Thursday, August 18, 2022

Summer of Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom!


My final read for my Summer of Faulkner is one a panel of judges in 2009 called the best Southern novel of all time (one scholar called it “the only serious rival to Melville’s Moby-Dick as the great American novel”—and well, I hated that book so I call into question this entire panel.) But I do get that Absalom, Absalom! explores the complex structure of the South—class, race, tradition—in an notably comprehensive way.

The novel tells the story of the rise and (because it’s Faulkner) inevitable fall of Thomas Sutpen, a white man who starts out poor with ambitions of power and wealth. He lives a complicated life, with past indiscretions casting shadows on his present circumstances. And his prior sins come back to haunt not only him, but his children. The whole thing is like a Shakespearean tragedy, if I’m being honest, with twists and violence and no way to a happy ending for, really, anyone.

Like the other novels I read this summer, Absalom, Absalom! (titled after the Biblical story of King David and his wayward son) addresses the decline of plantation culture, the evils of slavery, and sexual misconduct. And the novel is often lauded for its method of—you guessed it, multiple narrators. But for me, this time the method was a problem. Every narrator is both reliable and unreliable to some degree—the point being that this is how history is relayed. Sutpen’s “story” is recounted in flashbacks narrated by Quentin Compson, who got his information from a variety of sources/other narrators. There are layers upon layers as to what is “true.” And for me, the storytelling method was too cumbersome, too convoluted, and in the end, weighed down the overall effect.

Who knows—maybe I have Faulkner fatigue. I’ll allow that I didn’t read this last novel on a vacation but rather, during my regular, busy life. At times, it was a struggle to read (and don’t get me started on the almost-forty consecutive pages of italics in the middle of the book). Of course, it’s still Faulkner and there were many moments of brilliance and enough to keep me plodding along. Perhaps I’ll file Absalom, Absalom! in the “Give Another Chance” column, for sometime down the road.

And that’s a wrap on my Summer of Faulkner. Usually, I have some idea of what I’d like to do for the next summer, but I haven't really considered. I may do another author—I liked immersing myself in a single writer’s voice. Or maybe some other theme will hit me. In the meantime, I don't think I'm finished with Faulkner. I intend to read a few more over the non-summer months. He really is an incomparable writer.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Summer of Faulkner: Light in August


Light in August begins like this:

“Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama : a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking.’"

and it ends like this:

“’My, my. A body does get around. Here we aint been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it’s already Tennessee.’”

The novel covers this short period during which Lena Grove finds herself in Jefferson, Mississippi, where she’s come to seek the father of her unborn child, Lucas Burch, a man who promised to send for her and didn’t.

Lena is a sympathetic character from the start, because of her situation and gumption, and because of her naivete in believing that somewhere, Burch will be waiting with the house and marriage she thinks he promised.

But Lena Grove isn’t the main character of Faulkner’s seventh novel published in 1932; one of the masterful things about the author’s method in Light in August is the alternating points of view. It’s a common, Faulknerian technique and yet, he seems to go about it in a unique way for each novel. Here, an alternating omniscience allows us into the minds of several of the characters, but often a new, periphery character is introduced at a particular moment as if to lend a degree of objectivity. In this way, the points of view contribute to the furthering of plot, while also lending depth to the themes of the book. I don't even know if I'm describing this well. A simple way to say it is that everything in this book is doing several things at once. Everything. It's truly masterful, a novel I could read over and over, I believe, and find new satisfactions each time.

We follow young, pregnant Lena into Jefferson much like a camera follows a subject. We meet other characters, each, like her, carrying some burden from the past. Reverend Hightower spent a childhood obsessed with his grandfather, a Civil War hero, and was ousted from his church position after a personal tragedy. Byron Bunch maintains a friendship with the reverend but is otherwise solitary and isolated until Lena’s arrival. Joanna Burden is a spinster whose family has a long history of anti-slavery activism and intermixing with blacks. And because one of Faulkner’s primary preoccupations in the novel is the relationship between and status for both whites and blacks in the South—well, it makes perfect sense that Joanna, with her confusion about her place among the races, becomes involved with our main character, Joe Christmas, a light-skinned man who has lived as both white and black at certain times of his life.

