Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Adventure classics -- Walking away from a war

A Fable

by William Faulkner


There are a bunch of great stories struggling to emerge from William Faulkner’s monumental 1954 anti-war novel, A Fable. There’s the story of a failed French mutiny followed by scapegoat executions. And the story of underhanded political maneuvering to prolong the war. And soldiers who bet their lives (or at least their life insurance) to a shady ex-jockey. Even--my favorite--a nugget of story straight out of Faulkner’s home territory of fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, about that same shady jockey, a black preacher and a stolen three-legged racehorse. Unfortunately, these great stories are swamped by a barrage of allegory and stream of consciousness that, as one reviewer wrote, “results in the reader becoming unconscious.”

But if I’m wild about allegory and stream of consciousness (not to mention amazingly convoluted sentences), why am I reading Faulkner in the first place? Because he’s Faulkner, due a debt of gratitude for at least half a dozen towering novels, for being one of the few U.S. Southern writers of his generation to tackle racial issues, and for language that has influenced the likes of the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who once took his family on a tour of Faulknerian sites.

And because I really wanted a nonsectarian story about World War I for this centennial year of the beginning of the war the world once hoped would end all war. Except that it didn’t, leaving Faulkner, a World War I veteran himself, to begin writing A Fable as the world watched the death struggles of the Battle of the Bulge in the war that followed.

The central incident of A Fable is based loosely on the executions for mutiny of four French soldiers in World War I, whose regiment refused to make a hopeless assault. Another Great War veteran, Humphrey Cobb, used the same incident in his 1935 novel, Paths of Glory (later adapted into the 1957 Stanley Kubrick film of the same name).

In Faulkner’s hands, the alleged ringleaders of the mutiny grow in stature, becoming
avatars of Christ and his disciples, sacrificed to the gods of war. True to his allegorical antecedents, the central mutineer, Corporal Stefan, gathers a band of twelve followers and spends the three years of war prior to the mutiny proselytizing not only Allied soldiers, but the German troops they face across the trenches. When the corporal’s French regiment refuses to fight, their enemies also stop. The mutiny spreads up and down the lines as British and American troops also stop fighting, joined sympathetically by the Germans. For one shining May afternoon in 1918, the war ceases.

But not for long. “We did it,” the generals rejoice as conflict resumes. “No barrage by us or vice versa to prevent an enemy running over us with bayonets and hand grenades or vice versa, but a barrage by both of We to prevent naked and weaponless hand touching opposite naked and weaponless hand. . . Not only you and I and our tight close jealous unchallengeable hierarchy behind this wire and our opposite German one behind that one, but more. . . .”

(That last sentence is only a fragment of the actual Faulkner version. And about that stolen racehorse story? Sorry, you’ll have to dig that one out on your own. Flip about a third of the way through A Fable to begin the excavation.)

For a more gracious assessment, I enjoyed the discussion at Entry 24: “A Fable” by William Faulkner (1955) at “The Pulitzer Blog,”  And for a recent and approachable novel about the aftermath of a British execution in World War I, I highly recommend Elizabeth Speller’s The Return of Captain John Emmett.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics concludes a May of historical fiction with Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk.)

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