The One Where I Review What’s Left of Faulkner with What’s Left of My Mind

It is with great sadness indescribable joy that William Faulkner and I announce our separation. After nine wonderful agonizing years together, we both feel that it is time to move on. We ask that you please respect our privacy join in celebrating alongside us during this difficult time before we run out of cake and champagne. Our two beautiful children mutual regret and shame remain, as always, our top priority immune to all forms of therapy.

P.S. For the record, it was all his fault.

If you’ve accidentally stumbled upon this blog in the past, you may already be up to speed on my thoughts re: Faulkner. You may already know that I consider him one of my literary arch-enemies, a formidable challenge-within-The-Challenge, and something of a sadistic son-of-a-bitch even on his best days. I’ve made snide remarks about his use (or abuse) of grammar, his sour relationship with Hemingway, and my suspicion that it was, in fact, his cat who did the bulk of the work on many of his best-known novels. I’ve even written up Four Rules for Reading Faulkner as a kind of CPR for all those issuing Do Not Resuscitate orders mid-way through a reckless attempt at taking him down one-on-one.

But I’ve got one thing left to say to him before we part.

First, though, I must offer up some sort of sacrificial review to the literary gods, since I swore to report back (in some form, at least) on all 100 books on The List. The Sound and the Fury, which I compare to an army crawl, is here. But that leaves three more to revisit before we wash our hands of this mess—because, of course, Faulkner was not just “Great” in the eyes of his critics, not just demanding in the eyes of his readers, but also startlingly industrious.

It figures.

Here we go:

Absalom, Absalom! and I go way back. It was, in fact, my first encounter with Faulkner, long ago in my early college years, and the origin story of our Epic Struggle. And OK, that struggle might have been a little one-sided, but it’s hard to believe Faulkner didn’t mean any of it personally. This is some sick, Saw-level shit.

Here’s the Absalom, Absalom! excerpt I shared in my Four Rules post:

I can see him corrupting Henry gradually into the purlieus of elegance, with no foreword, no warning, the postulation to come after the fact, exposing Henry slowly to the surface aspect–the architecture a little curious, a little femininely flamboyant and therefore to Henry opulent, sensuous, sinful; the inference of great and easy wealth measured by steamboat loads in place of a tedious inching of sweating human figures across cotton fields; the flash and glitter of a myriad carriage wheels, in which women, enthroned and immobile and passing rapidly across the vision, appeared like painted portraits beside men in linen and a little finer and diamonds a little brighter and in broadcloth a little trimmer and with hats raked a little more above faces a little more darkly swaggering than any Henry had ever seen before: and the mentor, the man for whose sake he had repudiated not only blood and kin but food and shelter and clothing too, whose clothing and walk and speech he had tried to ape, along with his attitude toward women and his ideas of honor and pride too, watching him with that cold and catlike inscrutable calculation, watching the picture resolve and become fixed and then telling Henry, ‘But that’s not it. That’s just the base, the foundation. It can belong to anyone’: and Henry, ‘You mean, this is not it? That it is above this, higher than this, more select than this?’: and Bon, ‘Yes. This is only the foundation. This belongs to anybody.’: a dialogue without words, speech, which would fix and then remove without obliterating one line the picture, this background, leaving the background, the plate prepared and innocent again: the plate docile, with that puritan’s humility toward anything which is a matter of sense rather than logic, fact, the man, the struggling and suffocating heart behind it saying I will believe! I will! I will! Whether it is true or not, I will believe! waiting for the next picture which the mentor, the corruptor, intended for it: that next picture, following the fixation and acceptance of which the mentor would say again, perhaps with words now, still watching the sober and thoughtful face but still secure in his knowledge and trust in that puritan heritage which must show disapproval instead of surprise or even despair and nothing at all rather than have the disapprobation construed as surprise or despair: ‘But even this is not it’: and Henry, ‘You mean, it is still higher than this, still above this?’

Please note that in Faulkner Land—Yoknapatawpha County, or the Ghastliest Place on Earth—all of the above is one sentence.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading Faulkner, it’s that with every Epic Struggle comes an Epic But. Usually the But goes something like, “But it’s so rewarding!” “But you’ll feel so much better afterwards!” “But it’s totally worth it!” I know you won’t believe that, though, not after seeing the savage beast of a sentence above.