The characterization of Joe Christmas is nuanced and deep; he’s an orphan who suffers abuse and alienation throughout his childhood and becomes a drifter. I think one of the most impressive things about Faulkner’s drawing of this character is that even when Christmas becomes more and more corrupted and driven to terrible acts, we still feel sympathetic. Because of his violent upbringing and the lack of a mother, Christmas’s feelings for and about women are convoluted, his feelings about race, the same. He has never been allowed any sort of peace and when he finds it in short spells, he sabotages and destroys. On the race issue, never fitting in completely, he lives his life ready to fight.

“Now and then he could see them: heads in silhouette, a white blurred garmented shape; on a lighted veranda four people sat about a card table, the white faces intent and sharp in the low light, the bare arms of the women glaring smooth and white above the trivial cards. ‘That’s all I wanted,” he thought. ‘That dont seem like a whole lot to ask.’”

Note the repetition of the word "white" in that passage. It should be noted that in addition to an intricate plot and a cast of memorable characters, Light in August contains some of the best prose I’ve read on this Faulkner journey. Like this, our first glimpse of five-year-old Joe Christmas:

“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or a zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrowlike childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears.”

I mean. Could the story of Joe Christmas have gone any way but tragically?

For each, well-drawn character, the past guides the present, and the plot of Light in August reveals, through twists and turns, all of the connections between these complex people. As is the case with the other novels I’ve read this summer, Faulkner has something to say about the choices for women and sexuality, about the lasting effect of slavery and racial violence and injustice, and about the South’s rich history and traditions. But race is perhaps the major consideration of the novel and about that, he reflects the devastation but offers no answers or resolution. It’s left for the characters to trudge forward, as Lena continues her journey through the South.

I remembered this book as a favorite from when I read it over twenty years ago; it’s my favorite of the books I’ve read this go-round.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Summer of Faulkner: As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary

I often think there’s no better place to read a book than on an airplane. Suspended between places with few distractions (especially if you have earplugs), it’s a prime opportunity for a fictional world to take over. And maybe another fantastic place to read a book is on vacation, when perhaps you’ve put the concerns of work and everyday life on the back burner. It follows that maybe reading a novel on a plane before or after a vacation is the best of all. After experiencing three Faulkner novels (so far) this summer, I can tell you that it’s particularly suited for reading him. Faulkner is a big mood. His stories are immersive, each with its own language and method. Particularly the method. Reading his novels in a single sitting increases accessibility; there’s no reorientation period as there might be if you read in segments during breaks from your normal, busy life. And so, I give you my thoughts on As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary.

When I chose the novels for my summer project, I selected five books in chronological order during a particularly productive writing period of Faulkner’s life. The historical notes on the first three novels I've read are interesting. Of the first, the author stated, “I had just written my guts into The Sound and the Fury though I was not aware until the book was published that I had done so, because I had done it for pleasure.” Faulkner bounced between writing what he wanted and writing to make money over the course of his entire career, and it’s not surprising that what is probably his most critically lauded novel was an act of creative passion. 

Of Sanctuary, however, he wrote:

“To me it is a cheap idea, because it was deliberately conceived to make money. I had been writing books for about five years, which got published and not bought…I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought was the right answer and invested the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks.”

The editor who received Sanctuary told Faulkner he couldn’t publish it, or they’d both end up in jail. In need of money, Faulkner took a job in a power plant, shoveling coal during the night shift. Between midnight and 4 a.m., when there was less to do because everyone was sleeping, he wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, “without changing a word.” He told the publisher, “by it I would stand or fail.” Another novel, it would seem, inspired by pure, creative passion.

