Midwinter demolishes his colleague's formulation of a patient's history by explaining her symptoms in physical terms and arranging to have her cured through surgery. Neither man mentions Freud by name, but Midwinter takes a swipe at the Oedipus complex as an exaggeration of the 'fireside truth' that boys often undertake 'an amicable competition with the father' for the mother's attention. The Vienna movement, Midwinter quips, will be the first school of medicine 'to base its treatment of the sick on the withholding of medicine.' Faulks conveys the excitement of neurology as it turned its attention to mood, memory and behavior. He has Midwinter discover the research of Paul Broca, Carl Wernicke, Alois Alzheimer and others, as well as emerging evidence for the actions of chromosomes and genes. Effectively, Faulks argues that Freud's work set the medical world on a century-long detour. Faulks does not restrict himself to defending what are probably today's mainstream views about Freudianism's excesses. Midwinter advances speculative theories that would, in practice, be developed in the 1970s by Julian Jaynes — that the hearing of inner voices was essential for the leap from hominid to human, so that schizophrenia is the evolutionary price our species pays for self-awareness. Meanwhile, Rebiere dabbles, with some success, in mysticism. The problem, Faulks implies, is not that a mind-centered view (or even a spiritual one) must fail but that Freud went off course, indulging in pseudo-science. Faulks understands the difficulties inherent in using fiction to convey these complex arguments. He offsets his characters' earnestness — and his own — through attention to settings and plot details. He sends his protagonists to California and Tanzania to fill in pieces of the puzzle. He allows Rebiere to indulge in titillating sexual obsessions. Generally, the effort to entertain succeeds. And 'Human Traces' can be moving, as its characters grapple with the limitations of knowledge and reason. Despite its shortcomings, the book should serve as a popular vehicle for reassessing the history of psychiatry and confronting the mystery of consciousness. Peter D. Kramer's brief biography of Sigmund Freud will be published in November." Reviewed by Peter D. Kramer, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"A collage of science, ideas, romance, and adventure....Fascinating." The Boston Globe
"Epic in scope, yet suffused with intimate emotions, Sebastian Faulks' seventh novel is one of those rare works of fiction that satisfies on every level." Chicago Tribune
"Faulks' substantial research is gracefully integrated into the plot. The characters are complex and engrossing, and the theories of the time are presented lucidly and compellingly.....A leisurely, enjoyable read...always credible and humane." Rocky Mountain News
"Passages of gruesome and thrilling anatomical detail and episodes of medical casework [make Human Traces] read like the best detective fiction." USA Today
"Though the work is somewhat confined by the period framework, Faulks paints a tableux of 19th-century life that is remarkably revealing. Epic in scope, this is an imaginative look at the rise of medicine for the mind." Kirkus Reviews
"[An] enjoyable and edifying literary achievement." Library Journal
From the bestselling author of Birdsong comes this masterful novel of love and science in the 19th century.
About the Author
Sebastian Faulks's six previous novels include Birdsong (1993), Charlotte Gray (2000), The Girl at the Lion d'Or (1989), and On Green Dolphin Street (2001). He is also the author of a biographical study, The Fatal Englishman (1996). He lives in London, is married and has two sons and a daughter.
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