From Fourth International, Vol.16 No.3, Summer 1955, p.106.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
by William Faulkner
Random House, New York, 1954. 437 pp. $4.75.
When Faulkner’s most recent and most important novel came out some months ago, the bourgeois critics reacted uneasily. They called A Fable confused; less effective, as a whole, than his earlier novels; too difficult to understand. Yet they admitted that parts of it are powerful; for example, the fateful encounter between the old General and the corporal, who is his illegitimate son, and Faulkner’s modern incarnation of Christ.
The bewilderment of the critics is due to the book’s revolutionary impact. For this outspoken anti-war novel about a mutiny in World War I is not what is generally called a religious novel, despite the parallel between the corporal and Christ, between his followers and the apostles. Nor is it simply a pacifist novel illustrating that war is bad and peace is good, describing the horrors of war, the degradation of man, as some other excellent novels have done.
Faulkner forces us to look beyond the surface of the murderous game. Although actual mutinies broke out in the French Army in 1917, following the Russian Revolution, mutinies that were crushed by Petain, the soldiers’ revolt in Faulkner’s novel, which is supposed to take place in 1918, never happened on the Western Front. Yet A Fable is charged with realism.
In other words, Faulkner’s symbolic story deals with the real nature of the forces behind modern imperialist war. This is all the more noteworthy since the author started to write the book during World War II when patriotic propaganda must have been dinning in his ears and finished it during the Korean War when the propagandists were again clanging their cymbals.
The German general in A Fable is more fearful of a military success won by exploiting the French mutiny, and advance that might result in the German soldiers becoming infected by the revolutionary virus, than of Germany’s military defeat. The Allied commanders get together with the German general. Both sides agree to a short truce allowing the Allies to liquidate the mutiny so that the war can then be resumed according to the rules of inter-imperialist warfare.
The incident is Faulkner’s invention; the general truth it puts in artistic form is not. The “fable” is very real in its dramatic, concentrated reflection of the tendencies of the high command and the dialectics of war.
The central problem in A Fable is the destiny of man, the conflict between inertia and revolutionary will. The corporal is Christ-like, but only insofar as he represents Christ the revolutionist. He does not try to offer consolation through promises of a better world beyond the one we live in, a better life after death. He does not “render unto Caesar ...” His action is a challenge to Caesar and is meant to be a challenge. When his father, the General, offers to share the world with him if he recants and “renders unto Caesar” the right to wage war and to rule the world, the corporal prefers a martyr’s death.
Both the General and the corporal believe that “man will prevail.” But to the adroit old General’s conservative principle, to his profound pessimism over what he calls man’s “folly,” that conservative pessimism which makes him an unselfish, ascetic defender of the existing “order” against “disorder” and revolt, the corporal, a determined, taciturn, illiterate peasant, opposes the refusal to accept as eternal necessity the conditions of a given system, “man’s baseless hopes and his infinite capacity – no: passion – for unfact,” as the General calls the revolutionary spirit.
Much more ought to be said about this novel. It’s not easy reading; the style is complex; and certain chapters may seem rather obscure at first. But radicals will be able to understand A Fable much better than the bourgeois critics did. The book is demanding on the reader but well worth the effort, for A Fable is undoubtedly one of the outstanding masterpieces of contemporary literature, one of those great novels that speak of man’s paramount problems.
Last updated on: 2 April 2009