Hate, Greed, Lust and Doom

Sean O’Faolain

  • William Faulkner: His Life and Work by David Minter
    Johns Hopkins, 325 pp, £9.50, January 1981, ISBN 0 8018 2347 1

The other day my bookseller airily assured me that nobody reads Faulkner nowadays. If he had said ‘nobody under sixty’ I might not so easily have dismissed his opinion as Celtic hyperbole. Certainly age is cardinal in this matter. When Faulkner got the Nobel Prize for 1949 we all wanted to read this genius who was apparently not widely known even in his own country: four or five years earlier, when Malcolm Cowley was preparing his anthology The Portable Faulkner, it had come as a shock to him to discover that only one of his author’s novels was in print. And that one was the near-porno Sanctuary, about a young woman who was raped with a corncob, a cheap yarn which Faulkner, then in dire penury, had concocted to sell and which, one hopes to his annoyance, sold more than all his previous works. Today his entire canon is available but no volume that I have looked at in our local public library has been issued to more than three subscribers each year. His fine As I lay dying, which after his indubitable masterpiece Light in August I consider his best, has been borrowed only four times since 1977 by the discriminating members of the London Library. Out of his 23 novels and books of stories, Penguin now offers only seven. That Nobel is over thirty Nobels old.

By contrast, his Transatlantic fame as one of the world’s greatest novelists must be as secure as ever, especially within and radiating out from academic circles: that is, if one may judge by the number of recent books, articles, monographs, studies, memoirs and so on listed in the Bibliography and Notes of this impressively thorough record of the life and work of one of the most disconcerting novelists in the history of fiction, whom Sartre once called ‘a lost soul’. America’s answer to Baudelaire? My guess is that unless the teaching of Amer. Lit. in the many universities I have known there since the 1950s has changed completely, thousands upon thousands of students are still being Faulknerised every year by clerks, presbyters, bishops and archbishops of Academe delighted to elucidate the not always pellucid intentions of the Master. I further guess that, in addition to employing their traditional techniques of Teutonic thoroughness and Jewish rationalism, they are also employing more than a little of that latent cultural nationalism first mooted by the regionalists of the Southern Agrarian School of the Twenties. That movement is now probably best remembered by the outstanding writers associated with it, such as Robert Penn Warren (All the King’s Men), John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, even Robert Lowell, who literally pitched his tent on Tate’s lawn. All of these must have responded warmly to Robert Frost’s patriotic poem ‘The Gift Outright’:

ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by –

still withholding something from their land that made their love weak. It is a sentiment that still inspires sophisticated seekers after the purely indigenous origins of American fiction, as in the work of Richard Poirier (A World Elsewhere) or R.W.B. Lewis (The American Adam). One can see how smoothly Faulkner’s concentration on one obscure corner of Mississippi fits into this regionalist-patriotic pattern.

His latest biographer says on his first page: ‘He is our great provincial.’ The sentence rumbles proudly. ‘Waal? I suppose you fellas up North all still think great writing can only thrive on big cities?’ It would not, of course, be a question meant to be taken seriously. Hardy, Gogol, Twain, Jane Austen, Synge, Hawthorne. But – it may as well be said at once – the adjective ‘great’ and its noun ‘greatness’ do occur too often in this otherwise wholly admirable book. Punches are pulled. Patent failures like the early Soldier’s Pay is ‘youthfully glamorous’; Mosquitoes is quite properly dismissed as ‘trashily smart’, but Sanctuary is benignly described as ‘bleak’; the unlikely, incredible, badly-constructed and indeed rather silly Wild Palms as ‘flawed’; and Professor Minter is more than indulgent in presenting The Sound and the Fury as a ‘masterpiece’ – Bill Faulkner, though he worshipped at least one of its characters, the girl Candace, bluntly called the whole novel ‘a grand failure’.

