Karl’s Darl

M. Wynn Thomas

  • William Faulkner: American Writer by Frederick Karl
    Faber, 1131 pp, £25.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 571 14991 X
  • William Faulkner by David Dowling
    Macmillan, 183 pp, £6.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 333 42855 2

One of the best things to come out of 18th-century Newburyport, Massachusetts was the lengthy autobiography of one of its more colourful citizens, which did not contain a single full stop. Instead, the author provided the reader with a generous assortment of punctuation marks in an appendix, along with an invitation to ‘add salt and pepper as you please.’ In a 1936 review, Clifford Fadiman recommended that the prose of William Faulkner be taken with just such a hefty pinch of salt. Fatigued by ‘the Non-Stop or Life Sentence’ which he considered to be the ruin of Absalom, Absalom!, he declared that ‘all of Mr Faulkner’s shuddering invective pales in horrendousness before the mere notion of parsing him.’ Fadiman’s judgment was not, however, to prevail – once Malcolm Cowley’s Portable selection had, with some assistance from the French, put Yoknapatawpha County on the literary map in 1946.

From then on, an increasing number of readers discovered that this relatively obscure Mississippean had written not one but a whole series of awesome novels – ‘full of the land dug out of his skull and the holes filled with distance beyond the land’, to borrow the words the author himself used of his alter ego Darl in As I lay dying. As Faulkner’s creative powers declined so his reputation grew, aided by his en-Nobelment in 1950. By the time of his death in 1962 he was generally acknowledged to be the greatest American novelist of the 20th century, a judgment which now, with only ten years of the century remaining, seems more secure than ever.

Faulkner was one of those authors (T.S. Eliot being another) who prayed that his immortality as a writer would not entail a Life after death, since he believed all biographers treated the word ‘private’ as if it began with a ‘pry’. His prayer has not been heard by whatever questionable gods currently rule the literary world. In 1974, Joseph Blotner published a biography in two very substantial volumes. Other biographical studies, mercifully slimmer but not necessarily slighter, have followed, until now, with the appearance of Frederick Karl’s thousand-page blockbuster, Faulkner seems to have ended up with almost as many lives as a cat. Blotner’s benign chronicle amassed an enormous amount of valuable material, but at the expense of any decisive clarity of insight. Karl’s biography is admittedly short on new information but is immeasurably sharper than its predecessor.

‘You are shabby fellows, true, but poets still,/And duly seated on the immortal hill,’ wrote Byron with reference to the Lake poets. In honouring Faulkner’s Parnassian talent, Karl doesn’t try to conceal the shabbiness of several aspects of his personality. He emerges from these pages as another of the Great Authors one is glad not to have known – an ever-lengthening list from which it sometimes seems that only the blessedly sane and sunny Sir Walter Scott will in the end be omitted.

Faulkner’s ungrateful and ungracious treatment of his early mentor, Sherwood Anderson, may be charitably interpreted as youthful high jinks (although Karl brings out the malice of rivalry in it). His invitation in distinguished middle age to young women to come and inspect his valuable etchings (alias the manuscripts of his famous novels) may have been as pardonable as it was pathetic, given the Strindbergean state of his marriage. But the unguarded remark he made to his only daughter Jill is a terrible revelation of the ruthlessness that was the backbone of his genius. Jill explained:

I went to him – the only time I ever did – and said, ‘Please don’t start drinking.’ And he was already well on his way, and he turned to me and said, ‘You know, no one remembers Shakespeare’s child.’ I never asked him again.

Such a man was well able to understand the emotional coldness of the killer Popeye in Sanctuary.

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