snow country

BOOKS: The Lessons of History in Snow Country

“Is he going to survive?” asks the nurse caring for Anton Heideck, an Austrian soldier injured in battle during the First World War. His body lies in a field hospital tent where, by the light of a kerosene lamp, the surgeon opens Anton up and removes the shrapnel lodged in his chest. “Of course he is,” the doctor responds as they close him up: “Poor soul” – portentous words that open Snow Country, Sebastian Faulks’s ambitious new novel about love and consciousness in an age of uncertainty and clashing historical forces.

In spite of its bloody battlefield opening, Snow Country owes less to Faulks’s acclaimed and widely-read war novel Birdsong than it does to the Englishman’s 2005 work, Human Traces. In this novel of ideas, psychiatrists Jacques Rebière and Thomas Midwinter found a sanatorium at Schloss Seeblick, in Carinthia. Their evolving, divergent approaches to mental illness track the arguments taking place within the worlds of psychiatry and psychoanalysis at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

“I have always wanted to return to this territory, and Snow Country revisits the sanatorium that Thomas and Jacques set up in the high days of hope,” Faulks wrote in the Guardian following the novel’s publication. “But now it is 1934 and the world faces fresh challenges. There are new characters and different stories to tell.”

Winds of Change

Those stories include that of Anton, the son of a butcher from Styria who, in the autumn of 1906, moves to Vienna where he hopes to become a journalist. Teaching to make ends meet, he encounters and falls in love with the enchanting Delphine, whom he loses again as the war looms: “He had reconciled himself, he thought, to the fact that she was dead. Nothing else could explain her vanishing.”

Meanwhile, in Carinthia, Lena is born to a poor single mother living from drink to drink, reliant on the church’s benevolence. Years later, after breaking off her education, Lena moves to Vienna. Initially, she finds shop work, but sent spinning by a failed romantic relationship, she too falls to drink, and then prostitution. She retreats to Carinthia, where she takes up a post at the sanatorium Schloss Seeblick. In 1933, Anton shows up at the Schloss, tasked to write about the institution and why doctors once used Freud’s short stories to treat the mentally ill. To himself and his readers, Anton poses the question: “What on earth could have possessed them to believe that?”

Faulks paints upon an enormous canvas. Anton is in Panama for the opening of the Canal, Paris in the autumn of 1914, and Vienna as civil war breaks out in 1934. His visit to Schloss Seeblick reveals Austrian psychiatry at a crossroads with less certainty in the old ways that ruled the sanatorium in the time of founders Rebière and Midwinter. Anton is “seduced” by the Schloss and its “possibilities for change,” but at the same time sees its history and methods as an overreach, “a doomed attempt to see into the mind of God.” It is to Faulks’s credit that the novel does not feel didactic. The episodic format and formality of his prose suits the historical novel and creates a juxtaposition with the age of chaos he brings to life.

Snow Country is about how human bonds are shaped by historical forces. But it is also about how individuals react to those forces. When confronted with the enormity of the Panama Canal, of this feat of industrialization and man reshaping nature, Anton recognizes his own smallness, while Lena’s first love, Rudolf, throws himself into history, meeting his end under fire in the Karl-Marx-Hof. “It can take you all your life to see yourself as what you are,” says Lena. Snow Country asks  – and at least partly answers – what history shows us about ourselves.

Sebastian Faulks, Snow Country, Hutchinson, September 2021, pp 368, €23.58