Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Entry 24: "A Fable" by William Faulkner (1955)
That's how my brain feels right now.
I struggled all the way through this book and I'm even finding it difficult coming up with the words to describe the experience reading it. The story is a good one, but is drowned in an ocean of language and stream and consciousness narrative and intentional ambiguity and paragraphs that last for pages and sentences that stretch over two or more pages with excessive commas, semicolons, and M-dashes to the point of the reader throwing the book against the wall in a fit of rage and in hopes of the book exploding in a flurry of pages flying everywhere, hitting themselves repetitively over the head with it until they pass out if the book's dizzying effect hasn't made them pass out on its own. *deep breath*
I like how one reviewer from Amazon put it: "...his stream of consciousness writing results in the reader becoming unconscious." That sums it up quite nicely.
Of course, this is all true to form for William Faulkner—very familiar territory. Faulkner, one of the most esteemed, prolific, and influential American writers of the 20th century, has oft been cited as the American Shakespeare (don't ask me by whom), but I'd like to offer that Faulkner is more like the American James Joyce. I've read quite a bit of Joyce, like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and even all of Ulysses, and Faulkner's novels The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and A Fable, apparently, prove themselves to be prototypical of the Joycean stylings. William Faulkner's novels are never for everyone, and that may be doubly true of A Fable. This novel is Faulkner being Faulkner at his most brilliant and complicated.
And, of course, I just had to pick the book that Faulkner lets his Faulkner flag in all of its complicated, convoluted glory to read in one day.
Based on all of the other reviews I read of this book, A Fable is apparently Faulkner's densest work. I even read another Pulitzer reader's blog—a reader whose goal was to read all of the Pulitzers in five years—and he admitted that A Fable is the novel that almost sunk him; he almost gave up the project entirely because of William Faulkner, and he had only gotten halfway through his journey! Another reviewer stated that he once did a comprehensive study of William Faulkner's work, and, while most of his novels took him about a week to finish, A Fable took him nearly a year of reading and re-reading.
I, on the other hand, committed myself to starting and finishing this book in one day. Because I'm an idiot.
Now, even though I managed to, somehow, do it, and even managed to, again, somehow, at least comprehend the main story, I will admit that I didn't devote to this novel nearly the attention it commands from its reader. In fact, as I described it to my friends at work (yes, I did go to Peet's on my day off just to read) while I was reading it, it seemed like so much less of a novel, and more like a psychological challenge—it was as if Faulkner didn't invite me into his home to tell me a story, so much as he dared me to follow him on a winding, unbeaten path in a dark, scary forest. A better analogy, I guess, is that he dared me to follow him into an unlit, underground tunnel; but the good news is that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
Just like Joyce (with his Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, most notably), Faulkner really makes you earn his endings. It's an epic struggle making your way toward the light at the end of the tunnel, but it's well worth the struggle when you step into the sunlight. Just like most of his novels, a lot of the narrative in the beginning and middle don't really come together until the very end of the novel, sometimes not even until the last few pages. Unfortunately, because I wasn't giving A Fable the time it deserved, I didn't pick up on all of the little nuances that make a Faulkner novel a Faulkner novel—this is my own fault, but, when this Pulitzer Project is over and done with, you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll be revisiting this one with a pen and journal to take notes.
Unlike some of the other novels I've read along this journey, A Fable is not at all one that can be read passively. It takes a lot of focus, concentration, and even willpower to forge your way
The other thing that surprised me about this novel (besides how incredibly dense it was) was that it isn't set in Yoknapatawpha—the fictional county that Faulkner sets a lot of his works in. More surprisingly, this novel wasn't set in the American South, nor even America at all (though there is one flashback scene that does take place in the South)! Rather, it was an anti-war novel set in France during World War I.
On the surface, it is the story of a French corporal and twelve of his officers who "corrupt" a brigade of 3,000 soldiers into not attacking the enemy, rather, staying in their trench and not fighting at all—this mutiny, as it is declared, eventually leads to their being court marshaled and, ultimately, executed. The anti-war sentiments of this novel are displayed, not in the mutiny, but in the Germans' reaction to the mutiny—rather than charging the lines and obliterating the French mutineers, they lay down their arms and stay in their trenches as well. This bizarre event leads to the end of the war after four years of bloodshed and horror. Of course, the thing Faulkner is saying here is, "If there were no armies, there would be no war; and if there were no war, there would be no senseless killing."
However, as the title, A Fable, indicates, this novel is so much more than your everyday anti-war novel. In fact, it's a really thinly disguised allegory. The corporal and twelve officers (by no means an arbitrary number) who protested fighting by performing a "sit in," as it were, and were court marshaled, arrested, and executed are actually metaphorical for Jesus, his disciples, and the passion of the Christ—a man who died for the sins of society, and not for anything he did or didn't do. Faulkner even takes this metaphor down to every jot and tittle during the execution scene: Jesus was arrested, the corporal was arrested; Jesus was marched through the streets of Jerusalem, the corporal was marched through the streets of France; Jesus was spat at and mocked by onlookers, the corporal suffered the same; Jesus was nailed to a wooden cross, the corporal was tied to a wooden post; Jesus wore a crown of thorns, the corporal's head got wrapped in barbed wire; and Jesus was crucified between two thieves, the corporal was executed between two officers.
And, in the end, Faulkner leaves the reader with mixed reactions; on the one hand, it is an anti-war novel as it celebrates pacifism. However, the novel is sprinkled with quotes like this one that make it difficult to gauge what Faulkner is really saying: "Isn't the war over?" one of the men said. "The sergeant-major turned almost savagely. "But not the army," he said. "How do you expect peace to put an end to an army when even war can't?" Then, right before the corporal is executed, the Generalissimo tries to convince him that war can never be stopped because it is the essence of humanity (this, of course, is metaphorical of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness).
I'll be honest—I was actually really disappointed with this one; but, again, that's mostly of my own doing. Rather than devoting the time and energy the novel deserved, I went with my foolhardy decision to read an entire novel in one day. This practice is probably unhealthy for any of the novels I'll be reading along this journey, but it was especially true of this one. I probably couldn't even properly read this novel in one week, let alone one day.
However, and this was the most disappointing aspect for me, the only reason I chose to read Faulkner in the first place was because Josephine Johnson and Shirley Anne Grau had put me in the mood for Southern Gothic literature—I was so enchanted by their novels that I wasn't completely prepared to leave that place. So, knowing that Faulkner was one of the most prolific of Southern Gothic novelists, I chose to read his first Pulitzer-winner. As you can imagine, after about ten or so pages, about the point when I realized that this novel was going to be solely about World War I, I was pretty disappointed.
Even more frustratingly, I chose what will probably prove itself to be one of the most intellectually challenging novels to read of all the Pulitzers, and I chose to read it in one day—my day off. I set out thinking that today was going to be a great day to kick back with a Pulitzer and relax. Instead, it turned out to be an altogether too grueling battle between Faulkner's prose and me that left me irritable, on edge, and mentally exhausted. My mind was so brutally pummeled by A Fable, that it actually led to a headache that spread throughout my body, infecting every muscle, joint, and sinew. I had to take hour-long breaks from it just to recuperate! I'd set the book aside and smoke a cigarette, or watch a DVD, or play guitar, or even take a quick nap in order to restore just enough energy to last me another 50 or so pages.
However, despite the struggles, despite the turmoil, despite the headaches and heartaches, I can ironically say that I enjoyed this "fable" and am really looking forward to revisiting it after Joshua and I have reached our destination. The bottom line here is this: this novel is the epitome of Faulkner being Faulkner; however, the conclusion of A Fable is considerably worth the effort the story requires.