where my heart used to beat, by Sebastian Faulks

by Robert A. Parker

This is an unusual novel, an ambitious one, a deep one, and almost a successful one. It is Faulks apparently summing up through a fictional story the world of the 20th century, a world he has lived in, has not fully understood, and whose meaning he is searching for here.

His hero seems to be a stand-in for the author. He is Robert Hendricks, a psychiatrist who seeks in the workings of the mind the meaning of the life he has lived. How the mind does work is an obvious interest of the author, for his most successful novel in my eyes was Human Traces, in which two doctors seek to learn how the mind works. One doctor sees a link between the physical brain and the mind, and seeks a physical means to cure the insane. While his colleague believes that insanity is inherent in the mind, and is the price mankind pays for being human. Both these theories are reflected in this story of Hendricks, a man who suffered both trauma and love during World War II, and who is haunted by the death of his father in World War I. Overall, one concludes that Faulks sees in the human mind a source to understanding the tumultuous century he, and we, have lived through.

Another theme that weighs heavily in Faulks’ major works is the impact of two World Wars. It is again present here. Robert Hendricks’ father, we learn, died in the horrors of trench warfare in 1918, while the son was shaken by the battlefront deaths he encountered in France, in Tunisia, and in the climactic battle at Anzio during World War II. Indeed, Robert has come away with a version of today’s post traumatic stress syndrome. For, even as he makes a career studying the mind and treating other people, he cannot resolve his own mental issues. Which is primarily reflected in his problems connecting to others, particularly to women.

Gradually, we learn, however, that he did have one great love, a beautiful Italian woman named Luisa, whom he met while recuperating from a war wound in Italy; and he lived with her for a few blissful months. But while their love was not to be, not least due to his own reticence, yet his memory of her has meant a subsequent failure at making a connection with any other woman.

And so this novel is less about the horror of war, as powerful as the war scenes may be. It is about human connections, and the search to give meaning to one’s life. Which this one man is seeking, but also, one thinks, the author as well. In any event, Robert receives a letter from a dying Frenchman, Alexander Pereira, who served with his father in World War I and who invites Robert for a visit to southern France to tell him more about the fate of his father. Our hero accepts this invitation, but resists knowing about his father’s death. In some way, he seems to fear that by learning how his father died he may become more disillusioned about the world they have both lived in. The reader, on the other hand, continues on, hoping to understand Robert’s approach to life, as well as to see his own world with a broader perspective.

And so this work takes on another level, its true subject: the meaning of life in this 20th century. In addition to Robert’s wartime experiences and his attempt to establish his professional reputation after the war, we therefore follow him as he travels back and forth to southern France to learn about his father and the first World War, and perhaps more about himself. Meanwhile, he explores his own thesis in a book, The Chosen Few, his subject being those who are insane. He seems to say in this book that doctors often ignore the patient’s physical illness and push their own theory of how the mind works, even as, given the events of the 20th century, “humans had tried to remake the world in their own insane image.”

Robert’s book reveals to him that he yearns for the innocence of life that existed before World War I. And the reader understands that he is dissatisfied with his book because such innocence has vanished in the wake of two World Wars. And that his search for that innocence in love will never be fulfilled, for he missed his only chance at it—because of a blend of his own reticence and the trauma of losing so many friends in the bloody Italian campaign. Which, as noted, became the key to his life, sealing him off from making a connection with other human beings.

As these various narratives intermingle, the novel advances our understanding of Robert’s life and heightens our interest in learning whether or not he will finally understand the meaning of this century and the life he has lived. The novel’s conclusion is a rather negative one, for it describes a heartless modern world that leaves men with no route to understanding life.

Instead, Robert learns the truth of his father’s death; and that connection with his origins stands in for the connections he has been unable to make with others since the trauma of the war. It is a satisfying ending in literary terms, as it seems to say: like father, like son. Both are disillusioned. But it is not satisfying in human terms. For it leaves them both with a sense of emptiness as they face the reality they live in.

One guesses that this will be the last major novel that Faulks attempts. Unless, like his hero here, he thinks he has failed to capture the true meaning of life in the 20th century, and man’s role in its decline. For he sees it as a world that, despite the marvels of new knowledge and new technology, seems headed toward failure, a failure to find a world “where my heart used to beat.”

Perhaps the major miscalculation Faulks has made here is with his hero, Robert Hendricks. Yes, he has been traumatized by the horror of war, and is haunted by the lack of information about his father. But he is too passive, beginning with his one great love affair and continuing after the war as he loses any connection with his wartime buddies and is unable to make any emotional connection with the women he encounters. Moreover, he lives too much within his own mind, searching for an intellectual answer to the emptiness he feels around him. Yet it is an emptiness that he himself is the cause of. In sum, Faulks have given us too much of an intellectual hero, and not enough of an emotional one. (August, 2017)

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