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Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

Human Traces (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Sebastian Faulks

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1,031288,214 (3.34)32
Title:Human Traces
Authors:Sebastian Faulks
Info:Vintage (2006), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 618 pages
Collections:Your library, To read
Tags:Fiction, Mooched

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Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks (2005)

  1. 00
    The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (hilge)
    hilge: Philosophy, psychology, and sanatorium are key features in both books. Which are both really nice and long in the very best sense.

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Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
Two men, one French, one English, at the start of the discovery of psychoanalysis, psychiatry and mental health. Their two wives, their children, their journey across Europe, from the start of humanity to the cusp of modernity. Faulks writes about such interesting themes; he has an interested mind that is capable of collecting and digesting enormous amounts of detail and recycling it as fiction; of shocking us with the basic and the crude and delighting us with the seashore and the revelatory. I just wish that I found his writing style a touch more compelling. The sheer amount of effort, of artifice, of planning, of execution that has gone into this monolith of a book really needs to be leavened by some more lightness of touch, some personality, some more writing that would make the pages sing rahter than plod.
  otterley | May 22, 2016 |
This very satisfying novel chronicles the life-long relationship of Jacques Rebiére and Thomas Midwinter, two men in the early vanguard of psychiatry and psychology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rebiére and Thomas Midwinter met as boys when Thomas vacationed in Breton near where Jacques lived. Both were intellectually curious and scientifically minded. Jacques’s interest in the human mind was triggered by his older brother, Olivier, who as a young adult was committed to an asylum following a psychotic breakdown. Thomas was drawn to literature, particularly Shakespeare, as a means to examine the human condition. Thomas’s sister Sonia will play a large role in the story as explained later.

The boys developed a deep bond from their shared interest in science. They vowed they would someday partner in a practice of medicine focusing on mental illness. Sonia in an arranged marriage with Richard Prendergast experienced an unhappy life with the vain and failed Richard. They divorced under a deal with Sonia’s father in which he essentially pays Richard to set her free from the marriage.

As they grew into adulthood Jacques and Thomas completed their studies in London and Paris. Thomas took a job as a junior doctor in a large asylum where his dream to help the profoundly ill patients was soon dashed by the dearth of anything that medicine could offer the inmates. Thomas realized the only course of any worth was kind sympathy to their suffering. Jacques studies in Paris where he is particularly interested in the neurological causes of mental disorders, a focus then in vogue.

Jacques visited Thomas at the Midwinter’s country home. Jacques and Sonia fall immediately in love and, when he has finished his studies, they marry. The couple and Thomas move to Paris where the men opened a fledgling practice, treating mostly well-to-do neurotic patients.

Their dream of a clinic is realized when they find a schloss in Austria that they open as a clinic where they treat mostly patients with mild disorders. They devote a portion of their practice to the chronically and severely mentally ill and they bring Olivier from the asylum in France to their hospital.

An attractive young Viennese woman experiencing various symptoms arrives at the clinic. Jacques examines Katharina and concludes that her physical symptoms are manifestations of repressed traumatic memories. Jacques had become enamored with the emerging field of psychoanalysis. Despite her denial of past life traumatic events he determines to treat her using psychoanalytic therapies. He shares her case history with Thomas who is shocked by the descriptions of her symptoms and rushes her to the local hospital where she undergoes emergency surgery for large ovarian cysts. He writes a scathing rebuttal to Jacques’s mistaken conclusions, but does not give it to him. Jacques is aware that he has misdiagnosed Katharina and this creates tension between he and Thomas that will ripen over the ensuring years. The differences of views they hold on the value of psychoanalysis clouds their friendship.

Katharina and Thomas fall in love and marry. Despite the misdiagnosis that nearly cost her her life she remains gracious to Jacques and forms a deep bond with Sonia. Sonia gave birth to Daniel after several miscarriages and Katharina to twin girls.

The lease on the schloss is set to expire and they locate an estate high on a mountain. Jacques takes a sabbatical to visit California where he tours a sanitarium and spa located above Pasadena accessed by a cable-cog railway tram, a means of conveyance ideal for their new clinic. While in California he met Roya, a mysterious Russian beauty of noble descent. (Thomas had met Roya years earlier while traveling as a personal physician to a wealthy patron.)

Returning to Austria the partners commence work on their lofty hospital. Thomas futilely treats Olivier whose insanity is intractable. While at the construction site Olivier responding to voices throws himself to his death from a precipice. Olivier’s condition has sparked an idea that Thomas will explore further – that the psychotic mind is a product of the evolution of the human mind closely related to the creativity and imagination inherent in human thinking. Darwin’s theory of evolution, now about thirty-years old has captivated Thomas.

From a chance encounter with an amateur paleontologist Thomas takes a sabbatical to safari in Africa in search of primal human fossils. It is there that Thomas concludes that the evolution of man is the key to understanding modern human intellect. Leaving the main party to return to Europe Thomas has a near death experience when his party becomes lost.

Back in Austria the clinic is a success. While at a society event, Jacques encounters Roya who has settled in the area with a rich husband (a little too much coincidence here). He is deeply attracted to her and they begin an affair, although he remained loyal to Sonia.

Thomas unlike Jacque had not published a professional paper. Drawing on this ruminations about the origins of schizophrenia (as it has become called) as the result of natural selection gone slightly awry he prepares a treatise on his conclusions. He noted that despite being massively dysfunctional the malady continues to persist in humans; it did not die out as non-sustaining traits would usually do. As the condition is distributed evenly across the world its genesis must have occurred before the human diaspora many millennial ago. Thomas gave a lengthy talk on his conception during which he explicitly critiqued the psychoanalytic school gaining adherents at the time. His speech was not well-received, particularly by Jacques who viewed it as a slap at him. Their rift opened further and deeper.

