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

Punctuation Maps of Classic Novels (Medium)

This is one (actual, several) of the strangest literary projects I’ve come across in all my internet trawling: a study of punctuation in classic novels. If you’ve ever wondered what your favorite books look like stripped of words, well, here they are in their undergarments.

The author, one Adam Calhoun, looked at titles ranging from Great Expectations to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and found remarkable disparities in the use of commas, semi-colons, periods, and quotation marks. A Farewell to Arms is, of course, full of short, comma-less sentences and dialogue. Blood Meridian apparently tolerates only the period. And then there’s Absalom, Absalom!, Calhoun’s favorite book, for reasons we can only begin to diagnose.

In Calhoun’s own words:

Clearly, some authors are more okay with long, rambling sentences than others. William Faulkner looks at your short sentences and says nothing less than fuck you.

Calhoun lays out chart after chart to map punctuation use in increasingly interesting ways. Where it gets really weird, and especially beautiful, is in the final “heat map” section—also known as all of the classics rendered as sunsets.

Happy reading, and mapping, if that’s your thing.

75 Books! a.k.a. Three-Quarters! a.k.a. My Deathbed!

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Today is a good day. Today, I finished my 75th book on The List, which—if I remember how Math works—means I’m officially 3/4 of the way through The 100 Greatest Books Challenge.

Of course, these numbers are slightly misleading, since In Search of Lost Time, for all intents and purposes, is not actually one book but six. And, at over 1500 pages, Clarissa might as well be two novels—not to mention The Tale of Genji and The Count of Monte Cristo.

But still. Today is a day for celebration, so let’s pretend Math is our friend and invite him to the festivities.

At some point during this last year of fervent and wild-eyed reading, I started to wonder how I would measure the value of the Challenge. Measuring success is, of course, easy: Victory will be had when I can tick off the last book, raise my fists in the air, and shout to a surprised neighborhood that “I came, I read, I conquered.” Success is 100 books, plain and simple.

But my triumph will mean little if that’s all I get out of it—five minutes of bewildered and exhausted satisfaction before I move on to some other masochistic hobby. Relief never stays as long as the Distress that ushered it in, despite our warmest welcome. I’m aiming for a grander, more profound takeaway.

I’d settle, obviously, for enjoyment—for entertainment. If, at the end of all of this, I can say that I actively took pleasure in reading most of the works I’ve undertaken for this Challenge, it will all be worth it. The thing is, I’ve never actually sat down and counted.

To this end, I decided, on this Day of the 75th Book, that it’s time. It’s a good thing we invited Math after all.

There’s a game I play sometimes called “Love or Hate.” The rules are simple. All you have to do is choose one or the other—Love or Hate—based on a prompt (e.g., tofu, Taylor Swift, Florida).

There’s no sitting on the fence in this game; “Neutral” is not an option. The idea is to search your feelings—to decide once and for all which way you’d lean if the madman with a gun to your head really, really wanted to know your opinion on leggings-worn-as-pants.

Today, I will be playing “Love or Hate” with the 100 Greatest Books of All Time.

Well, OK, 75 of them, anyway (or so says Math).

The books I’ve read are in self-congratulatory bold. Here we go:

