Since I’ve been sparse in posting these last weeks, for various (all good) reasons, I thought I’d re-post this look at a Faulkner novel of WWI originally posted in January 2016. More, new, to come
William Faulkner’s literary universe, as we know, was compact and small — Yoknopatawpha County, Mississippi, where all his great works were set. He did step out a few times. His novel, A Fable, was set on the Western Front in France in May of 1918. Though several other WW I themed stories had brought men back to the South, including his first, Soldiers’ Pay (1926), A Fable, with the exception of a long, curious embedded tale of a three legged race horse, takes place in France.
Written in 1954, some twenty-five years after his major early novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929) but with two of the Snopes trilogy still to come, A Fable is not one of his better known, or currently acclaimed novels — though Faulkner is reputed to have considered it his masterpiece. It took him more than ten years to write, with outlines tacked up all over his office walls. At the time of publication some agreed with him as to its worth: he was awarded the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Award for it.
I would be among the first to admit that A Fable is no easy read. Faulkner had had thirty years to hone his intimidating style. Here is a single sentence, with only three colons and two semi-colons.
“Nor did he learn anymore at Corps Headquarters, nor during the next two hours while at top speed now he delivered and exchanged and received dispatches from and to people whom even his travels had never touched before—not to orderly room N.C.O.’s but in person to majors and colonels and sometimes even generals, at transport and artillery parks, with columns of transport and artillery camouflaged beside roads and waiting for darkness to move, at batteries in position and Flying Corps wing offices and forward aerodromes—no longer even wondering now behind that fixed thin grimace which might have been smiling: who had not for nothing been a soldier in France for twenty-one months and an officer for five of them, and so knew what he was looking at when he saw it: the vast cumbrous machinery of war grinding to its clumsy halt in order to reverse itself to grind and rumble in a new direction,—the proprietorless wave of victory exhausted by its own ebb and returned by its own concomitant flux, spent not by its own faded momentum but as though bogged down in the refuse of its own success; afterward, it seemed to him that he had been speeding along those back-area roads for days before he realised what he had been travelling through; he would not even recall afterward at what moment, where, what anonymous voice from a passing lorry or another motorbike or perhaps in some orderly room where he lay one dispatch down in the act of taking up another, which said: ‘The French quit this morning——’ merely riding on, speeding on into the full burst of sun before he realised what he had heard.
On the other hand, there are many short bursts of inspired imagery such as this, describing a Colonel at a Board of Inquiry:
He stopped and sat there, martial and glittering in his red tabs and badges of rank and the chain-wisps symbolising the mail in which the regiment had fought at Crecy and Agincourt seven and eight hundred years ago, with his face above them like death itself.
The Faulknerian themes, familiar from his other novels, or new if this is the first read, are unmistakable:
… people, men and women, dont choose evil and accept it and enter it, but evil chooses the men and women by test and trial, proves and tests them and then accepts them forever until the time comes when they are consumed and empty and at last fail evil because they no longer have anything that evil can want or use; then it destroys them.
Having admitted to its difficulty let me add, that after crawling through the thickets and untangling the subjects, referents, clauses and parenthetical clarifications, the second time through, with characters, plot and time sequences more or less in place, A Fable was as rich and thoughtful as we’ve come to expect from the great Mississippian. James Lee Burke, a popular mystery writer who counts Faulkner as his writerly North Star, is quoted at the end of the Audible reading of A Fable, placing him with Milton and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Keats “the four greatest writers in the history of the English language.”
The bare essence of the fable is this: in May of 1918, the English-British and German lines having been stuck in place for four long years, a regiment of French and English are ordered on an impossible attack. Instead of following orders, some 3,000 rise out of their trenches without guns, without arms raised and walk calmly towards the German lines. Which responds in kind. Fighting all along the front ceases — a “false armistice,” and the Gold Braids on both sides panic: without war, life’s meaning is over. A German General is flown across the lines, through planned false anti-aircraft fire, contrived so as not to signal Entente-Alliance talks. Agreement is reached. New orders to fight are given, and when the men again move forward without fighting, they are shelled, each by their own guns. [The war would not end for another six months.]
Thirteen men who have been proselytizing such an action, moving mysteriously on both sides of the line, are rounded up, betrayed by one of their own, and set up for execution. Their leader, ‘the Corporal” is offered ‘the world’ by the Old General — who also, it turns out, is his father– if he will leave the others and the Western Front. He can proselytize elsewhere, but not there. Refusing, the Corporal is thrown into a cell with two thieves and taken with them to die before the firing squad the next day. The Corporal, tied to a post, falls over backwards and when retreived is found to have barbed wire wrapped around his head.
