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Sun December 9, 2012
Author Interviews

Sebastian Faulks: Searching For The Self In 'Possible' Lives

Originally published on Mon December 10, 2012 5:37 pm

A young intelligence officer during the Second World War survives life in a Nazi concentration camp. A music producer in the 1970s falls in love with a young bohemian singer who breaks his heart. A lonely Italian neuroscientist makes a revolutionary discovery: Humans have no souls. These are some of the stories Sebastian Faulks weaves together in his latest novel, A Possible Life.

"The five parts of the novel connect in certain quite mechanical ways," with occasional characters and locales recurring throughout the stories, Faulks tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "The more important, the more interesting way I see it fitting together is that all the five sections of the novel are variations on a theme."

Though the parts of the story are quite different, Faulks says he'd like readers to think of the book "rather as they might [be] going to hear a symphony, and when you come back out of having heard Mozart's Fifth, I don't think you say, 'I just heard four interesting pieces of music.' "

The book begins with Geoffrey, a clean-cut young Englishman, rather innocent, on the eve of the Second World War. "He's not a very good soldier, gets essentially kicked off his regular infantry position and ends up joining special forces in France, so he's a kind of spy," Faulks says. Taken prisoner, Geoffrey winds up in a concentration camp, where he must deal with the person he's becoming under the terrible circumstances — and the person he becomes after the war.

"The change that takes place in him after a period of years enables him to survive," Faulks continues. "So in this first section of the novel, I'm setting up the idea that the self, and our idea of ourselves as individual human beings, is not quite as clear cut as we think, and that we can become different people in our own lives as they go along."

The stories jump back and forth in time — one even takes place in the near future, in an Italy ravaged by global recession. "The reason this section had to be set in the future is ... I wanted somebody to have discovered what it is about the human brain that makes us human, that gives us this extraordinary gift of self-awareness," Faulks says. But today's technology isn't up to that challenge, "so it had to be set 30 years ago into the future." But Elena, the neuroscientist who cracks the brain's code, discovers that it doesn't make life any easier. "All the normal kind of emotional, romantic, family and daily problems persist."

All of the characters in A Possible Life "struggle with the idea of selfhood, and who they are and identity," Faulks says — though not all of them come at the issue through science, as does Elena. Jeanne, whose story follows Elena's, is an illiterate peasant woman in 1820s France. "She is also very religious, and I must say that these big philosophical questions about death, and who we are, and is the self really something that exists or is it just a delusion, don't really apply so much for people who do have a strong religious faith."

Faulks describes a passage in Jeanne's story where a more educated young man tells her that someday, science will explain how her thoughts work. "And she looks at him and says, 'What on earth would be the point of that?' because to her these are not significant issues." And while it may be tempting to say that Jeanne, with her simple faith, is happier than the young man, Faulks says that's not quite right. "Otherwise we're really saying that everything, all human knowledge and education and things that we've acquired, act against our own interests ... and that's not really true, is it?"

Could all of these characters have had very different lives from the ones Faulks described? He says yes. "You take the path marked A, and you could very easily have taken the path marked B, and you look back and sometimes you regret it, and sometimes you bless your good fortune or your good sense, but certainly we all have within us the potential to live in a hugely different way. And how happy you can make yourself, I think, a lot depends on how much you beat yourself up about that.

"I'm not trying to preach in this book," he adds. "It's a book in which I really hope the reader can come, and they can inhabit the space ... It's me saying, here are five linked pieces of music. It should send you out of the concert hall with tears in your eyes, but feeling, I hope, a little bit uplifted."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A lonely Italian neuroscientist makes a revolutionary discovery - that humans have no soul. A young intelligence officer, in World War II, survives life in a concentration camp. A music producer - in the 1970s - falls in love with a young bohemian singer who breaks his heart. These are some of the characters in Sebastian Faulks' latest novel. It's called "A Possible Life." Sebastian Faulks joins me from the BBC in London. Thanks for being with us.

SEBASTIAN FAULKS: It's a pleasure, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this is called a novel, but it has five distinct stories, with very distinct characters. And everyone who reads the book will, undoubtedly, find their own common threads. But I'm curious - how do you see them fitting together?

FAULKS: Well, the five parts of the novel are variations on a theme. I'd like people to think of it rather as they might, going to hear a symphony. And when you come back out of having heard Mozart's "Fifth," I don't think you say, you know, I just heard four interesting pieces of music. I think you tend to say, I heard one good performance - or possibly, one disappointing performance. And that's the way it's bound together, really; although of course, I accept that the five parts are quite different.

MARTIN: Well, let's analyze the theme by delving into some of the characters. Let's start with Geoffrey.