By then, he had forgotten about Sanctuary but undertook a comprehensive rewriting when asked. He claimed to make a “fair job of it” and hoped not to “shame” the other two novels. He seemed to know that it was in another category altogether, and I certainly found it so.

As I Lay Dying is the story of the Bundren family. It opens with the point of view of Darl, who observes his older brother, Cash, building a coffin for their mother, who lies in the house nearing death. There’s some discussion about whether he should be doing this right outside the window where Addie, their ailing mother, can see. Everyone seems agitated by the sound of the sawing and hammering. And with these first images and sounds, Faulkner sets a mood and tone that masterfully prevails throughout the novel.

The Bundrens are a hardscrabble, farming family who can never seem to make out right. Bad luck, the patriarch of the family would claim. Throughout the novel, Anse Bundren bemoans his fortune: “I have heard men cuss their luck, and right, for they were sinful men. But I do not say it’s a curse on me, because I have done no wrong to be cussed by.” This is up for debate throughout, not only in relation to Anse but for each character. Cash and his brooding brother, Darl, the sole daughter of the family, Dewey Dell, whose personal problem weighs more heavily on her than her mother’s impending death, Jewel, the mother’s favorite, and the youngest, Vardaman, who possibly has mental disabilities and associates his mother’s death with a fish he caught earlier the same day.

Like The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying rotates points of view but each chapter is short and immersive, and the effect of the blending of these scenes is quite mesmerizing, like a collage around Addie. The family’s matriarch was tough and bitter; she has requested that her body be delivered to Jefferson to be laid with her ancestors—although she knew this would cause complications and expense her family couldn’t really afford. Faulkner gives Addie a voice, post-mortem, in a chapter when she recounts the birth of each child and the frustrations of her life.

The novel maintains a tragic tone laced with dark humor, as the family carts Addie’s body while vultures circle above. You wouldn’t think you would laugh about a scene when they attempt traversing a river and the body lurches into the water, but you do. It’s no farce, though; the novel speaks volumes about the South and the struggles of farmers, about roles for women and sexuality, and a new generation shackled by the demands of family and tradition and the past.

If I had one thing to say about Sanctuary, it would be that the content is unpleasant from start to finish, really. No character is truly likable or, more importantly, particularly sympathetic. As Faulkner claimed, it was “the most horrific tale” he could imagine. In the story, a young debutante named Temple Drake arrives at the home of a bootlegger after a car crash. It’s a house of horrors, as she is attacked several times throughout the night, becomes semi-intelligible due to trauma, and is kidnapped by an impotent criminal named Popeye and eventually, after suffering more abuse, ends up in a Memphis brothel.

Although the book seems to be an attempt at a potboiler (those “trends” Faulkner talked about), the author can’t help but draw commentary about women’s sexuality through the characterization of Temple herself, a young woman who seems to flirt with danger until it comes to her in severe fashion. The novel has something to say about the South during prohibition, a time that encouraged lawlessness, and about alcoholism—the car is crashed by Gowan Stevens, an alcoholic and Temple’s companion on that fateful day. But again, most of the content is just…well, unpleasant. Much has been said about the famous scene (or lack of scene) with the famous object—but I’ll leave that for you to find out.

Sanctuary is written without shifting point of views and much of the literary flair of Faulkner’s other novels. But again, the author was writing with a certain thing in mind, for the broader audience he imagined. And, dear readers, it worked. The success of Faulkner’s potboiler in 1931 freed him from financial worries, for the most part.

Next up: a reread of Light in August, the book I remembered as a favorite, to be followed by the last book of my summer project, Absalom, Absalom! Fortunately, I still have some summer plane rides left.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Summer of Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury

I just finished watching the third season of My Brilliant Friend, the HBO series adapted from the Elena Ferrante novels. In this season, the main character—also an author named Elena—has written about how women are fashioned by men (her "book" is only 70 pages and she’s not sure what it is but of course her publisher will take it!). It’s a feminism manifesto of sorts, about how women were formed to be like men and yet, are required to live by men’s definitions and requirements (this is a simplification).

