Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Pulitzer Project: A Fable

This cover illustration is deceptive. The
soldier's helmet is WWII; the book is set
during World War I. It does definitely
signal the author's intent, though. 
William Faulkner wrote A Fable in the 1940s during World War II. The book did not get published until almost ten years later, and it's easy to see why. It is, to say the least, anti-war. The book is one long rant about war being a racket contrived by the munitions industries and the generals. The arms manufacturers need war in order to keep their businesses profitable; the generals need war because it's the only reason for their existence. When there's a possibility peace will break out without it being officially negotiated, the generals on both sides kill their own troops in order to keep the war going.

This was probably the most difficult to read book by Faulkner that I've encountered so far, and I've read a lot of Faulkner. In fact, I was happy to see it come up on the list. I like Faulkner. I find some of the Southern Gothic soap opera that Faulkner indulges in a bit odd -- I am, after all several generations younger than Faulkner so have trouble getting my head around some of the bizarre prejudices common 100 years ago -- but usually the language flows so smoothly that Faulkner's books come close to qualifying as easy reading. A Fable was definitely an exception.

I'm not sure if it was the setting -- France during the final months of World War I -- the plot, or the sentence structure. The underlying narrative in A Fable parallels the narrative in the New Testament. A child is born in a stable in the Middle East with an unknown father who turns out to be a powerful person; he grows up in obscurity, ends up with 12 followers (one of whom betrays him), apparently preaches a message of peace, and ends up being executed while being lashed to a post between two criminals. Miraculous (or semi-miraculous) events occur around him, and it appears he's close to convincing the ordinary enlisted men on both sides in the war to just lay down their guns and walk away from the conflict. I don't know if there was much controversy about the book when it was published. It does strike me, though, as having the capability to get some people riled up much in the same way some people freaked out over The Last Temptation of Christ or The Satanic Verses. 

Then again, given that the book was written by Faulkner, an author noted for a convoluted style, and is written in a way that lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions rather than coming right out and saying explicitly that if Christ were to appear on a battlefield we'd kill Him, maybe most readers never picked up on the parallels at all. It's quite possible this is one of those books that a lot of people bought because it was a Book of the Month Club selection (does Book of the Month still exist?) and that they then gave up on after the first few pages. Faulkner's usual tendency to indulge in run-on sentences is in full flower here. I swear one sentence ran on for at least 3 pages. Three pages! One sentence. Unreal. Do you know what type of nightmare that is for a former copy editor to wade through? I'm moderately amazed I actually read the entire book.

A Fable actually has several narrative threads running through it. There's the story of a former horse groom, now a British soldier, who loved and lost a horse and is now running a scam that may or may not be a scam. There's the story of a disillusioned man who had enlisted, been promoted to an officership, realized he hated being an officer, and deliberately engaged in conduct that got him kicked back down to enlisted status. Various paths cross and recross, there are flashbacks, unexplained coincidences, characters knowing things they shouldn't have any way of knowing. There's a distinct hallucinatory quality to much of the book. Faulkner's books usually get pigeon-holed as "Southern Gothic;" this novel has more akin with authors whose work is labeled "magical realism."

This book won the Pulitzer in 1955. I think it happened to fall at just right the time -- it came out in 1954, just as Americans were recovering mentally from fighting a war in Korea that they had been unable to win. World War II left people with a good feeling. Sure, a lot of people died but we took care of Hitler, and, following the war, things were looking pretty good. Then the conflict in Korea came along. A book saying war is a racket had to resonate with the Pulitzer judges. If it had come out earlier, it would have flopped because World War II had everyone too hyped about how the U.S. had rescued the world. A few years later and it's probable the reaction would have been, "Holy shit, doesn't Faulkner have a decent editor?" or "Wow. Time to send Bill to detox again."  As it was, the book won prizes.

Then again, maybe there just weren't very many semi-literate books in the running. There were several years in the 1950s where no prize was awarded. Maybe the judges decided that even strange Faulkner was better than the other stuff publishers were pushing. I don't know. . . given a choice between No Time For Sergeants (also published in 1954) and A Fable, I guess A Fable at least looks like serious literature.  

Would I recommend it to other readers? I'm not sure. I have a hunch the book would have come across better if I read slower or if I'd been reading it out loud. As it was, those long, long run-on sentences, the solid blocks of text that went on for multiple pages, were a distinct problem. One of the things I learned when an old pro taught me layout and pagination was a reader's eyes need to take an occasional break. You have to have some white space -- paragraph breaks -- on the page or readers' attention drifts. There isn't much white space in A Fable. If you like Faulkner and enjoy a challenge, go for it.

Next up on the list? Andersonville, which I've already read so I'll skip ahead to A Death in the Family by James Agee. Odds are I won't get to it until September, though, as (what a surprise, she said sarcastically) the L'Anse Public Library does not have it in its collection. We're about to hit the road in the Guppy, and by the time we get back the Interlibrary Loan program will have shut down for the summer. They quit taking requests around May 1 and don't start up again until after Labor Day. It'll wait. Going by the title, I'm going to guess it's not exactly a comedic novel.


  1. I don't like to read about wars.

  2. Not my favorite topic either but I did decide to read all the Pulitzer fiction winners. It's been quite a mix so far: westerns, romance, soap opera, science fiction, and war stories.

  3. If you call it a myth or fable it doesn't seem like a lie?

  4. I have decided anything that has the word "war' in it is a racket.

  5. Watching old war movies cheers me up. Nice to see the good guys win. (Woof, woof. Points if you know the movie and character).


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