One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner - Jay Parini (2005)


A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.


So how did William Faulkner manage to transform his little “postage stamp” of a county into an imaginative space where he could roam happily over several decades, creating a vast anthology of human experience from limited materials? He was, after all, no obvious genius from the outset, being a shy boy from a small town in Mississippi, the poorest state in the country. Unlike Joyce or Fitzgerald, he never graduated from high school or college. Unlike Hemingway, he had no large experience of the wider world. Yet he managed, at the height of the Great Depression, to summon a vision, writing a string of incomparable masterworks between 1928 and 1942—“one matchless time,” as he called it. He did so consciously, applying himself with great energy to the task before him, with a deep understanding of what he was doing.

In a very real sense, Faulkner fathered himself, having seen fatherhood diluted as it passed down from the Old Colonel—the founding father of the Falkner clan—to the Young Colonel, then to his own hapless father, Murry. He had a visceral need to regard himself as independent of the family, to lift himself over his brothers and everyone else around him, including his mother. He did so, we have seen, by making fictions, all kinds of fictions. He became a war hero in his own mind, creating a uniform and story to fit this need and acquiring a limp. He became many other things as well: an outcast, a bohemian poet, a drunk, a rogue, a postmaster, a husband, a lover, a hunter and horseman, and so forth. These were all masks put on for the occasion, the life-phase, the person in front of him, the immediate need; he could discard them easily, as when he engineered his own downfall as postmaster and created an amusing myth to keep anyone from lifting the mask and prying beneath it.

Finally, of course, Faulkner adopted a persona that all the world could accept, that of the conquering hero of prose fiction, a man on a par with the Old Colonel, able to reframe the family saga and the society into which he was born through the complex operations of his novels and stories. Over time, the mask grew onto his face, becoming his features, the very skin itself. Only the wild, sad eyes peeking out through the mask tell us about the soul lurking behind it. Those eyes, with their countless changes, suggest something of the many thousands of selves that make up the person called William Faulkner, only a limited number of which a biographer can treat.

From a certain distance, what most impresses about Faulkner as writer is the sheer persistence, the will-to-power that brought him back to the desk each day, year after year, even when badly hungover. In an oblique but interesting way, he resembles Lena Grove or the Bundrens or Mink Snopes, characters who move steadily forward in the world despite resistance, obstacles, and fierce distractions. No arguments or social barriers constrain them for long. This grit was, I think, as much physical as mental; Faulkner pushed ahead like an ox through mud, dragging a whole world behind him. His persistence goes beyond easy characterization, is a thing unto itself.

I have followed the man through his works and days, trying to understand the conditions—personal, familial, social, and historical—that undergirded the fiction, that buoyed it up. A novel or story is a dream, and it is possible to see in those dreams how a writer attempts to work out certain tensions and anxieties that beset him. There is something primordial about the unfolding of Faulkner’s work, which often came rushing to the fore, as if unpremeditated, although stories and characters would lie at the back of his mind for years. When they emerged, they did so with terrifying force. Faulkner rode them like wild horses, tamed them, brought them to book.

That he fell off his horses, literally and figuratively, countless times, is also part of the story. As critics have frequently noted, Faulkner’s books are terribly uneven, making him one of the least predictable major writers who ever lived. While his work achieves an intensity of comic and tragic effects as well as a certain speculative reach, it can seem horribly diffuse, muddled, sentimental, even grotesque. Yet this unevenness was, in a sense, part of the calculation. Faulkner took huge risks in his fiction, reaching far and wide for effects, daring incoherence itself, believing that he could and would snatch pieces of order from the general chaos of experience. The rewards of his fiction for the reader are immense, but they are expensive, too. Faulkner demands a readerly patience, a willingness to turn a blind eye to absurdities and periodic confusions, a tolerance for writing that occasionally fails to reach a minimal standard of clarity and cohesion.

The confusions of the text almost always dissolve after several readings. As I have said, Faulkner cannot be read; he can only be reread. A single book can hardly be consumed in isolation from the other work in a satisfactory way; indeed, the whole of Faulkner moves together, as one tale informs another, as characters evolve in time and place. Particular stories and characters make more sense when the whole of Yoknapatawpha County comes into view, its concentric circles widening out from the courthouse in Jefferson to the plantation houses and cotton fields, the wild country of Frenchman’s Bend, populated by Snopeses and Varners, to Beat Four, where the Gowrie clan resides, making whiskey and fighting among themselves. It even runs up to the Tenderloin District of Memphis.