If this sounds familiar, good for you. If you’re still not sure, there is also a wedding with wine, a curing of the blind, and two sisters, Marya and Martha, who take the body to be buried. It is not presented quite so plainly of course, nor in this order, and there is much more besides: two Entente officers each swearing he had witnessed the death of the Corporal in separate places months before his appearance at the Board of Inquiry; and a most baffling side-story about a three legged horse, money won in races barnstorming through the American South, an Old Negro and his appearance at the Front. Somehow, he’s tied into the Runner, who leads a second unarmed surge over the trenches and is severely wounded, to appear at the State Funeral of the Old General six years later to throw his Medaille Militaire at the coffin, and so end the novel.
Faulkner’s use of Christian themes isn’t so much to make direct analogies as to mine the stories, many of them Christian themed, of his native south. In writing that the Corporal has a wife who was once a prostitute, he is not arguing in favor of one reading of biblical passages about Christ and Mary Magdalene is but re-using a folk-tale in a new story, as story tellers made use of Zeus, Athena and Neptune for centuries; “that’s an interesting bit, I’ll use it.” In fact, the Corporal, buried by his sisters, is retrieved later, by unknowing soldiers and taken to France to be the “Unknown Soldier.”
It is particularly interesting that Faulkner, whose life and writing were tied to questions of manhood, valor, brother rivalry and war, [see Faulkner and War] was attracted to the theme of passive resistance, in a great war, on a massive scale, as the center of his only ‘war’ novel, especially as he was writing it in the years following WW II, the Cold War assembling, when such pacifism was more suspect than ever.
…even ruthless and all powerful and unchallengeable Authority would be impotent before that massed unresisting undemanding passivity. He thought: They could execute only so many of us…
For six thousand years we labored under the delusion that the only way to stop a war was to get together more regiments and battalions than the enemy could, or vice versa, and hurl them upon each other until one lot was destroyed and, the one having nothing left to fight with, the other could stop fighting. We were wrong, because yesterday morning, by simply declining to make an attack, one single French regiment stopped us all.’
Faulkner himself, desperate to test his courage in WW I, but turned down by the recruiters, enlisted in Canada’s Royal Air Force. Though he did not earn his wings before the fighting was over, he masqueraded in Oxford, Mississippi as a returning and battle tested pilot. The Civil War was the background of all his major novels, so why, here, then, did the need to meditate on ending war, occur?
The core of A Fable —a regiment, not refusing to leave the trenches in an attack, but walking peacefully towards the other side– was inspired by real, and widely reported, events in France in the spring of 1917. Dozens of French brigade-sized units mutinied, much more spontaneously and less disciplined than in Faulkner’s telling, motivated in part by disastrous command decisions [the Second Battle of the Aisne] as well as of news of the revolution in Russia. Over 3,000 men were courts martialed and 43 executed by firing squad, much as Faulkner describes.
The point of view of the novel, including from the mouths of senior officers, is very much of the war is stupid variety, no matter how compelling it might be to join in.
…war and drink are the two things man is never too poor to buy. His wife and children may be shoeless; someone will always buy him drink or weapons, thinking More than that. The last person a man planning to set up in the wine trade would approach for a loan, would be a rival wine-dealer. A nation preparing for war can borrow from the very nation it aims to destroy.
‘The boche doesn’t want to destroy us, any more than we would want, could afford, to destroy him. Cant you understand? either of us, without the other, couldn’t exist?
Interesting to any who have ever organized for a cause, is that Faulkner suggests that the “walk-in” into no-man’s land, and response in kind by German soldiers, did not happen spontaneously, or miraculously, but through human communication, persuasion and mutual action; that the thirteen, the Corporal and his twelve followers, had been ‘organizing’ for a year before the event. I, myself, would have given up the story of the three legged horse to read more Faulknerian invention and creation of actual organizing efforts: who talked to how many, what was said, how were joint and mutually dependent action finally arrived at when, as the story even tells us, the chances of betrayal were so high.
My interest in reading Faulkner on war is the same I’ve had in reading dozens of other books of fiction, poetry and history about war, and especially WW I:
What do we talk about when we talk about war?
