I have just finished reading this lesser known Faulkner short story and have fallen in love with the man all over again. My 1942 anthology of short stories keeps delivering gem after gem of awesomeness and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.
Faulkner was probably indirectly one of the main reasons I’ve started this blog. A long time ago, during a Theory of Literature class, a young professor at my University (the one all the girls in first year were infatuated with and who had earned my respect for the passion with which he had spoken about books during the first two classes we had already had – me not being the infatuated type, of course) asked us to read The Bear, by Faulkner, and then tell him what the Truth was. I re-read the Bear, trying to figure out the Truth but mostly being bewildered at the task and understanding it about just as much as anyone reading this is now. I had a few ideas but they seemed a bit unimpressive. We got to the following class, one of the most confusing ones of my life, with everyone shouting out different insane or less insane hypotheses all of which were of course not the right answer. To this day, I have no idea what the Truth was or if he actually revealed it to us. I have a feeling he did and it had nothing to do with the contents of the book and that I was deeply disappointed. I am not sure, however. Anyway, what this led to was a significant amount of insecurity on my part, which coupled with some remarks he went on to make about people reading things a certain way and others reading them another way and a certain use of terms I was not familiar with, managed to swiftly persuade me that I did not know how to read. I had spent a good part of my life up to then doing just that and all of a sudden it dawned on me that I had been doing it the wrong way and moreover that I was not aware of any other way. It took me a long time to recover from what was almost an identity crisis and draw up the courage to speak about books again since by the time the first year of university ended I was sure I was very stupid. That is why today, all mended up and my usual cockiness reacquired, I am so adamant about being honest about literature and reading for pleasure. Because I am sure now that he was wrong and I am right and I represent the people, the 99%, whereas he, as a member of the 1% is somewhat of an intellectual bully and one of those who do more harm than good to literature by intimidating all readers out of their wits and out of libraries. So, I say occupy Yoknapatawpha!
So, all this anecdote was just my way of saying that ever since I got past my shyness of Faulkner, I have taken my revenge by enjoying him immensely and letting myself go with the wonderful flow of his prose without asking questions that are not there and meditating upon those that did indeed come up upon reading his works. Out of everything I’ve read by him so far, this particular short story is one of the more conventional ones. However, it is deeply disturbingly beautiful and manages to capture the main character’s thoughts in a way that is strongly reminiscent of The Sound and the Fury, but without even a glimpse of stream of consciousness techniquness. (Not that I don’t like stream of consciousness, on the contrary I think I am its biggest fan alive.) I love love love works of fiction where the characters don’t explain themselves and are not explained and this is one of them and this is also why I love Mad Men, but that is the subject of a different conversation I think. The story is set during the First World War, in a European port where British and American troops are stationed together and from where they launch daily or nightly attacks on Germany and territories belonging to the Central Powers. Fighting together does not however make them understand each other better and it isn’t until some personal contact is established that reciprocal spite is overcome. Bogard, the American aviation captain and the kid, a British naval officer make a pair of complicated and fascinating figures and complement each other without ostentation. Strangely, in spite of his logorrhea, the British 17 year old boy remains much more of a mystery than Bogard (in whose head we seem to be in spite of the absence of any stream of consciousness) and I couldn’t help but wonder whether his childlike enthusiasm is a sign of innocence and misunderstanding of danger or of some kind of screwed up cynicism that makes him get his kick out of constantly being on the verge of death. Ronnie, his mate, is like a silent backdrop against which he can unfold his verboseness – as if each one of them had assumed and stuck to a well defined role and a ritual in order to make their task bearable and to not go insane with fear.
Against what you might possibly think, even if it does speak of friendship and mutual respect, this is a rugged, non-didactical story. I will again mention the fact that it has been included in that 1942 anthology and it seems as if, once more, the editors were trying to prove to their public the strong bond that existed between the American and British people, a relationship worth fighting for. However, more than launching into a hymn to comradeship, Faulkner seems to engage into a meditation on spite and prejudice. The Americans are persuaded of their valor, discipline and superiority over the English soldiers who they have come to the rescue of. Besides Captain Bogard, who is the most open-minded of them all, none of them will get to acknowledge the horrifying conditions in which the British divisions fight. The Americans, fresh to the war and physically remote from it (since they are fighting above land) also seem to still be able to hang on to principles and be stiff about rules and spit on misbehaviour, whereas the British soldiers are merry, drunk, sleeping in the gutters and impossible to tell apart because they are all so so young. And this is precisely why the atmosphere in the story becomes unbearable at some point; their desperation of having nothing more to lose becomes almost thick and tangible. The feeling of loneliness generated by the scene where they ride together in a tiny boat facing a gigantic enemy in the open sea seems to linger still, long after having shut the book and long after listening to some music to chase away the chills. Stories like this always make me painfully acknowledge what my peaceful existence has been built on. This being said, I will leave you with PJ Harvey whose last album makes me feel precisely what this short story has made me feel. Besides, this video is perfect.