Soldiers’ Pay, by William Faulkner

I wasn’t going to read Soldiers’ Pay in my Faulkner project, put off by the knowledge that Faulkner never really found his rhythm till he wrote Sartoris, and being much disappointed by the in-between novel, Mosquitoes; – but I happened to pick it up, just to mull it over – read the first lines or so, to see what it was like – and I just carried on.

I won’t make any great claims for it. It’s one of those first novels of promise. It has some pleasing prose in it, some nicely worded passages; there’s the odd moment of experimentation; but Faulkner is still finding his feet as a novelist. Certainly Faulknerian obsessions are already in place: it is fitting that his novelistic career should begin with a long passage in which everyone gets drunk; – Faulkner’s always good at describing drunkenness – I recall Pylon here with great fondness; – and another thing it has in common with that great novel is an obsession with flying aeroplanes: our hero – or at least, the individual the novel starts out following, is an airman, who has just been frustrated in his ambition to fly by the end of The Great War; – though he is soon forgotten in favour of his drinking partner, another demobilised soldier Gilligan, who holds our attention before being replaced by another character, who in turn is replaced by another character; – it is in fact full of good, rich characters; – yet none of these characters disappear, they just drift into the background; leaving a world which feels quite complete, even if we’re a little disappointed it’s not yet Yoknapatawpha County.

What I found most odd about this book – something I recall it having in common with Mosquitoes – is what I’m going to call its JaneAustenness: the tendency of characters to engage in long conversations, in which they try to score points off one another in curious esoteric dialogues of such remarkable subtlety as to be unintelligible – rather like all those quibbling puns in Shakespeare’s comedies – none of which I’m expecting to find in Faulkner. The whole thing is strangely mannered.

On the back of this book is the observation, “It was during the summer of 1925, when he was working in New Orleans, that Faulkner met Sherwood Anderson and was encouraged by him to write novel.” For all the years I’ve been reading Faulkner, I’ve always had this idea in my mind – conditioned by this quote – that up until that point, Faulkner had never thought of writing, but encouraged (for some reason) by Anderson, he thought he’d give it a go. But along with reading this book, I’ve been reading a biography of Faulkner, and it turns out this was not the case: Faulkner was obsessed with art, to the point that he’d no interest in anything else (apart from a woman called Estelle and drinking), but up tilll then he’d been preoccupied by poetry: an admirer of the French symbolists, and (oh, I don’t know – I’m not getting up to check my references) Swinburne and Wilde and people like that: hence, no doubt, the strange manneredness of his early work.

I’m not sure though if this reading about an author’s life is a good thing. One suffers from what I shall call “the disenchantment of the work”: aspects which one had consider general and universal – purely imaginative fictions – turn out to be merely aspects of Faulkner’s life. Pretty much all the male characters are suffering from unrequited love; and pretty much all the woman are capricious and mysterious in their emotions – and one can’t help seeing in all this the fact that the love of Faulkner’s life, who also seems to have been his best friend and his muse, had gone and got herself married to someone else (hence some at least of Faulkner’s drinking). The grounded airman is Faulkner too, who was himself training as a pilot at the moment WW1 ended (I didn’t know though he’d pretended to be English to enrol in the RAF, after the US Airforce had rejected him); and the pilot who returns disfigured and from his war wounds is curiously Faulkner as well, who pretended when he came back from the war to have seen action, to have been traumatised by it and to have been injured (he went around for a timewith a limp). One seems to lose a certain spiritual aspect of the work, by gaining a knowledge of the artist.

Next up: Sartoris – or at least, Flags in the Dust.

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