No, Faulkner is not exactly what I would call rewarding, BUT he is what I would call gratifying. And Absalom, Absalom! has its unfair share of gratifying moments. (You’ll see for yourself, later, when we reach my Favorite Quotes.)

Faulkner’s ninth novel, Absalom, Absalom! (1936), is the story of one Thomas Sutpen, whose life mirrors the rise and fall of the American South in the Civil War era. Sutpen sets out to establish a powerful dynasty in Jefferson, Mississippi, but can’t shake the dark secrets lurking in his past. (By dark, I mean, of course, black. This book is full of racists.)

Told out of sequence by a diverse cast of characters from multiple generations and with more or less distant connections to the Sutpen family, Absalom, Absalom! is one of the most confusing, laborious, and fascinating classics I’ve come across in The Challenge. It has been called the best Southern novel of all time and contributed to Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature. It also contains a 1,292-word sentence that earned an entry in the 1983 Guinness Book of World Records.

So, yeah, we might have to come up with some new superlatives for this book. Backbreaking-est? Punishing-est? Surpassing-est? Faulkner-iest?

I’ll keep working on it in my abundant free time.

Remember what I said about the Epic But? Well, some Epic Buts are more predictable than others. I’d pretty much resigned myself to my Epic Struggle with Faulkner after The Sound and the Fury and Absalom Absalom!, only to receive another curveball to the face—another Epic But—in the form of Light in August.

Far from being another trek through the word jungles that flourished in Faulkner’s fertile mind, Light in August (1932) was more of a stroll through the countryside—pleasant, fresh, and invigorating. Sure, it’s about the decapitation of an abolitionist woman and the manhunt for her killer. But it’s also a love story, a study of race and identity, a Southern gothic influenced by history and mystery, and—most importantly—highly accessible in terms of style (at least, compared with Faulkner’s other novels).

It’s the only one out of all four novels (Faulkner appears more often than any other author on The List) that I actively enjoyed, if only because it felt less like a hammer to the skull. It left me, in fact, to wonder if Faulkner thought it best for the two of us to apologize, shake hands like gentlefolk, and call time on our by-now-lukewarm rivalry.

But just to be safe, I kept one wary eye on him.

Last up was As I Lay Dying (1930). I listened to it on audiobook for reasons I have since forgotten. Fortunately, audiobook proved to be a format well-adapted to the story, which follows the many perspectives of the Bundren family as they transport their mother’s corpse to Jefferson, Mississippi (her hometown and requested burial ground). Unfortunately, the cover image that graced my Moto G for the duration of As I Lay Dying fueled countless nightmares:

A neighbor to Light in August in terms of style, As I Lay Dying is a much more straightforward read than either Absalom, Absalom! or The Sound and the Fury—but it lacks their coquettish intrigue and chaotic vitality. Three novels later, I’d come to expect a certain… well, sound and fury from Faulkner’s heavyweight imagination, and this book didn’t even put up a fight. Anticipating, once again, an Epic Struggle, I was left with yet another Epic But.

And this time, for the very first time, as dusk crept up on The Challenge, Faulkner left me disappointed.

So what was it, you ask—the last thing I want to say to Faulkner before we bury our firearms, turn about-face, and march on forever toward separate horizons?

A soldier’s farewell, of course: Good-bye. Good luck. And see you in Hell.

Because I have a feeling—a tickling suspicion—that we’ll meet again someday.

Old enemies friends always do.

Are They Four of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I would never have admitted this during my reading, but in retrospect—and from, now, a great distance—Faulkner brought something unique to The Challenge, something unprecedented and unrivaled.

…Which must be why, then, he has a habit of making the reader his adversary.

Favorite Quotes:

Absalom, Absalom!

But that our cause, our very life and future hopes and past pride, should have been thrown into the balance with men like that to buttress it—men with valor and strength but without pity or honor. Is it any wonder that Heaven saw fit to let us lose? 

Perhaps I couldn’t even have wanted more than that, couldn’t have accepted less.

I waited not for light but for that doom which we call female victory which is: endure and then endure, without rhyme or reason or hope of reward—and then endure.

Don’t talk to me of love but let me tell you, who know already more of love than you will ever know or need.

I now believe that you and I are, strangely enough, included among those who are doomed to live.