However, indulgence is the virtually unavoidable frailty of all scholarly biographers who live too long too closely with their subject, noting, spying, checking, watching, loving, quarrelling, confessing, agreeing for year after year; and this prodigiously detailed biography – concentrated, penetrating, informed as to the smallest details, always warmly sympathetic, and so scholarly that the apparatus criticus (if that is the term for the stuff) takes up one quarter of the volume – has the look of a book whose delivery is the result of many years of cohabitation. Feelings can grow between Truth and its shadow Death. It is like widows: the longer the old boy is gone the nicer he seems to have been. I think of Thomas Hardy’s first wife. They squabbled for years. He fell in love with another woman, wrote love poems about her. When the first died, and she really was a bit of a heap at the end (she wore boots), he married the second and started writing his love poems to the first. Relevant? Yes. The occupational disease of American teachers who lean heavily on that anti-aesthetic technique which used to be called the New Criticism, and was sometimes gravely miscalled explication de texte, works in the opposite way to the widows’. No indulgence here. They believe that to read any fiction properly, say some such incomprehensible book as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or his Absalom, Absalom!, one has simply to understand all the words, details, sentences, references, cross-references, retain some, absorb more, be able to regurgitate a few and finally write a synopsis of the tale in a hundred or so words. Well, it is a discipline. Without it the words ‘to read’ would become a password for anybody who wishes to join in that part of the Joycean centenary celebrations in Dublin next year when relays of devotees propose to read aloud non-stop, day and night, every word of Finnegans Wake. Beside such a feat it sounds ingenuous to propose that the real pleasure of reading starts only when we have done our finger-following translation, and can watch with joy those little black spots of words stylishly make shapes that gradually coalesce into a single form in which we finally become aware of the purport, the essence, or call it the content or theme of the whole book.

Form. Style. Theme. They have always been of the essence of the well-structured European novel. When we do not feel their presence even in the most unambitious fiction, such as a crime story, or in the most adventurous (such as Ulysses, where they are arranged as deliberately as in a Greek play), our attention begins to wander, our batteries go dead, our hearing-aid ceases to function. I have to say what Professor David Minter is far too sensitive a critic not to know well, often hints but never says outright. Large regions of Faulkner’s novels are inaudible.

In the racing sense as well as the literary sense let us have a glance at his form in that alleged masterpiece The Sound and the Fury. If our under-sixties have not read it I cannot help them. To nudge such of my contemporaries as have ‘read’ it but might otherwise absentmindedly think that we are now talking about The Power and the Glory, I will quickly sketch the story, such as it is. It is really a cartoon, in the best sense, of one of those Southern families, decadent and decaying, who have since become almost a stereotype in the literature of the region, devoured by hate, greed, lust, anger, foiled ambitions, bitter memories, what you will. The book falls into four parts. The first quarter is composed of the drivellings of a congenital idiot child, Benjy, babbling about things that neither he nor we can in the circumstances understand; nor could Faulkner, who had begun with the idea of possibly writing a short story in this undeniably original style. On a rereading: ‘it was so incomprehensible that even I could not have told what was going on then, so I had to write another telling.’ The second part is told by Benjy’s brother Quentin 18 years previously, after (sic) he had drowned himself because, apparently (we cannot be certain), he had lusted after his sister Candace and (again possibly) as a result fathered the idiot Benjy. That old Faulkner hand Carvel Collins calls Candace a prostitute, which may be a bit unfair, but she is certainly randy enough in this book. Faulkner on rereading the second telling again found himself incomprehensible and attempted a third telling. This third quarter is a relief, in so far as it is not a Joycean monologue but a dramatised presentation of the third brother, Jason, a mean (in the American sense of the word – that is, ‘nasty’) sadist whose main victim is either his bastard sister Candace or his ever-wailing hypochondriac mother. Faulkner added the fourth section to round the whole thing off, which it does not, except that in it Candy runs away with a fellow from a travelling circus, and with all Jason’s savings. ‘I wrote the story four times,’ Faulkner said. ‘The book just grew that way. I was trying to tell one story which moved me very much and each time I failed.’

A well-shaped novel? And yet ... That word ‘drivellings’ is not mine. It is used by an early, warm and intelligent admirer of Faulkner, the late Richard Hughes (High Wind in Jamaica), in his preface to the 1966 collected British edition, when saying that it is only after we have read Benjy’s telling over a second time that ‘one begins to realise with what consummate contrapuntal skill these drivellings have been composed, with what exquisite care their pattern fits together.’ For an amusing American view I recall the patrician old lady from the Deep South who persisted to the end of the first quarter of the novel and then handed it back with a haughty: ‘I can only conclude that this novel was written by a congenital idiot.’ Tot homines ... However, if nobody can safely be dogmatic about any novel, this one does at least suggest that Faulkner had no fear that its lack of form must mean a proportionate lack of purport or meaning. On one thing I do dare to be dogmatic: nobody, literally nobody, has ever, literally ever, of some winter’s night rubbed his hands, drawn his armchair closer to his cosy radiator, filled his pipe, grasped his glass of Jack Daniel’s and eagerly opened The Sound and the Fury for the sheer pleasure of yet another reading.