But wait. You’re thinking: I thought you were reading Faulkner. I am! I’ve finished the first novel on my list, The Sound and the Fury, the story of an aristocratic, Southern family’s attempts to retain their (supposedly) unvarnished legacy, steeped in the moral and cultural ideals of the time. But Faulkner was no optimist, and so they fail, and the story is one of loss; over time, the family falls from grace. And in writing terms, the “inciting incident” for this widespread tragedy is a localized one—the downfall of the family’s only daughter, Caddy.  

When people think of Faulkner, they think of alternating points of view and jumps in time that have no signal and often seem to make no sense. This book has all of that! The novel employs three, first-person perspectives, those of the three Compson brothers: Benjy, Quentin, and Jason, and a third-person POV which focuses on the perspective of Dilsey, the household cook and stand-in mother for the brothers and Caddy. And it occurs to me that the restraints and expectations felt by Caddy in the South during the first quarter of the twentieth century were probably not unlike the gender expectations at the half-mark of the same century and beyond in Naples, Italy.

Much is often made of Faulkner’s characterization of Benjy, the “idiot” of the family, a thirty-three-year-old man who must be supervised around-the-clock because of the severity of his condition. Endless scholarship has examined possible diagnoses for Benjy (modern consensus is probably severe autism), but everyone believes him to be entirely unable to process information (he is not), and some even think he’s deaf—in terms of a writing device, it makes for an interesting POV that is almost omniscient in the sense that no one takes him as a witness of any sort.

And the way Faulkner has expressed Benjy’s voice is, of course, provocative, but each point of view is uniquely drawn and remarkable in its own way, and the sun holding these planetary points of view in its gravity is Caddy, always Caddy. Each brother takes a particular interest in her, according to the image of her he has constructed (and this is where Elena's writings come in)—whether it be nurturer, idealized womanhood, protected charge, or something else. The Compson parents are mostly absent—the father’s an alcoholic, the mother is selfish and often takes to her bed, leaving the children to Dilsey’s supervision. As the oldest, Quentin assumes responsibility for the family, especially for upholding honor where his sister is concerned, Jason is not well-liked and is simmering pot of bitterness, and Benjy, as mentioned, has the capacity of a toddler and imprints like a duckling after his sister. And when Caddy begins to behave promiscuously and eventually becomes pregnant, the cogs are set in motion for each to meet his demise in one way or another.

The novel’s about the southern states, of course, and what some saw as the deterioration of the upper class after the Civil War. The choices available to the brothers were perhaps those Faulkner felt were his: go away to an eastern school, stay on the land enmeshed in the noble tradition of farming, or retreat into an idiotic ignorance of the situation. Having read the Faulkner biography before this novel, I couldn’t help but draw lines from Faulkner’s parents to the elder Compsons, and from Faulkner himself to the frustrations and convoluted messaging about morals embedded in the behavior of the Compson siblings. Like Caddy, Faulkner suffered a series of thwarted relationships and engaged in sexual misconduct. And in the repetition of process that occurs when Caddy’s daughter grows up to be rebellious, discontent, and primed to repeat the tragic, downward trajectory of her ancestors, one can sense the general dissatisfaction and expected doom that started Faulkner on the road to severe alcoholism at the tender age of fourteen.

Does the book sound depressing? I suppose in some ways, it is. But where the tragedy of the Compson family grows heavy, The Sound and the Fury is lifted, almost a century after its first printing, by the genius of William Faulkner’s vision and execution. I didn’t find it difficult to follow what was happening—at least, not nearly as much as when first read it. The changes in point of view are inspired, each in its own way, and the whole thing engages you along the ride, even if it’s downhill. It’s an amazing work of fiction, and a great start to my summer reading.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Summer of Faulkner


For many years, I’d look forward to summer as a time to catch up with some reading I wasn’t able to tackle during the cooler, busier months. I’d choose a series—such as Hilary Mantel’s first two books in the Wolf Hall trilogy (still haven’t read the third), or I’d tackle a classic I thought might be laborious—a collection of Chekhov stories or Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (very laborious!). And in 2018, I made this habit a formal endeavor when I christened “The Summer of Chabon” and read four novels by Michael Chabon. And so, each summer I choose a reading project based on a theme. 2019 was The Summer of Trees, 2020 was dedicated to books related to France, and last year, The Summer of Houses books all featured a house as an integral part of character, plot or theme.

