::Literate Blather::
Thursday, October 04, 2007
5 Questions About: William Faulkner

(Having recently read William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” (1929), DaRK PaRTY’s interest in the Southern writer has been renewed. Faulkner isn’t for everyone – in fact, he drives many readers completely bonkers. The best way to read Faulkner is with patience and an eye toward language. Recently, DaRK PaRTY reached out to Boston University Professor John T. Matthews, the current president of the William Faulkner Society. John has written two books on Faulkner: “The Play of Faulkner's Language” and “The Sound and the Fury: Faulkner and the Lost Cause.” He helped us get our arms around this literary icon).

DaRK PaRTY: Where to you rank the influence and importance of Faulkner among American novelists of the 20th century?

John: I think by the measures of his individual achievement as well as his influence on writers in the U.S. and the world over, Faulkner is our greatest 20th century novelist. He wrote 19 novels, probably a third of which are absolutely first-rate--memorable and permanent contributions to the American canon. Two of his novels—“The Sound and the Fury” and “Absalom, Absalom!” --are masterpieces, and rank among the very best American novels of all time.

Faulkner also wrote dozens of fine short stories, some of them very well known as the result of their frequent appearance on high school and introductory college literature curricula: "A Rose for Emily" always shows up as an example of modern Southern literature, and as tasty a bit of Southern Gothic as it is, it's more a spoof of such appetites than anything else. Faulkner's best short stories, such as "Barn Burning," "Dry September," and "That Evening Sun," are compressed and elegant versions of many of his principal themes, and they're a little more accessible because they were tailored for magazine publication.

No other American novelist I know has written so many outstanding novels, but Faulkner is also distinguished by his creation of an entire inter-linked fictional world, an imaginary
Mississippi county
he called Yoknapatawpha.

Most of his novels are set in Yoknapatawpha, which resembles the place in the north central part of the state where he grew up and lived his whole life. Locales and characters reappear novel to novel, and we get to follow their stories over multiple installments, and to watch Faulkner get to know their lives and personal histories better and better over his career (as he put it). Faulkner's inimitable style, those breath-defying long sentences and head-spinning jags of stream-of-consciousness propelled by free association, as well as his favorite subjects of historical guilt and shame over slavery and racism, the struggle of agrarian regions to adapt to modernization, the tension between inherited beliefs and your own desires -- these inspired a lot of followers. You can see Faulkner in Cormac McCarthy's ornate descriptions of the violent southwest. When Toni Morrison was a graduate student in English at Cornell, she wrote a thesis on Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, and her great novel “Beloved” clearly looks back to “Absalom, Absalom!”.

Latin American "boom" writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez pointed to Faulkner as a major influence in the 1950s and 60s. I've heard novelists from China, Japan, and several African countries talk about discovering Faulkner in translation and about how much his writing has meant to them.

DP: What did Faulkner do that was so different from other writers of his time?

John: Like a whole generation of European and American writers born at the end of the 19th century, Faulkner came of age in the very heady days of the 'teens and '20s, when life in the West was changing dramatically. The most insightful and imaginative of these writers, like the poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, or novelists like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, D. H. Lawrence, and so on, were alert to how radically the world was being transformed.

It's out of the friction between modernity and more traditional ways of life that much modern literature arose -- to celebrate innovative ways of seeing the world, new forms of social freedoms for women and ethnic 'minorities', a spirit of anti-colonialism around the world, a sense of disillusionment requiring new sources of spiritual values after the catastrophe of World War I, and so on.

Faulkner embraced modernist technique and took it to a new level: he experimented with ways to capture the rhythms and habits of individual ways of experiencing the world; he imagined how all sorts of different people would be displaced or given new opportunities by shifts in agricultural production and the rise of a culture of consumption; he described how memories of the past continue to haunt us even in changed circumstances (as we move around, or invent new lives for ourselves). A little like Picasso, though not so extremely, Faulkner restlessly tried different kinds of styles or artistic modes.

Some of his novels are told in characters' voices; others have strong narrators (too); some are written more conventionally as straighter narratives. Faulkner's unique in combining a full-fledged modernist technique to his regional subject matter (most modernist writing is about city life, like Joyce's “Ulysses”). And he's unusual in having organized his whole career around that vast imaginary domain.

DP: A common complaint about Faulkner is that his writing is dense and meandering. How do you respond to such criticism?

John: Well, it's true that his writing is sometimes dense and meandering. The denseness comes from a kind of urgency to put everything between one "cap and period," as he put it once. He's trying to say everything in one sentence. But why? The sense you get in reading Faulkner is that everything is inter-related, and that that effect is magnified in Southern society. Every object you touch has a history, every clod of soil evokes the ancestors or predecessors who occupied it, every word you say or scene you see comes framed by the past. That's emphatically so in a past-obsessed place like the South in the decades after the Civil War.

The meandering has a purpose too. Faulkner's characters often struggle to figure out complicated problems, many of them mysteries buried in the past that no one really want to dredge up. The meandering can be a kind of evasiveness, a symptom of putting off painful knowledge. In “Absalom, Absalom!”, a pre-Civil War cotton planter has a mysterious stranger knock on his door one day. This man ends up becoming engaged to the planter's daughter, but is inexplicably killed in a duel by the planter's son. "Why?" the townsfolk wonder. The murder becomes a town legend, and the novel shows us several individuals trying to solve the mystery. They expose a lot of evil behavior in the past as they do so. Also their own prejudices.

DP: For a reader who has never read Faulkner before, which novel would you recommend starting with and why?

John: “As I Lay Dying” is a good introduction to Faulkner's typical style and themes. It's told in brief sections from the various points of view of a number of characters. It tells the story of a farm family in the late 1920s who undertake a journey -- a pretty bizarre one -- so that their recently deceased mother can be buried in town with her people, as she's requested. The Bundren family encounters numerous obstacles, and the story turns into a comic epic that explores how people deal with profound personal losses, against a background of profound historical changes for agricultural families in the 20s.

DP: What do you think are the three greatest novels by Faulkner and why?

John: “The Sound and the Fury” captures the individual sensibilities of very different persons as they suffer a crisis in common: the decline of their once prosperous family. Faulkner never wrote more beautiful prose than his descriptions of the first two Compson brothers' anguish: one is an adult who never develops mentally beyond the capacities of a child, and so experiences the world innocently; the other is a sensitive young adolescent who eventually commits suicide because he cannot stand the thought of losing to marriage the sister he loves, and the innocence she represents to him.

“Light in August” is a sweeping double narrative that follows the meandering lives of two individuals on the margins of traditional Southern town society. This novel probes deeply into the confinement of women in Southern life, and even more disturbingly into the violence of racism, since the famous protagonist Joe Christmas is a person of indeterminate racial ancestry who is ultimately lynched.

I've described some of “Absalom, Absalom!” already, but it is the novel in which Faulkner comes closest to telling the whole history of the South from his standpoint.

Read our 5 Questions interview about Dorothy Parker here

Read our 5 Questions interview about Charles Dickens here

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