William Faulkner: Mosquitoes
This is Faulkner’s attempt at a comic novel and, while it got good reviews and has continued to be admired, at least by some critics, it didn’t really work for me. We know that Faulkner had read Aldous Huxley‘s Antic Hay and Crome Yellow but his attempt at doing for the New Orleans chattering classes what Huxley did for the English chattering classes did not quite come off. The story concerns a cruise from New Orleans to Mandeville and is based on an actual cruise Faulkner took with his friends. Like Huxley’s works, this is a roman à clef as virtually all the characters are identifiable with real people.
As in Soldier’s Pay, Faulkner uses a frame around the main story. The opening frame introduces the characters while the closing frame gives more information about some of them and a follow-up on the activities (primarily sexual) of others. The cruise is organised by the wealthy widow, Mrs. Patricia Maurier, allegedly based on Elizabeth Werlein. She is accompanied by her niece, also called Patricia, and Patricia’s brother, Josh, based on Helen and Josh Baird. They are only named in the dialogue, Faulkner referring to them only as the niece and the nephew. Faulkner was in love with Helen Baird at the time. Other members of the party included the writer, Dawson Fairchild (based on Sherwood Anderson), his friend Julius (based on Julius Friend and named only in the dialogue, Faulkner referring to him as the semitic man), Julius’ sister, Eva Wiseman (based on Lillian Friend Marcus), the self-proclaimed greatest poet in New Orleans, Mark Frost (based on Samuel Louis Gilmore), a sculptor, known only as Gordon (inspired by William Spratling), a painter, Dorothy Jameson, Ernest Talliaferro, who was in ladies’ fashions but was Mrs. Maurier’s gofer, an eccentric Englishman looking for business opportunities in New Orleans, Major Ayers (based on Colonel Charles Glenn Collins) and, finally, a young couple whom Patricia junior found on the streets only shortly before the cruise, Pete and Jenny. There are various crew members but only David West, the steward, plays any significant role.
The cruise is a total disaster. There is a problem with the steering gear, probably because Josh removes a key component, and the ship runs aground and is marooned for much of the trip. A group of the passengers finally decides to try and pull the boat off the sandbar with the tender but the result is that Jenny and Taliaferro fall in the water. Fortunately, the water is only 18 inches deep so no damage is done, except to pride. Patricia junior misbehaves, going swimming with David West and then enticing him to leave the boat so that they can go to Mandeville on foot. Unfortunately, she is convinced, against his advice, that she knows the way and they get lost and bitten by mosquitoes. Gordon also disappears at around the same time and no-one is sure if he has drowned or if he has just walked off. These are, indeed, the main plot elements. There is the inevitable differentiation between the sexes and, of course, the dirty old men lusting after Jenny. There are also a few running gags, such as the fact that Mrs. Maurier feels that fruit is beneficial on the cruise and feeds them grapefruit morning, noon and night, to their disgust. Pete’s expensive boater is also a source of amusement as he tries very, very hard to protect it but, of course, it gets trodden on by Mrs. Maurier. Faulkner may have been having fun and it may have been amusing for his contemporaries but it doesn’t work for us.
First published 1927 by Boni & Liveright