Saturday, October 26, 2019


“Where My Heart Used to Beat” by Sebastian Faulks is the story of a deeply wounded man, one Dr. Robert Hendricks. It is narrated in the first person, by himself—which makes it personal, direct, and often painful. His wounds are both physical—from friendly fire, in World War II—and emotional. The man is, frankly, hard to like because he seems passive, alienated, lacking in the initiative and drive we expect in the hero of a novel. If we follow his story it is because of the vulnerability that can’t help but seep past the edges of the invulnerable armor he has built up around himself. If I like him, me, personally, it is because we share some fundamental things in common.

Like me, the fictional Hendricks was brought up in an English country village and like me—though for very different reasons—he grew up deprived of the nurturing warmth of a family hearth. His father’s early death in the First World War is a mystery, to himself and us, until the very end; and then, when we learn about it, shocking. The absence of his father in his early years is perhaps the deepest of his wounds. His mother is remote, peculiar, perhaps mad. He is sent away to board with a demanding schoolmaster; his education is in the classical, Latin and Greek, rap-on-the-knuckles tradition. Like me, he was a lonely boy, cut off as much from himself as from other children, who learned to protect himself from hurt by living in his head at the cost of his heart. As the title suggests, Robert’s story is the largely failing search for this elusive but essential organ.

He finds it—briefly—in the chaos of war. Faulk describes the horror and confusion of the battlefield in dreadful, utterly convincing, you-were-there detail, first in North Africa, then at the costly Anzio beachhead in Italy. During a lull in battle, our protagonist meets a young Italian woman, Luisa, and falls in love with her. He catches a tantalizing glimpse of his missing heart in their improbable, doomed love affair—which ends in sudden, heart-breaking betrayal. Another wound.

After the war, he turns—no surprise, perhaps—to medicine and psychiatry, with a brilliant brain but one that is disconnected from heart, body, and soul. It’s a matter of “physician, heal thyself.” But along with the absent heart and emasculated by his emotional wounds, he is ill-equipped to diagnose and treat them for himself. A seemingly attractive man, he can relate to women only on a professional basis or as paid sexual providers, and eventually rejects even offers of casual, readily available sex. He becomes a man in search not only of his heart but of his elusive manhood—emotional as well as sexual, as if the two weren’t one. He had become, in his own words, “the man who had cauterized his own wounds by insisting that love was a neural malfunction and a category error”—a misdiagnosed psychological and physiological addiction.

There is a teasing, overarching plot that involves an aging, soon to be dying psychiatrist who lures Hendricks to a remote island in the Mediterranean with promises of information about his dead father—information which his host soon proves singularly loath to supply. Hendricks’s occasional visits there, earning grudging snippets of history offered over years before the final revelation that leads him to a connection with his lost father, provide the opportunity for the wide-ranging, thought-provoking discussions of memory and madness, delusion and truth, that form the often engrossing intellectual core of the book.

Does our hero ever find the integration of mind and body, heart and soul that he at once resists and seeks, despite the fears that stand in his way? It’s debatable. Does he find love again? Does he find redemption. In a way. Well, in several ways. Though the book was published some years ago, I’m reluctant to act the spoiler, but I’ll confess I wish the author had found more gratifying ways to salve his hero’s lasting wounds. I ended up wanting a more enduring and convincing healing for a man whose suffering I had shared as he told his story.

I have come to believe that the struggle to achieve true manhood is one that many, if not most men experience. Some never get there. We look around in the world today and find many, even those in positions of power and influence, who mistake vain displays of strength for manliness, who bully and bluster out of fear of seeming weak, unmanly. As I see it, “Where My Heart Used to Beat” is the brave, uncompromising study of a man whose thinking brain denies him access to his wounded heart and leaves him impotent in the face of life’s vicissitudes.

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