FAULKS: Geoffrey is a rather clean-cut, quite innocent, young Englishman; and we join him in 1938, and then war breaks out. And he's not a very good soldier. He gets, essentially, kicked off his regular infantry position and ends up joining special forces, in France. So he's a kind of spy - or saboteur, if you like. I'm not going to tell you the whole story. But it ends up that he is taken prisoner, and finds himself not in a regular prisoner of war camp, but in a concentration camp. And so his problem is to try to deal with the person that he becomes, in this appalling place; and also - I have to tell this part of the story, that he does survive - to deal with it after the war, when he's back in England.

And it takes him a long time to come to terms with it. And essentially, what happens is that the change that takes place in him, after a period of years, enables him to survive. So in this first section of the novel, I'm setting up the idea that the self, and our idea of ourselves as individual human beings, is not quite as clear-cut as we think; and that we can become different people in our own lives, as they go along.

MARTIN: Your stories do jump through time. Geoffrey's story unfolds in World War II. The last story, as you mention, takes place in the 1970s. I'd like to talk about the story of Elena. This is the only story about the future - the near future; post-global recession Italy?

FAULKS: That's right. The reason this section had to be set in the future, is that Elena is a neuroscientist - as you mentioned in the introduction. And I wanted somebody to have discovered what it is about the human brain that makes us human; that gives us this extraordinary gift of self-awareness, that means that we're not just the third chimpanzee. But I couldn't set in the present day because we don't have scanners powerful enough to see exactly all the activity in the brain. So it had to be set 30 years or so into the future when, hypothetically, this super-duper scanner will have been invented - which will show exactly what's going on.

Her problem, though, is that having cracked this elusive mystery, having discovered what neuroscientists today call their holy grail - which is what they call the neural substrates of human consciousness; in other words...

MARTIN: The place where our soul lives.

FAULKS: Yes. The ghost in the machine, or whatever you want to call it. Yeah. Her problem is that having discovered it, she finds - and people more or less accept her discovery because it's - you can see it on the screen; she can prove it - but it doesn't necessarily make life any easier. You still have to deal with the fact that you're in love with somebody who's not in love with you, or - all the normal kind of emotional, romantic, family and daily problems persist.

MARTIN: As I read these stories, that idea, there - seem to be something that you could find in the other characters, in the other narratives.

FAULKS: Yes. They all struggle with the idea of selfhood, and who they are, and identity. For instance, the next section of the book is about a Frenchwoman called Jeanne, who's a - sort of illiterate peasant woman, in the early 19th century. And she's also very religious. And I must say that, you know, these big philosophical questions about death and who we are; and is the self really something that exists, or is it just a delusion; don't really apply so much for people who do have a strong religious faith. And at one point, Jeanne - my illiterate French lady, in the early 19th century - is talking to a young man who's more educated than she is. And he says to her, one day someone clever will explain to you exactly how all the thoughts in your mind work. And she looks at him and says, what on earth would be the point of that? (LAUGHTER) Because to her, these are not significant issues.

MARTIN: Who is happier in that conversation - that young man, or Jeanne?

FAULKS: I mean, I think that's a very interesting question, actually. I'm not really sure. It's tempting, of course, to say Jeanne - the ignorant, illiterate person who has a simple faith - but I don't think that's quite good enough. Otherwise, we're really saying that all human knowledge and education, and things that we've acquired, act against our own interests; and only serve to make us unhappy. And that's not really true, is it?

MARTIN: The book is called "A Possible Life"; wondering if there - if you see something specific, in each of these characters' lives, that could have led them down a very different road, that could have revealed a very different life - a choice, a moment, a person.

FAULKS: Yes. I think that's the case with all of us. And you take the path marked A, but you could have very easily taken the path marked B. And you look back and sometimes, you regret it; and sometimes, you bless your good fortune or your good sense. But certainly, we all have within us, the potential to live in a hugely different way. And how happy you can make yourself, I think, a lot depends on how much you beat yourself up about that; and how much you can, in some sort of providential way, console yourself and say, well, it's all worked out for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.

And my own view is - I'm a bit doubtful, really. (LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Hmm.

FAULKS: I'm not trying to preach, in this book. I'm not sticking my finger in your face and saying, this is what I think about life and selfhood, and humanity. It's me saying, here are five, linked pieces of music. It should send you out of the concert hall with tears in your eyes but feeling, I hope, a little bit uplifted.

MARTIN: Sebastian Faulks - his latest novel is called "A Possible Life." He joined us from our studios in London. Mr. Faulks, thanks so much for talking with us.

FAULKS: Thank you, it was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.