None of this is to propose that William Faulkner was a non-writer. He was a richly gifted writer and there are times when he writes with real genius. He is keenly observant, and when he so wishes can be stereoscopically graphic. He gives us the intimate feel of an old banker’s run-down bank and an easy-going little town, its age and southern heat, by referring in passing to the gold lettering on the bank’s windows as ‘cracked’. He evokes idle days spent sitting on the steps of a country store by letting us catch on the wing a reference to those steps as ‘heel-gnawed’. A dog nosing in a cupboard has a ‘barometric tail’. The dusty, hot air is ‘insect-rasped’. The frost tonight will shrink the water in a pool about ‘rank bayonets of dead grass in fixed glassy ripples in the brittle darkness’. On a wet day the sounds of the guns ‘linger in the air like a spreading stain’. When the sun has half-set behind hedges a horseman ‘rides stirrup-deep in cold air’. And so on, his eyes and ears recording automatically, his excellent memory reevoking. He seems possessed when at work by a terrific power of concentration, to have been explosively responsive to every experience, to have been courageous whether as a woodsman, a hunter after big game, a cross-country horseman, or a writer driven by penury – one cannot say poverty because he was a spendthrift with a folie de grandeur – to earn writing-time by any and every means from painting roofs in his meagre and sometimes mean little home-town of Oxford (Miss.) to hack-writing under the most humiliating circumstances in Hollywood.

Gifts he had galore: so many that had this been all he had he might be known today as one of the more highly talented of American novelists. Unhappily for him, he possessed much more than talent. He had genius, upsoaring, outpouring, exultant, eloquent, capable of so lighting up his little, local world as to turn it into a great kingdom, dreaming like the unfrocked clergyman Hightower in Sartoris of unattainable glory like a team of galloping horses that ‘thunder upward and outward into glorious oblivion’. At each new venture one wonders: will he be a Daedalus or an Icarus? ‘Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.’ Like Joyce he should have said it every day, clutching his talent to guide his genius. All too often he flew too near the sun.

David Minter is naturally fully aware of a division of forces in Faulkner’s make-up, an attraction towards the real, a counter-attraction towards the fabulous, wavering between the improbable or melodramatically incredible and the circumstantial and specific. He puts it most clearly in his preface: ‘Faulkner explored a historical space to which he brought talent, even as he created an imaginative space to which he brought genius.’ Unarguably true. But when Minter goes on to say that Faulkner’s talent provides ways of getting at his genius, and vice versa, one must demur. There was no firm or constant bridge between the two sides of the man. His art oscillates between civilisation and the wilderness. The impatient would dismiss him as a schizo. His talent and his genius resided in the same set of apartments, but like jailor and jailed they did not share the same room. To adapt Cyril Connolly’s famous aphorism, there was in this slim, small man a great giant roaring to get out. If his genius escaped and if his talent dashed after him to sing, drink, dance, whore, hunt, to exchange dreams and memories, above all to argue with him, then we get such superb stories as A Rose for Emily, or Go down Moses, or that splendid saga The Bear (but firmly cutting out the addenda), or that weird, haunting half-fantasy about aboriginal Indians which I do not even pretend to understand called Red Leaves, or we get his three time-outlasting novels, Light in August, As I lay dying and the frankly romantic Sartoris – if only for the sake of its clean, clear, genre sequences about the MacCallum family, a possum hunt, a fox, an encounter with a nigger (always ‘niggers’ in Faulkner) towards the end of the book. Talent can write alone. Genius never. It was his arrogant error not to realise it.