Thomas and Jacques ultimately decide to dissolve their partnership. Jacques’s and Sonia’s son Daniel has grown to manhood and enlists in the war where he is killed in Italy. Jacques grieves deeply and in desperation visits a medium whose cruel phoniness in summoning spirits shames and insults him. Thomas starts a practice in London, but begins to experience the onset of the disease now known as Alzheimer’s dementia. The two men emotionally wish each other good bye.

Faulk’s work is well-constructed and quite riveting. I thought the periodic reappearance of Roya was a bit contrived and unnecessary to the plot. What was most impressive was how Faulks described the emerging trends in psychiatry while avoiding anachronisms of advances that occurred after the period. The shifting bonds of friendship between the men and their families were a major theme of the novel.

I found the particularly interesting the description of the asylum where Thomas worked as a young doctor. I started my professional career in the mid-1970’s as an administrator in such an asylum in upstate New York. This was near the end of the era of large psychiatric institutions. The main building on the sprawling grounds was built in 1840. On the ground floor as you entered you first encountered the so-called “show wards”. These had the ambience of a graceful, sedate old person’s home. But further on, seldom visited by anyone, were the “back wards” where the most chronic affected and deeply disabled were housed. Although the introduction of psychotropic drugs two decades earlier had drastically reduced the population of severely mentally ill persons by this time, the residual patients with the most intractable illness remained. I recall the notion of providing a “therapeutic milieu” in the hospital, which, as in Thomas’s time, involved treating people with kindness and decency. Active treatment was limited to large doses of medication that had little effect other than to tranquilize. I directed a project called “humanization” (what a terrible term!) that involvement providing privacy and a bit less sterile environment for the residents.

That era is over. By the late 1990’s the hospital of 2,800 individuals was closed, along with a neighboring facility of over 3,000. One would like to think that this was the result of miraculous advances in treatment efficacious, but the record here is certainly not stellar. ( )
  stevesmits | Mar 3, 2016 |
This book is an intensive read. Tracing the history of psychology with the lives of two men who try to understand what makes us human. They explore the ideas of the mind and evolution to seek cures for psychiatric illnesses which are just beginning to be categorised from the collective term of 'mad'. The lives of the two men are intertwined with both their ideas, enthusiasm and their families.

( )
  greatbookescapes | Nov 20, 2014 |
This book is an intensive read. Tracing the history of psychology with the lives of two men who try to understand what makes us human. They explore the ideas of the mind and evolution to seek cures for psychiatric illnesses which are just beginning to be categorised from the collective term of 'mad'. The lives of the two men are intertwined with both their ideas, enthusiasm and their families.

( )
  greatbookescapes | Nov 20, 2014 |
This isn't a book you can dip in and out of, it requires some serious attention. But that's not to say it doesn't reward you for spending the time on it. There are passages that are a delight to read, capturing perfectly the emotional peaks and troughs of being human. The text is somewhat technical, with lots of discussion of psychology, physiology, neurology and the like. A glossary would have helped, I feel. There is something of that nature, but it appears at about page 175, by which time you've already got a little confused.

Tells the story of a lifetime of effort with the aspiration to cure the insane. Two young men meet in France in 1870s, from very different backgrounds and groundings, but both unite in their goal. Jaques is from a French peasant family and is inspired by science - and trying to bring his brother back from his own personal hell. Thomas is from a well to do English family and has gravitated to trying to discover the secrets of madness from discovering the depictions of madness in literature. And there you have the two opposing approaches to finding the soul - is it a physical thing, or a thing of poetry and something too will-o-the-wisp to pin down.

The book follows these two boys from their youth to their old age as they try, from different points and with differing degrees of success, to cure the insane. It's an impossible task, and the book ends with one of them succumbing to one of the diseases they've been involved in looking for. There are touches of brilliance, Jaques declaring his love makes the heart leap with pleasure, the case of Kitty has you fearing for their future, while one of them describing his imminent dementia was heart breaking. It was shortly followed by what I'd call a "Wonderful Life" scenario - while they may not have achieved what they set out to do, they haven't found a cure for madness, they have achieved something that is overlooked, but vitally important - they've made the lives of many people better - and that can't be considered insignificant.

It is a bit long and the technical language can get pretty dense, but it is worth persisting with. The idea of what is it that makes us human is a question that we still don't have an answer and the surmise that madness is the evolutionary accompaniment of madness is an attractive one (for those that don't fall unlucky in the genetic lottery). This certainly makes you think, not only about the big questions of what it is to be human, but about the emotions that each human undergoes through a lifetime. There is something very beautiful in this book. ( )
1 vote Helenliz | Apr 1, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0099458268, Paperback)

What is it to be human? This question, as in Birdsong, is at the heart of Human Traces.

The story begins in Brittany where a young, poor boy somehow passes his medical exams and goes to Paris, where he attends the lectures of Charcot, the Parisian neurologist who set the world on its head in the 1870s. With a friend, he sets up a clinic in the mysterious mountain district of Carinthia in south-east Austria.

If The Girl at the Lion d’Or was a simple three-movement symphony, Birdsong an opera, Charlotte Gray a complex four-movement symphony and On Green Dolphin Street a concerto, then Human Traces is a Wagnerian grand opera.

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:42 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Sharing its central theme of what it means to be human with 'Birdsong', this is the story of a young man who, after attending medical school, decides to set up a clinic in the mysterious Carinthian mountains in south-east Austria.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 7 descriptions

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