Jan/Feb 2004 Book Reviews

Ten Thousand Pages of Faulkner: A Brief and Subjective Glance at the "Major" Novels

William Faulkner
University Press of Mississippi (2003) 238 pages

A Retrospective by Kevin McGowin

"I never could get with Faulkner," says my father, observing the title of the novel I'm reading or re-reading when he walks into the room. We're in my grandmother's (his mother's) house in Alabama. I'm sitting in a cane-backed old rocking chair hewn by hand on the farm the century before last in a room where the wrought-iron of the bed is even older. My father is sick, and he feels horrible, and he can't hide it. He repeats himself. "Never could get with Faulkner," he says, walking out of the room.

Well, this is understandable (he means he could never sit down and make it through one of the man's books and quickly absolved himself from the effort). Because he and I, my father and me, used to live over there in Oxford, my father working on his Master's in Greek and I learning to speak English, before Faulkner was barely cold in the ground over there. All the tourists who'd never read him either, coming there from God knows where and making a big hoo-rah.

Enough to turn off anybody.

I, however (though I'd long finished grad school before I even started), have read Faulkner. He published nineteen novels and a heap of stories, about 10,000 pages in all (give or take a few), and at one time or another, I've read 'em. Probably more than once. Not to mention all the crap about Faulkner, I've read a lot of that too, especially towards the beginning of my self-disciplined auto-didactic Independent Study: in fact, I have read so much by or relating to William Faulkner, that even if you're a specialist that teaches his stuff, it'd about fuse-blow your mind. Which doesn't for a Yoknapatawpha second mean we agree on the relative merits of his achievements. Quite the contrary, I'll bet.

Have a cigar.


So why have I read all this stuff? Was it like, all they had in the prison library, haha? Man, some of it might as well be, like Requiem for a Nun, and I doubt I'm gonna get much of an argument over that one. Or a lot of the stories, but here we'll keep it on point. Unlike Hemingway (with a few obvious exceptions), Faulkner's major achievement was as a novelist, and in that realm he's probably the single greatest American one ever—there are maybe seven to ten runners-up, but they just don't quite get there. And the Great American Novelist's champions usually stake their claim on about three books, five at the most: The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom! and, sometimes, Light in August and/or maybe, Go Down, Moses as a "late" example of a man who enjoyed a period of fifteen years of genius, 1929-1944, I guess.

For me, the list of Faulkner's greatest work begins with these last two, in that order. Then, your pick of one of the "Big Three" and on to The Hamlet (1940) and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939, published as The Wild Palms). That's five, and while many would have the beginner "start" with The Unvanquished (1938), fine as that book is, while uneven, I'd start with Sanctuary (1931), a much finer novel than Faulkner or just about anyone else would have you believe—and more fun. And you're a teacher who wants to give an Essay Topic on the Decadent South and/or Symbolism? Sanctuary is brilliant in part because Faulkner is not trying to be brilliant, as he is in Absalom (1936), a great past-tense narrative just as As I Lay Dying (1930) is a great sequence of different and opposing viewpoints... though for me, the shoe never seems to drop, as it were, with either of them. It's a problem of construction that The Sound and the Fury (1929) deals with by eschewing the conventional "literary mystery" altogether, and just rolls on like the river and the train in the much maligned Wild Palms (I will use Faulkner's original and intended title).

The two short novels that counterpoint and illuminate each other here have repeatedly been said to have nothing to do with each other, "Old Man" being the superior of the two. Are you crazy? You believe that? And you like The Big Three and affect to understand them. Well, readers don't like The Wild Palms for the same reason they don't like Pylon (1935): it's not part of their Faulkner, that Mississippi myth.

And it never was, and even 1954's A Fable is a hell of a lot better than has been said.

But if that world is what you want, go for The Hamlet: the "Eula" section is among Faulkner's best and funniest writing, ever, and the whole of Go Down, Moses (1942). This collection of seven interrelated stories, for me, is unequalled in American Literature save by Huck Finn and... Light in August (1932).

Light in August is, for me, the Great Faulkner Novel because it contains everything that made Faulkner who he was, is, or will be: it is the veritable summation of his humanist world-view and is his best because of its imperfections. Who I love I love, and I love her because her imperfections define another aspect of her completed uniqueness (though I can't think of any at the moment), but the same holds true with Great Literature, with Light in August. Get it? Well, until you do, you will not get Great Literature, either, like Dickens' "flawed" masterpiece, Our Mutual Friend—Shakespeare's The Tempest.

And Light in August? It's difficult; it's a bit too long; it includes "purple" poetic passages; it contains baffling Conradian chronological sequences and roundabout characterizations. Its themes, concerned as they are with everything, cannot be pinned down on the back cover of a paperback: the synopsis of the "plot" is usually described in terms of its concern with "race relations." It employs difficult but original and perfectly-executed Faulknerian literary devices, such as the "time-lapse" and an actually quite un-Joycean stream-of-consciousness from its opening pages; it introduces new characters at the damndest times and places. Its allusions and languages are confounding, its "symbolism" constantly undercutting itself. It is a murder mystery, an existential exploration into the darkest depths of the human soul; it depicts love, hate, injustice, empathy, loneliness, absurdity and dark comedy, sex. LOTS of Sex, Bub. It has within it millions of other novels writ between its many lines. It is Faulkner's crowning achievement, and the greatest American novel of the first half of the 20th century. What's it about? Why does Joe Christmas do what he does? Live to be like, 30, and if you still don't get it, whatever, then.

So it's time for me to Wrap it Up, having already exceeded my 1000-word limit (and I'm much obliged to your Indulgence). Faulkner wrote enough, and with enough range (yeah, you heard me, and more than Hemingway or Fitzgerarld or even Vonnegut, who's up in this forum Next Issue) to allow for all sorts of differences in opinion and then some. I rather find The Mansion (1959) captivatingly beautiful (in parts) and Faulkner's last novel, The Reivers (1962) pretty boring—and the ground covered in Intruder in the Dust (1948) and The Town (1957) concerns things the author deals with more effectively elsewhere, and I don't mean Race Relations. Race Relations, in Faulkner, are—and this is perhaps the KEY to his genius since he was writing WHERE and WHILE these things were such huge issues—metaphors. And metaphors of what, you ask?

Of Everything. EVERYTHING. And I can understand damn well how, as with Shakespeare, you might not care to read about the EVERYTHING of it all just now—in fact, neither do I. In fact, I'll not by any means think the less of you if, like my father, you just can't get with Faulkner.

But if you try—try it Right.


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