Why did he not always write so well? Whence this division? We need no psychologist here: we need a sociologist to mark his times, his place, his education, the financial and social structures of his Mississippi, and a few examples of his style to note his resultant grammar, syntax, phraseology and especially his vocabulary. Two sentences will show what I mean. Here is a sentence taken at random from Absalom, Absalom! It refers to Quentin Compson’s reaction after listening for some eighteen pages to the rambling memories of an old lady who takes possession of him, and of us, for the first 25 non-stop pages of the novel:

It (the talking, the telling) seemed (to him, to Quentin) to partake of that logic- and reason-flouting quality of a dream which the sleeper knows must have occurred, stillborn and complete, in a second, yet the very quality upon which it must depend to move the dreamer (verisimilitude) to credulity – horror or pleasure or amazement – depends as completely upon a formal recognition of elapsed and yet-elapsing time as music or a printed tale.

The sentence is a fair example of Faulkner’s Plain Style, and it is quite intelligible, certainly at a second reading or even at a first if one has concentrated all one’s attention on it. All he is saying is that for Quentin the old lady’s talk has by this become like an illogical dream which lasted for no more than a second but which the sleeper, if he wants to get its full meaning, must pretend has lasted quite a while. Whether or not this notion makes sense is beside our point, which is that we can cope with Faulkner’s Plain Style. I do not think, however, that anybody who reads the following sentence will deny that when the seed of obscurity in that Plain Style sprouts into his Coloured or Baroque Style, we begin to wonder whether something more ominous than just a lack of technical control is at work. The sentence comes from Intruder in the Dust:

his uncle came through the door and drew it after him, the heavy steel plunger crashing into its steel groove with a thick oily sound of irrefutable finality like that ultimate cosmolined doom itself when as his uncle said man’s machines had at last effaced and obliterated him from the earth and, purposeless now to themselves with nothing left to destroy, closed the last carborundum-grooved door upon their own progenitorless apotheosis behind one clockless lock responsive only to the last stroke of eternity.

Just what is going on in Faulkner’s mind when this kind of prose takes over? At this point our sociologist-historian-critic must surely wish to intervene with a self-satisfied Holmes-to-Watson smile: ‘Stylus virum arguit. Style shows a fellow up. I am sure you must have noted, my dear Watson, that every writer has his own catchwords or bosswords. Take Yeats. I was reading his Wind among the Reeds last night. I found him using the word ‘pale’ twenty times in as many pages. ‘Pale hands. Pale eyelids. Pale breasts.’ They date him. The pale-end of a century. One could name his fellow writers, calculate his age, almost guess his address in London. Please hand me two or three volumes by this man Faulkner and let us glance at his vocabulary. In those two last sentences you have read for me we are held by the words ‘irrefutable’, ‘doom’, ‘finality’, ‘obliterated’, ‘purposeless’, ‘progenitorless’, ‘clockless’, ‘eternity’. As I turn these pages my eye catches ‘fatal’, ‘fatality’, ‘fated’, ‘irrevocable’, ‘ultimate’, ‘doom’, ‘doomed’, ‘doom’. He has lots of dooms, destiny, blind tragedy of human events, solitude, dream, nebulous, vast, impalpable, dissolution. And such awesome phrases. ‘The apotheosis of his youth assumed a thousand avatars.’ ‘The gasoline roar of apotheosis’. ‘A thunderous and silent solitude’. Let’s have a glance at Who was Who. Hm! As I thought. ‘Born 1897 in Missouri. Moved to Oxford, Mississippi. Education ...’ Rubbish! He was quite uneducated. ‘Served with Royal Air Force.’ What a liar! Well, that about settles it. The Civil War ended in 1865. This is the kind of style that might well be bred, perhaps could only be bred between the lower Ohio, the Mississippi and the Gulf by what our stylist would call irrevocable, vast, doomed, blind, final, clockless shame, guilt and total defeat.

