The field of psychology is less than 200 years old; its beginnings were crude, its pioneers filled with an unshakably spunky Enlightenment optimism, its conclusions often laughably naïve. And Freud is only the half of it; the 1850s and on were brimming with far-fetched theories using techniques and principles only marginally more sophisticated than their phrenology predecessors. But it’d be too easy to scoff and shrug that history away for a field so young, lest we forget how far we’ve come and how terribly far we have to go. And, as most of this history is European, American readers hear little of it anyway. Sebastian Faulks has painted a portrait not just of this period of intellectual history, but also of the lives of the men and women in it. As a portrait, it’s both honest and humane. Regrettably it also feels twice as long as it needs to be and in some cases has little more dramatic intensity than the stuffy, Freudian case studies it parodies.
The novel’s genteel, leisurely style effectively culls up Europe’s mid- to late-1800s in all its Old World splendor and philosophic assuredness in science and progress—right before the continent went to hell in the First World War. You can’t fault Faulks for his lack of detail as he all too extensively reports on the minutiae of the era. Almost no dinner goes by without a list of what’s on the menu (behold the horrors and wonders of British cooking!), no matter how little impact on the narrative it has. Considering the scope of the novel, which tells the stories of 16-year-old Thomas and Jacques from the birth of their friendship to their reconciliation in old age, one can understand why the book is as long as it is.
That doesn’t mean it needs to be. Human Traces is structured like a biography, reporting rather than crafting the main and minor events of its slew of characters. While each of the general phases of the characters’ lives is important to their development, the same isn’t always the case for the individual events. Faulks is content to plod through the many mundane chapters of his characters’ lives, and while this is easy reading, it feels excessive. Too much time is devoted to the construction of a tramway which would allow the ill to ride up a mountain to a sanatorium—this is not information we need to know.
Perhaps the greatest downside of this storytelling style is how it can downplay the more interesting episodes. While Thomas’s adolescence and early career as the son of a wealthy British gentleman wrapped in privilege unsurprisingly pulls no punches, the same shouldn’t be the case for Jacques: an impoverished French boy whose broken home includes a paranoid-schizophrenic older brother and a mother who died in childbirth. Yet the story of his rise to the intellectual challenge of becoming a full-time student emerging from the peasant poorhouse should be an emotional one. The always at-ease narration is content to merely report this story, sucking it dry of power and making it as unremarkable as high tea with Thomas’s family. It takes Faulks almost the entire novel before he starts peppering his slice-of-life tale with some real drama—and to his credit, it’s good drama. The reader may wonder where this more aggressive storytelling was for the rest of the book, which moseys at best.
This is not to say the book is bad. Fans of that period of literature may be more accommodating if they have a high tolerance for tedium. It is in ideas that Faulks rescues himself. Human Traces is first an accurate piece of the social history of psychology and psychiatry, doing well to summon the Freudian mood while—thank God!—not summoning Sigmund’s ghost. As Faulks points out, there was a whole intellectual world outside Freud’s Vienna parlor, and we would do well to learn about it. Jacques studies under Jean-Martin Charcot, an influence of Freud’s who delivers multiple lectures on hysteria in the book. These lectures and other academic papers, while penned by Faulks, are true to their spirit. Jacques’s study “Fraulein Katharina von A.” is an obvious send-up of Freud’s “Fraulein Elizabeth von R.,” matching form, content, style, and outlandish conclusions. Both even quote Charcot’s term of the “belle indefferance of the hysteric.” Unfortunately, these papers and lectures—as dry as the pieces from which they draw inspiration—are transcribed unabridged and contribute to the novel’s excessive length. Yet when coupled with Faulks’s detailed descriptions of the social and academic worlds of psychiatry, they paint an excellent portrait of the period.
Human Traces also poses the still-baffling question about the relationship between the mind and the body. While giving no final answer, the novel explores the consequences of the debate for psychological disorders—both for the earnest desire to heal the sick and the academic wish to map out human consciousness. Thomas and Jacques stumble boldly through these issues, and though both their theories are thoroughly discounted as ridiculous, the novel seems to remain hopeful that some day we may find the answers we seek.
What is most impressive about Human Traces isn’t a matter of psychology. The characters age naturally, and the novel relates each of their life stages faithfully in an uncommon instance of the narrative moving beyond reporting into the realm of real feeling. As their careers as psychiatrists draw to a close, Jacques and Thomas must come to terms that, while they have built a successful mental hospital and become wealthy in the process, they have predictably enough failed to form a complete theory of human consciousness, their stated goal from their first meeting when still in college. They are forced to suffer the doubts of whether they were successful at all, or if they just settled into the comfortable role of the armchair doctors diagnosing, prescribing medicines, and deeming incurable patients they once so doggedly set out to heal. Their reactions to these doubts, and the ways in which they go about trying to redeem themselves, provide the most fascinating reading of the novel, nothing less than a meditation on ending one’s life work and coming to terms with the youthful ambitions one has failed to achieve. All the characters’ lives seem to be building up to this moment, which is when they feel most alive. Their friendship, which for the bulk of the novel lives up to the highest of platonic ideals, is also heavily—finally—shaken as well, proving they are indeed human beings. This surprising ending is a smell gem in this book, and can be found along with several others, so long as one has the patience to plumb the tedium of the rest of it.