Journal of Modern Literature 24.2 (2000/2001) 321-325
For the Record
New Information on William Faulkner's First Trip to Italy
Università di Genova
William Faulkner's first day on European soil is the stuff of legend. He and his artist friend William Spratling sailed from New Orleans on the cargo West Ivis and arrived in Genoa, Italy, on 2 August 1925. They went to a nightclub with two of the ship's officers and at some point there was a brawl and Spratling was arrested and locked up for the night. The next afternoon, he was rescued by his friends, who apparently had been unaware of the arrest when it occurred. The police accused him of lèse majesté for trampling on Italian money bearing the king's image but eventually released him after he had spent a sleepless night in an enormous room with other prisoners. According to Spratling, who wrote his account many years afterwards, Faulkner, instead of commiserating, told his friend that he envied him the experience. 1
In fact, the young writer went on to use the episode in various guises, first in the unfinished novel which he wrote in the next months in Paris, "Elmer," in which he attributed the adventure to the autobiographical Elmer, an American writer travelling in Europe with a young Italian, whom he picks up in jail, then in the unpublished story he extracted from it, "A Portrait of Elmer." 2 In both versions, the episode is moved from Genoa to the more literary Venice. In another raucous reworking of the material, "Divorce in Naples," published in These 13 (1931), the mishap is attributed to the ship's cook, "a Greek, big and black," 3 who starts the fuss in a Naples nightclub when he discovers that his lover, Carl, has [End Page 321] disappeared with one of the ladies of the house. Since Spratling was homosexual, 4 this version suggests that some event of this nature may have provoked him in Genoa. (The presence of the untutored Angelo in the Elmer versions also has evident homosexual implications.)
However, Spratling mentions nothing of the kind in his bemused story of youthful braggadoccio and international sexual misunderstandings:
the entrance to the nightclub was grandiose, with a red carpet all the way down. We drank beer with the girls and made conversation. . . . But by about 2:00 a.m. I had been led out between two carabinieri, with Napoleon hats, and driven off through the dark streets to jail. Faulkner had not witnessed my sudden exit.
In the cabaret we had all been very happy at one table until a girl with whom I had been dancing insisted I move over to the table where she sat with her "business manager." Conversation being impossible, and since I had reached that state when everything seemed irresistibly amusing, it occurred to me to see what would happen if I dropped some coins under the table. This produced quite a spectacle with the two of them scrambling after the coins. When they discovered the coins were only copper and before I knew what was happening, there was the police. Far away and in the confusion of the dance floor Bill and my other shipmates were unaware of the incident. 5
Faulkner likewise describes the cabaret graphically in the opening lines of "Divorce in Naples":
We were sitting at a table inside: Monckton and the bosun and Carl and George and me and the women, the three women of that abject glittering kind that seamen know or that know seamen. 6
The two officers and the two passengers of Spratling's version are augmented by the eighteen-year-old Carl, from Philadelphia. As George reports the crisis:
And so they held him, the wild American, a cordon of waiters and clients--women and men both--as he dragged a handful of coins from his pockets ringing onto the tile floor. Then he said it was like having your legs swarmed by a pack of dogs: waiters, clients, men and women, on hands and knees on...