1865. The date was nearer to his birth than Hitler’s death is to us. He grew up as a boy surrounded by echoes of that fate, listening to yarnings from whites and niggers about the world of the South in its good old days before Emancipation, in the town’s square, in its pubs – he ended as a virtual alcoholic, like his own father – fired by splendid fables about fighters under the Confederate flag like his own great-grandfather, the Old Colonel, known with characteristic Southern panache as the Knight of the Black Plume, or about General J.E.B. (Jeb) Stuart, a dashing raider against the Yankees with his legendary red sash and flashing sword. What else was there to talk about in those obscure villages of the Delta except that unforgettable past, or some freed nigger ripe for lynching, moonshine, hunting coon, fox, wild bear in the forested wilderness a mile or so away from their civilisation? What a desert for a born artist to develop in! A timeless townlet, futureless, ignorant, somnolent, baked in the summer when the heat climbed above the hundreds, empty, offering no escape except more liquor (his wife was in due course to try that too, and drugs, and attempted suicide), or dreamily drawing pretty water-colours, or reading poetry (his best-loved was Swinburne), or dressing like a dandified aesthete, mocked as Count No Count little Faulkner, or buying passion in the brothels of Memphis. Once, rejected in love, he took off for Canada and the RAF: five months drilling and the war over, he was back in his prison the next month, limping on a stick, living with the legend of imaginary aerial combats over France. His last effort to dodge his fate was a brief exile in New Orleans, where the only novelist other than Mark Twain that the South had produced before him, Sherwood Anderson, surveyed the callow young man and bluntly told him, ‘All you know is that little patch up there in Mississippi,’ and sent him back to his unbeloved cradle. Stuck with the place, he looked not at it but through it, let his wild imagination rip, sublimated the actual (his biographer’s excellent phrase in an excellent summary of his ‘Great Discovery’) and without, one feels, in the least realising what he was doing, started to create myths. Years after, Malcolm Cowley, his great admirer, defined the outcome magisterially: ‘Essentially [Faulkner] is not a novelist ... He is an epic or bardic poet in prose.’ As a guide to daily life in the American South at any period, his works are about as informative as Wuthering Heights would be to a Saudi Arabian contemplating a holiday in the Pennines.

If we are unsatisfied with these pointers from a sociologist-historian as to why he had to write as he did, let us turn to a philosopher. Asked once for his concept of Time, he said there isn’t any. ‘There is only the present moment in which I include the past and the future and that is eternity.’ Sartre commented that Faulkner’s work shows a man caught in a metaphysic of Time which by denying chronology denies freedom both to the present and the future: it embeds what we think of as an active present in an unending continuum that drowns it and us in timeless fate; castrates human potency; means that in our sense nothing ever happens, things merely recur. It is a view that would leave in any novel based on it small room for such wilful characters as we are familiar with in Balzac, or Stendhal, or Henry James, or Mark Twain. Malraux went so far as to say that Faulkner conceived his situations in a void without thinking of any character at all, pre-imagining ‘l’écrasement des personnages inconnus’. By writing in terms of myth or saga he evaded this impasse, although in all the great myths – Danae, Atalanta, Orpheus, Midas, Eve – we appreciate the parallel human theme. In his very finest novel Faulkner wedded human theme and saga theme superbly. I refer to the saga of a white-skinned mulatto, partly hating, partly priding in his invisible black blood, who corrupts a middle-aged white woman who has come south to do good among the Blacks. He desires her, perhaps loves her, arouses desire in her chaste body, but feeling his precious hate being enfeebled by her autumnal passion, fills her with the most savage lust, transforms her into a lascivious trollop, hiding from him in cupboards, lying naked in the bushes for him to smell her out. The inevitable end comes when, either not knowing or caring that he is a Black, she tries to enrol him in a campaign to uplift his wretched likes. With his razor he all but decapitates her. Naturally he is duly lynched. Has there been any other novelist except Dostoevsky who could have conceived and written Light in August?

‘A lost soul’? The view of an intellectual. Earlier, in 1945, Sartre had reported that ‘pour les jeunes en France Faulkner c’est un dieu.’ But in that exciting hour of history, its symbol de Gaulle marching down the Champs-Elysées at the head of the victorious Allied troops, French students might have said anything in praise of America. Something in between? Perhaps a lost star wandering high among the fleets of stars, seeking, losing, finding his proper station from which to view and mark that postage stamp of earth, as he called it, that was fated to be his bit of the undefeated South.

It is only when we turn for relief from him to other American writers with more control that we think, yes, these are good but ... and recall his intensity, his almost savage concentration, his almost volcanic rumblings and furious groanings, that we really feel how good and how bad he was, and again ask the gods why they had to give him so much genius and so little of the talent of the simplest craftsman. But where is the use? And why should we ask? Whatever else he did or failed to do, I have the feeling that he wrote in Light in August the first purely American novel, owing, as far as is possible in any created thing, nothing to the traditions of any other country or continent, a tree growing of its own energy out of the black earth of the Delta. If he really did that, then he is his own myth. He had heard the Furies beating their wings.