Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner
by NJ McGarrigle
Last week I went back to the beginning with one of my favourite writers, William Faulkner, by reading ‘Soldiers’ Pay’, his first novel. It’s very enjoyable, even if one clearly sees some of the natural flaws that can appear in a first book (too much reference to the weather, for instance; an unwieldy narrative at times). But any criticism is to be readily expected of an early work by a great writer, and especially from a reader who has gone through Faulkner’s major works beforehand.
Published in 1926, ‘Soldiers’ Pay’ is the story of a wounded veteran’s homecoming following the First World War; it traces the lives of three soldiers and the impact of their return upon their families. In the book we can see Faulkner slowly, but steadily, finding his inimitable storytelling voice that he perfected in the ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘Light in August’, and ‘Absalom, Absalom’.
The major theme I enjoyed most in the book was the characters’ struggles to find meaning in their lives, trying to give their lives a meaning, in the wake of the Great War. The First World War’s shadow looms large over the men, women and children, and they try to find light in a world that seems to be slowly dying.
The novel is noteworthy too in that the central character, Mahon, is a shell of his former self, has the least to say, and yet is the figurehead that the other characters cling on to in order to find some form of redemption. Faulkner’s biographer, Frederick R. Karl, makes the point that Faulkner uses Mahon as an exalted Christ-like figure, sacrificed to the gods of war. Despite being a hapless body smashed by the First World War, Mahon’s being determines the world that now surrounds them. The themes of silence, emotion and sacredness are all here and of course would become recurring motifs through many of Faulkner’s later works.
Faulkner’s representation of women in ‘Soldiers’ Pay’ is conflicted and probably drew upon personal experience. There is the strong, worldly, maternal figure of Margaret Power and then there is Cecily Saunders, a spoiled, shallow, sexual tease who seems to have no ideas or purpose in life. One of my favourite moments in the novel is from Margaret Power. After having her way with one of the soldiers, Joe Gilligan, she spurns his declarations of feelings, leaving him with a bruised ego. Margaret asks him why he’s so upset; is it because I’ve done to you Joe, what a man would do to a woman?
It seems that when Faulkner sat down to write ‘Soldiers’ Pay’, there was little sense that he would become America’s leading novelist of the 20th century. Hemingway often complained that Tolstoy had a unique advantage in his writing to everyone else, because he had been a soldier and had experienced life and death at their most heightened senses. One wonders if the modern novelist now feels the same about Hemingway and Faulkner, who both had the momentous events of the World Wars to hang any story upon. (It is pointed that both men started out with the intention of becoming poets, as well as soldiers; that most romantic and tragic of all figures in the world of letters.)
Faulkner wanted to be a writer because he wanted the leisurely lifestyle it afforded his friend Sherwood Anderson, but also because he realised it was ‘fun’ when he got down to it. Writing probably was fun for dear old Bill, but then genius can make creation come easily. The rest of us must struggle and plough a lonely furrow. All the same, it’s worth listing some of the advice Faulkner gave on writing, and I’ve also included an interesting video of the writer’s time at the University of Virginia.
I think the writer, as I’ve said before, is completely amoral. He takes whatever he needs, wherever he needs, and he does that openly and honestly because he himself hopes that what he does will be good enough so that after him people will take from him, and they are welcome to take from him, as he feels that he would be welcome by the best of his predecessors to take what they had done.
I think the story compels its own style to a great extent, that the writer don’t need to bother too much about style. If he’s bothering about style, then he’s going to write precious emptiness–not necessarily nonsense…it’ll be quite beautiful and quite pleasing to the ear, but there won’t be much content in it.
The only rule I have is to quit while it’s still hot. Never write yourself out. Always quit when it’s going good. Then it’s easier to take it up again. If you exhaust yourself, then you’ll get into a dead spell and you’ll have trouble with it.