Very little in The Fable is of battle descriptions or the effects of close fighting or artillery bombardment on the men, no descriptions of gruesome wounds, no battle madness. There is a brief description of a three-plane dog-fight, dodging ‘archie,’ and the tracers whizzing by.
There is a line about a Frenchman murdering a wounded German in order to take his watch. There is attention to and sympathy with the civilians suffering in the war
They had got used to the war now, after four years. In four years, they had even learned how to live with it, beside it; or rather, beneath it as beneath a fact or condition of nature, of physical laws—the privations and deprivations, the terror and the threat like the loom of an arrested tornado or a tidal wave beyond a single frail dyke; the maiming and dying too of husbands and fathers and sweethearts and sons, as though bereavement by war were a simple occupational hazard of marriage and parenthood and childbearing and love.
What we talk about is present, often and clear: the reasons men join the fight, and persist in it when it is hard:
…the impregnable fraternity of valor and endurance.
…the right and the chance to wear on the battle-soiled breast of his coat the battle-grimed symbolical candy-stripes of valor and endurance and fidelity and physical anguish and sacrifice…
A short dialog between a general and his aide repeats and emphasizes:
‘I made women’s clothes. I was good at it. I was going to be better some day. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be brave.’
‘Be what?’ the division commander said.
‘You know: a hero. Instead, I made women’s clothes.
He continues, a mirror to Faulkner himself:
Then I knew what to do. Write … rather than just act out somebody else’s idea of what is brave. Invent myself the glorious deeds and situations, create myself the people brave enough to perform and face and endure them.’
‘And that wouldn’t have been make-believe too?’ the general said.
‘It would have been me that wrote them, invented them, created them.’
The aide, however, has not yet written his book; he is still learning:
‘About being brave. About glory, and how men got it, and how they bore it after they got it, and how other people managed to live with them after they got it; and honor and sacrifice, and the pity and compassion you have to have to be worthy of honor and sacrifice, and the courage it takes to pity, and the pride it takes to deserve the courage——’
There is much of the soldierly cynicism we read elsewhere and the contempt for the high command. When being ordered to lead an attack even though it will fail, a general is promised:
‘There will be a ribbon,’ the corps commander said.
‘I dont have enough rank to get the one they give for failures.’
Several times, the cause of battle, and war itself, is set down not to strategic or defensive necessity but as rank climbing by those who lead.
…the men who, in hopes of being recorded as victorious prime- or cabinet-ministers, furnish men are for this. The men who, in order to become millionaires, supply the guns and shells. The men who, hoping to be addressed someday as Field Marshal or Viscount Plugstreet or Earl of Loos, invent the gambles they call plans. The men who, to win a war, will go out and dig up if possible, invent if necessary, an enemy to fight against.
Faulkner’s own desire to be counted among the brave and engaged is duplicated in the Division Commander, who is fearful that the war will end before he fulfills his early promise.
“…there seemed no limit to his destiny save the premature end of the war itself.
My guess is if you’ve ever picked up A Fable, or might do so, you will be a Faulkner devotee, expecting his dense, exacting prose, or will be someone interested in the fable itself, of mass soldierly refusal of war, and will be willing to work hard for the gem you hope to find.
‘If all of us, the whole battalion, at least one battalion, one unit out of the whole line to start it, to lead the way—leave the rifles and grenades and all behind us in the trench: simply climb barehanded out over the parapet and through the wire and then just walk on barehanded, not with our hands up for surrender but just open to show that we had nothing to hurt, harm anyone; not running, stumbling: just walking forward like free men,—just one of us, one man; suppose just one man, then multiply him by a battalion; suppose a whole battalion of us, who want nothing except just to go home and get themselves clean into clean clothes and work and drink a little beer in the evening and talk and then lie down and sleep and not be afraid. And maybe, just maybe that many Germans who dont want anything more too, or maybe just one German who doesn’t want more than that, to put his or their rifles and grenades down and climb out too with their hands empty too not for surrender.
Let me say, that while my second reading was greatly rewarding, unhappily, I can’t say the same for the reading by Kevin Pariseau in the Audible series. Though he has clear pronunciation and a pleasant baritone voice, his sense of vocal stress and meaning is woefully underdeveloped. The result is a kind of ahrythmia that compounds the difficulty of parsing Faulkner’s thickets of phrase and sentence. After listening to his full reading the real pleasure came in re-reading for myself, still going slowly but this time more fully understanding, and reaping the rewards.
A Fable is also available on Audible.