  1. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (L)
  2. Ulysses, James Joyce
  3. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (L)
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (L)
  5. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (L)
  6. 1984, George Orwell (L)
  7. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  8. In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
  9. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (L)
  10. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (L)
  11. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (L)
  12. Middlemarch, George Eliot (L)
  13. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez (L)
  14. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (H)
  15. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (L)
  16. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (L)
  17. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (L)
  18. On the Road, Jack Kerouac (L)
  19. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift (L)
  20. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (H)
  21. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
  22. Beloved, Toni Morrison (L)
  23. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James (L)
  24. The Iliad, Homer
  25. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner (H)
  26. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster (H)
  27. Native Son, Richard Wright
  28. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (L)
  29. The Odyssey, Homer (H)
  30. Catch-22, Joseph Heller (L)
  31. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (H)
  32. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (L)
  33. The Trial, Franz Kafka (L)
  34. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
  35. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (L)
  36. Emma, Jane Austen (L)
  37. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
  38. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (H)
  39. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (L)
  40. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (H)
  41. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien (H)
  42. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (H)
  43. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (L)
  44. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë (H)
  45. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (L)
  46. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren (L)
  47. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (L)
  48. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (L)
  49. The Aeneid, Virgil (L)
  50. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
  51. The Tin Drum, Günter Grass
  52. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray (L)
  53. The Call of the Wild, Jack London (L)
  54. The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford (L)
  55. Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett (H)
  56. Animal Farm, George Orwell (L)
  57. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (L)
  58. Oedipus the King, Sophocles (L)
  59. Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais
  60. U.S.A., John Dos Passos
  61. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (currently reading, currently loving)
  62. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne (H)
  63. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
  64. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (L)
  65. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (L)
  66. Clarissa, Samuel Richardson
  67. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (H)
  68. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (H)
  69. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins (L)
  70. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe (L)
  71. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (L)
  72. Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
  73. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
  74. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  75. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (L)
  76. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (L)
  77. Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence (H)
  78. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (H)
  79. Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White
  80. Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
  81. Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (H)
  82. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (H)
  83. Hamlet, William Shakespeare (L)
  84. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway (H)
  85. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (L)
  86. Light in August, William Faulkner (L)
  87. Rabbit, Run, John Updike (H)
  88. The Stranger, Albert Camus (L)
  89. Herzog, Saul Bellow (H)
  90. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin (L)
  91. The Awakening, Kate Chopin (L)
  92. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
  93. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  94. Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  95. King Lear, William Shakespeare (L)
  96. Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (L)
  97. Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline (L)
  98. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas (currently reading, currently loving)
  99. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (H)
  100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Whew. That was brutal, if you could have peeked behind the curtain. Let the record show, though, that if forced, I will admit to liking a reasonable 52 out of 75 classics.

All is well until we hit Faulkner and Steinbeck, those sadistic sons of bitches, at #14 and #20. What did we ever do to them, right?*

From there, though, the love is touch-and-go. My most neutral feelings (and, therefore, the hardest decisions) were reserved for Forster’s A Passage to India, Homer’s The Odyssey, and Mann’s The Magic Mountain. And it would be a stretch to say I LOVED The Brothers Karamazov, Robinson Crusoe, or The Stranger, but I loved them more than I hated them. So I guess that qualifies as value in some microscopic form.

I’m starting to suspect that the ultimate value of The Challenge will be the opportunity (via this blog, and a busybody mouth) to share my thoughts and reading recommendations with others. And while I have a tendency to mock even those classics I loved (one of few victimless crimes, as far as I’m concerned, unless fans of Tolkien count), it’s good to know there’s plenty of staggering, transformative, extraordinary reading behind me—and, hopefully, ahead of me.

Since I celebrated 50 books in November of last year, savoring 75 books now means that my brain swallowed up 25 whole classics in the last 12 months (there’s that Math again; does he ever shut up?). I note this with more fatigue than pride. But all that reading has given me lots to contemplate, appreciate, and share. So before we sign off on this Day of #75, let’s look back at some of the best sentence inventions I’ve read all year:

From Catch-22 by Joseph Heller:

Appleby was a fair-haired boy from Iowa who believed in God, Motherhood and the American Way of Life, without ever thinking about any of them. 

From Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe:

There was a saying in Umuofia that as a man danced so the drums were beaten for him. Mr. Smith danced a furious step and so the drums went mad.

From A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.

From Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh:

“Sometimes,” said Julia, “I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.”

From The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky: 

I am writing a curse, yet I adore you! I hear it in my heart. One string is left, and it sings.

From Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin:

As the years passed, she replied only: “I’m going away from here.” And it hung, this determination, like a heavy jewel between her breasts; it was written in fire on the dark sky of her mind.

From The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: 

I don’t want every one to like me; I should think less of myself if some people did.

From Light in August by William Faulkner:

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.

From King Lear by William Shakespeare:

But his flawed heart—
Alack, too weak the conflict to support—
’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief
Burst smilingly.

And, finally, from All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren:

The best luck always happens to people who don’t need it.

That’s all for today. Happy reading to you and yours! May you read ever, and much.

*This blog post was drafted before Faulkner worked his August magic on me. I still think he’s a sadistic son-of-a-bitch, though. So I left that part in.

Faulkner’s Mission in Life (and Death): Keeping Me on My Toes, Apparently

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Never let your reader’s guard down, folks. When you least expect it, literary surprises will arrive in your lap wrapped up in Christmas paper, or spring out of musical jack-in-the-boxes, or throw pebbles at your window in the dark of night. You may not even believe what you’re seeing when they emerge from the shadows, out of unprecedented horror or incredulous joy. But they’re everywhere, and they’re waiting for you.

I know. It happened to me.

Guys:

I just found out that Faulkner can write normal, coherent books like a normal, human writer.

