Alan Taylor 25th January 2010
Reading William Faulkner which, I’m told, is not a common occurrence these days. Why, when so much that’s currently published is remarkable for its vapidity, tonelessness and lack of character? Having bought the five-volume Library of America set, which includes all of his nineteen novels, I am immediately impressed, despite his myriad domestic travails, hang-ups and addiction to booze, by Faulkner’s work ethic, persistence and ambition. In the past I’ve only nibbled at his novels; my plan this time is read through him chronologically, from his debut novel, Soldiers’ Pay, to his valedictory one, The Reivers.
Soldier’s Pay is set in the aftermath of the First World War and located in the Deep South, which is still suffering from the hangover of the Civil War. For Faulkner both wars were formative, though of course he wasn’t alive during the former – he was born in 1897 and died in 1962 – and did not raise a hand in anger during the latter. In the former, however, his great-grandfather commanded an infantry battalion in the Confederate Army (later he died in a duel). As for the latter, Faulkner enlisted in Canada in the Royal Air Force but, contrary to the myth he allowed to circulate, he never engaged the German enemy. In fact, he never left Canada.
This, in part, forms the backdrop to Soldiers’ Pay, published in 1926, which his biographer, Frederick Karl, compares unfavourably with Hemingway’s debut novel, The Sun Also Rises. There’s no doubt that Hemingway¹s novel immediately marked the arrival on the scene of a new and original talent. In contrast, Faulkner’s demonstrated that here was a writer of precocious talent who had read and imbibed modern masters, such Joyce and Woolf and Conrad, and adopted their style – oblique, audacious, in your face (the opening chapter seems to me to be a homage to the first few pages of Ulysses) – with gusto.
This is not, though, the place for a review. What is interesting to note, however, is that Faulkner – whose family spelt their name without the Œu’ – claimed to have Scottish antecedents. For this fascinating information, we are indebted to Frederick Karl, whose bulbous biography includes these head-nipping two paragraphs:
The Falkner line went back to the British Isles, and particularly to Scotland. The name may have been Falconer, and other family lines, as Faulkner himself indicated, were Cameron, McAlpine, and Murry or Murray (the latter providing Faulkner’s father his Christian name).
Although Falconer suggests Scottish background, there may also have been Welsh lineage. But whatever the precise background – English, Scottish, Welsh or all three – the family line in America becomes demarked with William Clark Falkner, the old colonel, on the Falner side. The Murray line seems more clearly Scottish, both from its Murray background and from its McAlpine blood.
The Scottish connection apparently has special meaning for the novelist because when he provided the genealogy of the Compsons for The Sound and the Fury he gave their origin as one Quentin MacLachlan Compson, who fled to Carolina from Culloden Moor. This Quentin was the grandfather four times removed of the Quentin Compson who commits suicide in 1910, in a novel in which he is clearly one of the author’s surrogates. This early Quentin also has a son whom he names Charles Stuart, part of the doomed Stuart line, which suggests the later doom of the Compson line. Ingeniously, Faulkner has intertwined the genealogy of the Compson family so that a past Quentin foreshadows the doom of the present one; as well, he crossed over this line of doomed Quentins with his own Scottish background.