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’.

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