I swear it’s true. I’ve seen it—I’ve read it—with my own two normal, coherent(?), human eyes. And if you don’t believe me, remember this is coming from a person who once suspected Faulkner’s collective literary output of being the result of his cat jumping on his typewriter.

It happened just this week. There I was, sitting on the couch all alone across from a sad homemade smoothie, when, at once, I heaved a sigh and turned to the first page of Light in August.

And then I read it.

And then I turned to the second page of Light in August.

And then I read that, too.

And then, I don’t even know how it happened, exactly, but one thing led to another, and within a handful of days I had read all 507 pages of Light in August.

Read and understood them.

WITHOUT SPARKNOTES.

Because, you see, Light in August is a normal, coherent book written by a normal, human writer for a normal, literate audience. It is not a battlefield of a book, like The Sound and the Fury. It is not a book that made 18-year-old me quake in my English Major boots, like Absalom, Absalom! It’s a treat, is what it is. Or, if not a treat, then, like, a yogurt. Interesting enough, when you’re in the mood for it.

I am still in shock, truth be told. At odd moments, I actually felt myself enjoying Light in August. I felt myself compelled to read on so I could find out what happened next. I felt myself invested in Lena, and Byron, and Rev. Hightower, and Joe Christmas’s individual and shared plight(s). I felt myself awed by Faulkner’s obvious talent.

All of this forces me to admit that I might have been wrong about Faulkner—might have judged him too soon. Yes, some of his books are roughly as intelligible as a word search read from left to right. Yes, some of his books reveal the inner workings of a sadist’s mind (all Southern decay, incest, and bootlegging). But that’s not all Faulkner’s (so-called) genius yielded in his 43-year career. Every sadist has a soft spot, and—knowing that I’m duty-bound to sweat through four of his novels—I think Faulkner just found one for me.

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It all—and by “all,” I mean the Challenge, and my sanity—hinges on As I Lay Dying, number four of four. If you’re listening, Faulkner, do me a solid and tone down the babbling nonsense you’re so famous for this one last time. Hit me with your best shot, but make it straight and true. Go easy on me—and I think we just might get along.

Ernest Hemingway: #68 The Sun Also Rises and #84 A Farewell to Arms

I might as well get this out of the way: I don’t like Hemingway.

I don’t like him. I don’t aggressively dislike him, so you can remove your fighting gloves. Rather, I lazily, passively, non-confrontationally dislike him. I’m not worked up about it—I just don’t understand the appeal.

Sure, if you’re the gun-toting, Ron Swanson-worshiping, carnivorous, hyper-masculine type, Hemingway is an obvious candidate for a literary crush (except you would never crush on a dude, because you’re also an obvious candidate for homophobia). But if you’re anything like me, Hemingway’s popularity is a little puzzling. His plotlines are erratic and half-baked. His characters are vapid and shallow (unless you subscribe to the “Iceberg Theory”—a topic I’ll sideswipe later, much like the Titanic). And his “style”? Well, now, we’re getting optimistic.

Hemingway’s output invariably reads like a first draft to me—like an outline he never got around to developing. It’s the bare bones of story and character; the Wikipedia version, sans emotion. It’s also repetitive, simplistic, and dull, as long as we’re counting transgressions. Without knowing its author, I would guess that The Sun Also Rises was a series of diary entries written by a ten-year-old with a moderate vocabulary and irresponsible parents.

Take this example:

The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta. All during the fiesta you had the feeling, even when it was quiet, that you had to shout any remark to make it heard. It was the same feeling about any action. It was a fiesta and it went on for seven days.

So no, I don’t “get” Hemingway. Maybe he was good at other things that are not the subject of this blog. But writing? Not so much. I’d even bet good money that Hemingway would make for a tiresome Facebook friend, if he thinks this text is worth the ink:

I felt I was a fool to be going back into Spain. In Spain you could not tell about anything. I felt like a fool to be going back into it, but I stood in line with my passport, opened my bags for the customs, bought a ticket, went through a gate, climbed onto the train, and after forty minutes and eight tunnels I was at San Sebastian.

I’m sure the many, many Hemingway fans out in the great big “there” are just as baffled by my apathy as I am by their admiration. After all, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Around that same time, the New Yorker said he “may well be the greatest living American novelist and short-story writer.” Hemingway critics and enthusiasts have called his style “lean,” “spare,” “athletic,” “hard-boiled,” “terse,” and “economical” (as if any of these descriptions were compliments).