I will tell you what he did and let you be the judge. (Or try to tell you, because there are some things for which three words are three too many, and three thousand words that many words too less, and this is one of them. It can be told; I could take that many sentences, repeat the bold blank naked and outrageous words just as he spoke them, and bequeath you only that same aghast and outraged unbelief I knew when I comprehended what he meant; or take three thousand sentences and leave you only that Why? Why? and Why? that I have asked and listened to for almost fifty years.)

That was the miscast summer of my barren youth which (for that short time, that short brief unreturning springtime of the female heart) I lived out not as a woman, a girl, but rather as the man which I perhaps should have been. 

There is that might-have-been which is the single rock we cling to above the maelstrom of unbearable reality.

And then one afternoon—oh there was a fate in it: afternoon and afternoon and afternoon: do you see? the death of hope and love, the death of pride and principle, and then the death of everything.

I will accept either an apology or a bullet, as you prefer.

Read: 2014

Light in August

She continues to watch him with that expression not so much concerned for the future as suspicious of the now.

I mind how I said to you once that there is a price for being good the same as for being bad; a cost to pay. And it’s the good men that cant deny the bill when it comes around.

Yet neither surrendered; worse: they would not let one another alone; he would not even go away. And they would stand for a while longer in the quiet dusk peopled, as though from their loins, by a myriad ghosts of dead sins and delights, looking at one another’s still and fading face, weary, spent, indomitable.

It is because so much happens. Too much happens. That’s it. Man performs, engenders, so much more than he can or should have to bear. That’s how he finds that he can bear anything. That’s it. That’s what is so terrible. That he can bear anything, anything.

It is as though he has already and long since outstripped himself, already waiting at the cabin until he can catch up and enter. And then I will stand there and I will. . . . . . . He tries it again: Then I will stand there and I will. . . . . . . But he can get no further than that. He is in the road again now, approaching a wagon homeward bound from town. It is about six oclock. He does not give up, however. Even if I cant seem to get any further than that: when I will open the door and come in and stand there. And then I will. Look at her. Look at her. Look at her———

Read: 2015

As I Lay Dying

I told Addie it want any luck living on a road when it come by here, and she said, for the world like a woman, “Get up and move, then.” But I told her it want no luck in it, because the Lord put roads for travelling: why He laid them down flat on the earth. When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it longways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man.

People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too. 

She was watching me. But then, in the eyes all of them look like they had no age and knew everything in the world, anyhow. 

Sometimes I ain’t sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.

Read: 2016

Four Rules for Reading Faulkner

I'm resurrecting this photo, mainly because it's in the creative commons.

I’m resurrecting this photo, mainly because it’s in the creative commons.

In November, I read Absalom, Absalom!

It was the second time I’ve tackled one of Faulkner’s novels—and I never thought I’d say this, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. That, and Absalom, Absalom! is slightly less disorienting than The Sound and the Fury (and slightly means a lot in Yoknapatawpha County).

While I’m still facing two more of his novels—there are more of Faulkner’s works on the List of 100 Greatest Books of All Time than any other author—this lineup is starting to feel somewhat less like a firing squad. Why? Because each time, I’m a little more prepared, and a little less naïve. And because, now, I come armed. Here are my Four Rules for Reading Faulkner, in case anyone else is tricked into reading him:

1. Study a detailed synopsis on SparkNotes beforehand.

Yes, this will obviously spoil the entire plot for you. Tweet a sad emoticon and then get over it. This is the first Rule for a reason: Faulkner tends to presume from the opening line of each of his novels that you, the reader, already know what happens later… so actually knowing what happens later is the only way to follow his twisting, turning, turbulent, tenebrous trains of thought.

Some may say this is cheating. I say that sometimes you have to cheat just to stay in the game… and in this case, the outcome is the same either way: Faulkner WILL get the best of you,* no matter how prepared you are. You might as well try to get something out of it.

*Noam Chomsky is the only possible exception to this, but I doubt he is reading this blog.

Noam Chomsky, if you are reading this blog, I love you and forgive you for obviously Googling yourself and clicking through thousands of results to reach this page.

2. Slow down.

Faulkner’s books aren’t long, but they are (very) dense. Set aside a chunk of time—at least half an hour—to sit down and consume them a handful of pages at a time (at a pace, in other words, that can barely be distinguished from “idle”). Whatever you do, don’t try to swallow them whole; take small bites and chew thoroughly. Faulkner’s prose can read gently and rhythmically, like all things aquatic, if you give it a chance. Otherwise it’s just a misshapen dump-heap of half-formed thoughts bombarding you all at once.

