Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Four-Course Meal of Faulkner

Occasionally I will embark on a self-regimented “reading series” in order to read more deeply into a certain area of literary interest. A few years back I did this with 19th-century British literature, finally getting around to works of such giants as Eliot, Hardy and Lawrence. I’ve got plans one of these years to do one focused on the African experience in America (possibly in 2009), and one exploring modern literature from India. I even have a more ambitious project in mind (and I know I’m not the first to do this!) to “read around the world,” taking on books from six continents and “raiding into dark corners” (to steal from Benedict Kiely) I have yet to explore. Whether that happens any time soon, given my hectic home and work life, is anyone’s guess needless to say… but it never hurts to aim high.

Recently I decided to take on another of these series’, this time attacking the work of William Faulkner. As someone with a fascination and taste for American literature, I felt I needed to know more of his work… and even though I had read such standards as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, I knew there was whole huge chunks of the Faulkner corpus that would reveal far more to me about this complex and intriguing writer. I decided to take on four other works from the Southern master: Sanctuary; If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem; Absalom, Absalom! and finally his last novel The Reivers.

What it was like, plowing through four Faulkner works almost back-to-back? What did I learn from it? Well, it would be hard to sum up in a short post… but I would like to share some impressions of each book and take an amateurish stab at how they might fit into the greater Faulknerian body of work. I’ll take them in the order that I read them…

Sanctuary – This strange foray into the world of noir crime fiction (sort of) is definitely one of the stranger, and in my opinion less successful, Faulkner works. It’s interesting though because we know Faulkner worked for a time in the Hollywood system writing screenplays (most famously, I think, for his script for Chandler’s The Big Sleep), and I wonder if his time doing that sort of nudged him in this direction with his fiction, or whether it was the reverse somehow. Anyway, mixing Southern gothic and noir fictional themes together makes for a dark, murky, strange brew… which would be interesting if more happened in the story. Still, the climactic crime and courtroom scenes that revolve around it still hold some shock value even today… and in Popeye, Faulkner created one of the more menacing heavies in all of American fiction. Fans of Cormac McCarthy might pick up echoes of Faulkner’s descriptions of the Memphis underworld in Suttree’s Knoxville. This is definitely not the place to start with ol’ Billy though.

If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem – Probably one of the most experimental of Faulkner’s novels (along with perhaps A Fable), this tells the seemingly-unrelated stories, in alternating chapters, of a love affair between a man and a married woman and three convicts trying to escape prison across fields flooded by the Mississippi River. Literary types (like myself) will find interest in thinking about what possessed Faulkner to take these two disparate tales, which he was working on separately, and intertwine them together into a larger work… not to mention the utter mystery of taking that phrase from the Old Testament as his title (though this is something Faulkner liked to do, obviously, with his novels – see Absalom, Absalom!). By the way, based on imagery I noticed in this novel (the flooding river engulfing cotton fields and farms, livestock on top of henhouses, not to mention the fact that this is all set in Mississippi), I'm convinced that this book is one of the sources the Coen Brothers were drawing from - whether consciously or not, we'll never know - as they were conceiving and filming their underappreciated O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Absalom, Absalom! – Speaking of… not only was this the most powerful and accomplished of the four novels I read in this series, I think it’s also right up there with As I Lay Dying as my favorite of all Faulkner works. For years schools and literature courses have been using The Sound and The Fury as a way to introduce Faulkner to readers, but in my opinion this is the one novel that best represents his work in terms of setting, themes, characters and concerns. It chronicles the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen and the estate he built up in the Old South – the slaves he kept, the affairs he had, the children he neglected and his dogged ambition to build up some kind of ‘legacy’ in his adopted home state of Mississippi. Rich, complex and deeply evocative of a Southern culture that was quickly fading (although not the racist attitudes that grew up out of it, unfortunately), this is considered by many to be William Faulkner’s masterpiece… and I would have a hard time arguing against that. I think I enjoyed reading Dying more, but this novel amazed me nonetheless with its poetic language and seething passion, rising from every page like Southern humidity.

The Reivers – Faulkner’s last published novel is considerably different in tone and style from all of those previously mentioned… it read to me like the work of a more mellow, older and perhaps wiser writer who’s reflecting on the life he’s led. Hence its (important?) subtitle, A Reminiscence, and its warm and elegiac tone. I’m not sure if this is based on real memories of his or not, but it was interesting to read him writing in the voice of an 11-year-old boy this late into his career, and the upbeat ending came to me as something of a surprise given the somber and menacing tones the other books had struck. It may be a classic case of an artist “mellowing with age” and perhaps losing a bit of his former bite… still, there are interesting aspects to this comic novel, especially in its depiction of the newly-emerging phenomenon of the automobile. His descriptions of driving and maintaining an early Ford and what it was like to traverse long distances through state lands without highways were both humorous and fascinating.

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

Man, I don't know about other readers, but after reading this post, I feel like I ate a four-course meal myself. Excellent post by Duke. He always tells me that his posts "suck", but if you want my honest comment, I do not know what the hell he is talking about. I PROMISE you, if I had read four Faulkner books in a row and attempted to give the lowdown on them in a post here, it would run for about 45 pages. Duke gets to the point, offers succinct descriptions and insights, and moves it right along. If you notice from the post, this is not at all the first innovative reading series Duke has attempted, and you can see from reading his commentaries how well this aggressive reading regimen is boosting his overall literary insight and analytical powers......great job on this Duke! I found it helpful and enjoyable.