In any case, his literary charms have apparently taken a flight path right over my head.

Perhaps the breakdown in communication between good ol’ Ernest and me lies with the so-called “Iceberg Theory,” or “theory of omission.” The theory cleverly rewrites the definition of good writing to include Hemingway, who wrote what most of us used to call bad writing. His claim to a fame bordering on literary immortality is a minimalistic style that dismisses context, detail, and theme, leaving intact only surface-level events and dialogue. Subtext, according to Hemingway, is more important than text—and it’s the audience’s job to read between the lines.

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Maybe he’s right, and maybe I’m wrong. MAYBE. Or maybe it’s just a matter of opinion, and there is no shame in my Jazz-Snob-reminiscent eye roll at all this iceberg nonsense. For me, Hemingway’s precious icebergs fall utterly flat. They’re not even icebergs. They’re just your mundane, mainstream ice sheets—the kind that are literally, physically depressing the entire country of Greenland. The kind that are, in their very essence, cold, and horrible, and boring.

EVEN MORE BORING AS A DIAGRAM

EVEN MORE BORING AS A DIAGRAM

Hemingway believed the strength of a story emerges from what isn’t there. But I remain camped out on the other side of the argument: The strength of a story emerges from what is there. What it comes down to, maybe, is that—at the spectator level, at least—I’d rather watch God spend six days painting the universe into existence than guess how the Big Bang created something out of nothing. And, given the choice, wouldn’t Hemingway join me? Wouldn’t he park himself right there next to me in a ridiculous turtleneck and pour me a glass of whiskey? Wouldn’t he??

So why all the iceberg absurdity?

To be fair, I thought A Farewell to Arms was an improvement over The Sun Also Rises, and can only assume The Old Man and the Sea is better still. Farewell, at least, meets war head-on, and greets love by name, and tries to tangle with my emotions instead of tango-ing right past them. Farewell has battlefields and hospitals and rowboats. Farewell has ever so slight suspense, and characters I almost cared about. Farewell has sex.

Well, almost sex.

But every time, the fatal tripwire is Hemingway’s iceberg-raw style. Yes, a couple of short and easy reads were welcome on a TBR list full of weighty, self-important, long-winded snoozers. But that doesn’t mean I have to like them any more than their stale, tedious counterparts.

Oh, and speaking of those laborious counterparts, let’s pay our dues to the over-hyped Hemingway-Faulkner rivalry. According to dubious sources, it all started sometime last century in a flurry of typewriters and tears.

While each respected the other’s talent, Hemingway and Faulkner took polarized approaches to writing. You’ve heard, by now, about Hemingway’s literary method: Brevity is the soul deathbed of wit. But what about Faulkner?

Faulkner, for his part, opted for impenetrable, abstract, stream-of-consciousness ramblings related out of order with dramatic literary flourishes. In other words, his iceberg isn’t just submerged in murky waters; it’s pretty much invisible to human eyes.

The most famous exchange between the two began with Faulkner commenting that Hemingway had never been known to use a word that would send a reader to the dictionary. Hemingway’s response:

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?

I would hardly count myself among Faulkner’s groupie were he alive, but I can discern more beauty in a single sentence written by Faulkner than an entire novel written by Hemingway (and not just because they would be, in all likelihood, the same approximate length). Critics have long compared Hemingway’s style with journalism, especially given Hemingway’s background as a journalist. But we don’t seek the literary in a newspaper, do we? We seek facts, not frills.

When I pick up a classic, I’m not looking for brief and informative, or coy and mysterious. I’m looking for writing that sounds the depths of the human condition—not writing that taps quietly and impatiently at the surface, waiting for me to open the door myself.

Yes, Faulkner is a challenging knot to untie. But he’s more interesting than the limp shoelace that is Hemingway.

I’ll stop there. I think (and hope) you get the idea: The next time you happen across Hemingway OR Faulkner in your local bookstore, back away slowly. Whatever you do, don’t pick up For Whom the Bell Tolls or As I Lay Dying, and certainly don’t take them anywhere near the cash register.

The price you’ll pay will be your sanity.

Are They Two of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’m too busy yawning to answer this question.

Favorite Quotes:

From The Sun Also Rises:

I never liked to hunt, you know. There was always the danger of having a horse fall on you.

“You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch.”
“Yes.”
“It’s sort of what we have instead of God.”

From A Farewell to Arms:

“They say if you can prove you did any heroic act you can get the silver. Otherwise it will be the bronze. Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?”
“No,” I said. “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.

Read: 2014, 2015