So slow down, you crazy child. And keep in mind that if you’ve only got five minutes to set aside for Absalom, Absalom!, or Light in August, or whatever, you may not manage to finish a single sentence. Which brings me to Rule Number Three.

3. Concentrate.

To illustrate this point, here’s a brief typical excerpt from Absalom, Absalom!:

I can see him corrupting Henry gradually into the purlieus of elegance, with no foreword, no warning, the postulation to come after the fact, exposing Henry slowly to the surface aspect–the architecture a little curious, a little femininely flamboyant and therefore to Henry opulent, sensuous, sinful; the inference of great and easy wealth measured by steamboat loads in place of a tedious inching of sweating human figures across cotton fields; the flash and glitter of a myriad carriage wheels, in which women, enthroned and immobile and passing rapidly across the vision, appeared like painted portraits beside men in linen and a little finer and diamonds a little brighter and in broadcloth a little trimmer and with hats raked a little more above faces a little more darkly swaggering than any Henry had ever seen before: and the mentor, the man for whose sake he had repudiated not only blood and kin but food and shelter and clothing too, whose clothing and walk and speech he had tried to ape, along with his attitude toward women and his ideas of honor and pride too, watching him with that cold and catlike inscrutable calculation, watching the picture resolve and become fixed and then telling Henry, ‘But that’s not it. That’s just the base, the foundation. It can belong to anyone’: and Henry, ‘You mean, this is not it? That it is above this, higher than this, more select than this?’: and Bon, ‘Yes. This is only the foundation. This belongs to anybody.’: a dialogue without words, speech, which would fix and then remove without obliterating one line the picture, this background, leaving the background, the plate prepared and innocent again: the plate docile, with that puritan’s humility toward anything which is a matter of sense rather than logic, fact, the man, the struggling and suffocating heart behind it saying I will believe! I will! I will! Whether it is true or not, I will believe! waiting for the next picture which the mentor, the corruptor, intended for it: that next picture, following the fixation and acceptance of which the mentor would say again, perhaps with words now, still watching the sober and thoughtful face but still secure in his knowledge and trust in that puritan heritage which must show disapproval instead of surprise or even despair and nothing at all rather than have the disapprobation construed as surprise or despair: ‘But even this is not it’: and Henry, ‘You mean, it is still higher than this, still above this?’

All of that is one sentence. A run-on, obviously, but still “one” sentence. Faulkner takes it for granted that you will patiently absorb this nearly page-long monstrosity of a sentence in one go; that you will claw your way to the meaning behind it with your superpowers brainpower; and that you will not be interrupted in either of these tasks by the oven timer, that super loud real estate agent who always sits by you on the subway, a call from your mom, an Amazon delivery, or a strong, sudden urge to pee. It (this presumption) may be a little rude of him (Faulkner), but there you have it. Don’t fight him on it. Remember: Faulkner ALWAYS WINS. He’s kind of an asshole that way.

4. Listen.

Even after you’ve read the SparkNotes, and slowed down, and concentrated, you may still have no idea what Faulkner is saying half the time. (By “you,” I of course mean “I.” But also you, unless you’re Noam Chomsky.) Faulkner’s style is abstract, crowded, and ambiguous—and if you let it, this can cause a lot of frustration. Don’t let it. Even if you don’t catch the meaning behind every marathon runner of a sentence, you can indulge in the beautiful, rolling, rambling power of his words. Faulkner’s prose is like music in a foreign language: you don’t have to understand the words to like how it sounds.

 

What Lies Beyond (the Rules)

Am I ever going to call Faulkner a favorite author? I doubt it. Do I like him at all? I haven’t decided quite yet. I’m certainly glad he’s dead, and can no longer create illustrious works of fiction quite so prolifically. (Four novels is plenty of Faulkner to commit to reading for this Challenge.) But I do admire him, like an incoherent grandfather figure, and that’s a start.

For those of you who read this entire post and are still thinking How bad can it be? I’ll just grab that copy of As I Lay Dying from my teenage son’s dusty bookshelf and give it a go!, don’t worry.

I’ll pray for you.