In recent years, my leisure reading has slowed down overall, as I began to read more for my day jobs of teaching and editing. Where I used to read 50+ books a year, I’m lucky to get into the mid-20s these days. This year I’m sitting at thirteen novels read. With so much going on, I often find myself lacking the mental stamina to sit and read for long periods. What better time to pick up several novels by an American master who’s also considered one of the most difficult to comprehend?

For 2022, I’ll be reading and re-reading several books by and about William Faulkner. When I was in college, I took a course on Southern Literature with Professor Margaret Whitt. That class, and that teacher, was one of the seminal experiences of my life (maybe I took 2 or 3 courses with her?), and it ignited a love of gothic lit and introduced me to so many authors—Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Anne Porter (everyone should read more KAP!), Carson McCullers (!!!), Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, etc., etc.—the combined influence of which I believe has had the most seismic and lasting effect on my own writing. 

For The Summer of Faulkner, I have five novels and one biography on my list. I realize this is probably unrealistic, but here we are. The good news is, I’ve already finished the biography, William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist. It’s excellent, written in a novelistic style, taking the reader from 1902, when “Billy” Faulkner’s family relocated to Oxford, Mississippi, to his death in a Byhalia sanatorium in 1962. Faulkner was, of course, famous for his writing but also for his prodigious drinking, and his life was struck by tragedy and a series of troubled, complicated romantic attachments and relationships. The emotional frustrations and drinking coexisted and interrelated, like linked, winding strands of his psychological DNA. He told an early paramour “Between grief and nothing I’ll always take grief,” and his biographer returns to this sentiment several times. Faulkner certainly weathered his share of grief, and physical ailments as well—he suffered a terrible burn after a drinking bout, and he had recurring back problems—more reason for him to turn to liquor.

I learned much about Faulkner, including his love of fox hunts (the “thrill of danger,” he said) and his time in Hollywood writing screenplays—primarily for the paychecks—and his travels back and forth. Later in life, he wrote about “the Negro problem” and his complicated sentiments about the South and Civil Rights that appear in these essays and, of course, throughout his entire oeuvre of fiction. Writers may want to reacquaint themselves with the wonderful speech he gave in 1950 when he won the Nobel Prize. You can read it here or listen to Faulkner himself here.

William Faulkner published 19 novels, 125 short stories (I didn’t mention the stories! So many stories, including “The Bear,” which some consider one of the best of all time), 20 screenplays, one play, six collections of poetry, and various essays. It seemed to me there were several approaches to choosing which novels to read but in the end, I went with a fairly simple strategy. I chose five novels in chronological order, during a particularly productive era of the writer’s life. Two of them I have read before, but it’s been many years. These five novels are:

The Sound and the Fury (1929)

As I Lay Dying (1930)

Sanctuary (1931)

Light in August (1932)

Absalom, Absalom! (1936)

There was a book in 1935 called Pylon, but I skipped that one. And to be honest, if anything doesn’t make the cut this summer, it’ll be the last one, Absalom, Absalom! I have read two of the more famous novels on the list, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August, and considered leaving the former off the list. But I didn’t, and I’ll be starting with The Sound and the Fury (if you recall, a title taken from Macbeth). Looking to confound and frustrate yourself over the calm, summer months? Join me! I’ll be reporting back on my progress as I take this adventure, and I’d love to hear your impressions as well.

Note: in 2005, Oprah did a Summer of Faulkner as part of her reading club, and you can buy three of these novels in a boxed set, if that's of interest. 

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka