I’ve had the idea for this challenge for a while now – have been, in fact, ready with most of the books purchased and shelved for the better part of a year – only I could never quite get started for two reasons: (1) I am lazy, and (2) I’ve read some Faulkner before and know just how challenging it can be. Mostly it’s the former, as the complicated nature of Faulkner’s works were the primary driving force behind the challenge in the first place: I wanted to learn, that is, to follow the footsteps of one of the most consequential writers not just in American literature, but in all World literature.
I’ve done this challenge before with other writers: beginning with Fitzgerald back in college, after I was blown away by Gatsby and thought, I must learn to write like that! And then with Hemingway right after (though I cheated by skipping all the posthumous works, which were far too many). I took a pause afterwards because there are just so many books, and so little time in the world that reading all of a single person’s oeuvre was starting to feel like spending far too much time eating from one platter when there’s an entire buffet before me. Now that it looks like we’ll still be in lockdown for the rest of the year, I’ve decided now’s a good time as any to pick it up again, and again with another modernist, by reading all of Faulkner’s works from the first to the last word he ever published.
Soldiers’ Pay was Faulkner’s debut novel, published in 1926, the same year his contemporary and most notable river Ernest Hemingway came out with his own debut novel, The Sun Also Rises. Both weren’t deemed as great successes when they came out, but while Sun would eventually turn out to be among Hemingway’s greatest, Pay remains in the dusty corners on the shelves of die-hard fans, Faulkner scholars, and random weirdos like myself.
Concept-wise the two books are quite similar to each other. Eventually Faulkner would diverge into his now well-established position as the chronicler par excellence of life in the American south, with later and better regarded works like The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. But in Soldier’s Pay, he traverses very much the same lines as Hemingway, which makes one even more apt to view it under the shadow of its rival. Both novels explore the impacts of the just concluded world war on the men it left wounded, but while Jake Barnes in Sun is only unable to have sex, Donald Mahon in Pay comes home almost a vegetable. He is unable to move without excruciating pain, hardly says a word to the people around him, and spends almost the entire length of the novel asleep.
Except for a length dream sequence towards the end, we receive nothing of the story from Mahon’s perspective. We know nothing of what he thinks, of himself, his family, or the war. We know nothing what he wants or fears. Instead, the drama is played out in the reactions of the people around him when he finally comes home from the war. His father, a rector, has spent all the time of his absence believing he has been “shot down” in the war, and so naturally retreats to a mountainous state of denial when they are reunited. Despite his son’s obvious condition, he insists that Donald will get better, and that he can have surgeons treat his son’s scars and make like he never got them at all.
We also find out that Donald was engaged to a woman named Cecily. Cecily’s scenes, I think, are the lowest point of the novel. While the idea of a woman getting cold feet about getting engaged to a man who’s good as dead, Faulkner utterly butchers any sense of character in Cecily. Cecily oscillates to two other men, with each acting both as seductress and victim. One never gets a sense of exactly what is up with Cecily throughout the novel, what her intentions are. After spending the first two-thirds complaining about being engaged to Mahon, she eventually recapitulates, without a trigger, to wanting to get married to him and even fighting her parents and Donald’s own father for it. Cecily appears to be a melodramatic force only to keep the novel going, and never provides the reader with anything else to engage with.
I think this is key to why Soldier’s Pay no longer attracts modern readers like The Sun Also Rises. Whereas the latter provides intrigue in the unlikely coupling of Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley, in Ashley’s femme fatale character, and bright scenes of the disenfranchised Paris cafe society, Faulkner’s novel fails to negotiate with the reader’s interest. Towards the second half I was reading mostly just for the requirement, because I said I will, but I can name more than a couple of scenes – mostly Cecily’s scenes – where any other reader is likely to put down the book.
But the novel isn’t entirely devoid of substance. Even though I would classify Soldier’s Pay as a failed attempt, fingerprints of who would later become the award winning novelist are all over its pages. Faulkner’s writings is rife with great turns of phrases, and even this early he exhibits a skilled use of devices for furthering his biting irony. Unfortunately, for all that sound and fury, it all came to nothing.
(Featured image from Wikimedia Commons.)