Only Charles Dickens and Balzac among novelists before Faulkner created such a wealth of characters. As with any great writer, there is a piece of their creator in each character he invented. (“Now I am something in your secret and selfish life,” says Addie Bundren, “who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever.”) One sees the grasping, ambitious Faulkner in Flem Snopes; the faithful stalwart in old Ike McCaslin; the lonely, brilliant, hapless intellectual in Quentin Compson; the garrulous, academic liberal in Gavin Stevens, and so forth. The whole range of patriots, war heroes, problem solvers, idiots, misfits, criminals, scoundrels, cheats, whoremongers, and murderers could be found in Faulkner’s heart, ready to be summoned into vivid being.

It has often been observed that Faulkner had no special gift for evoking women, and there remains a certain truth in that. He tended to work on either side of the whore/madonna bifurcation, with characters ranging from the motherly, enduring Dilsey on the one hand to Temple Drake as portrayed in Sanctuary on the other. He certainly struggled with women throughout his own life in the concentrated form of Miss Maud, who seems to have been “icy”—the term was her granddaughter’s—but profoundly devoted to her eldest son, whose work she championed in her quiet way. A feisty, independent-minded person, she passed these virtues on to her firstborn son. His level of devotion to her remains a central fact of his existence; he stayed close to home, in part, because of her. He loved her, as one loves the sun, indifferently. That she nearly outlived him is startling. Her endurance was a model, a beacon, an annoyance. Had she died in the mid-thirties, Faulkner might well have left his wife, Estelle, and stayed in Hollywood with Meta. He might have run off to New York with Joan. He might have stayed in Sweden with Else or in Paris with Jean. Then again, Faulkner’s wildness needed the rule of convention, and marriage was useful in this regard, giving form and substance to his life, adding routine and dedication. It allowed him to remain in place.

Like Antaeus, Faulkner derived his strength through contact with the soil, a particular and “significant soil,” evoked in his fiction with a fierce particularity. Even the rolling countryside of Albermarle County in Virginia, which he adored, could not lure him permanently from Oxford and Mississippi. He pulled his fiction from the air around him, the natural landscape that lay at the back of his imagination, and from voices he heard as he walked through this landscape. He had a faultless ear, and could mimic a range of voices, black and white, upper or middle or lower class, townsfolk or country folk, sophisticated or rude. The real power of his fiction lies in the surprising variety of these voices, so deftly caught and poised in contrast and counterpoint. As Michael Millgate observes, Faulkner’s “novels and stories illuminate, modify, and reinforce each other to a degree with which we have scarcely as yet begun to come to terms.”1

“Literature is the sum of its discoveries,” said V. S. Naipaul, another winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. “What is derivative can be impressive and intelligent. It can give pleasure and it will have its season, short or long. But we will always want to go back to the originators.” He added that “what is good is always what is new, in both form and content. What is good forgets whatever models it might have had, and is unexpected; we have to catch it on the wing.”2 This is wonderfully true of Faulkner: an original, a man who seems to have forgotten whatever models he may have had, who moved off quickly into a kind of wild originality with The Sound and the Fury, catching “on the wing” the voices around him, inventing, cutting and splicing, defying all rules to create a fiction wholly its own, though always grounded by that region he loved and hated so passionately, the American South.

Yet the issues that Faulkner confronted in his fiction move well beyond the South, and this helps to explain the broadness of his appeal. Indeed, he was aware of the fact that his audience was not just Southerners. Like Robert Frost, who wrote about rural farmers in northern New England for a wide universe of readers who had never been to Vermont or New Hampshire, Faulkner had indeed to establish his materials, to find what in them would be relevant for a larger world (many of whom knew nothing of the customs or history or nature of communities like that found in Yoknapatawpha County). Wisely, his fiction commonly takes up matters of general importance to modern readers: the loss of community, the degradation of nature, the impact of raw capitalism, the lure and destructiveness of class and racial divisions, Puritan obsessiveness, the waste of war, and so forth. So the South becomes a lens through which the reader can view the modern world, comparing it to a world that may or may not have existed, the old order that Ike McCaslin laments. (Although even here, Faulkner complicates every assertion, as when Ike in “Delta Autumn” reflects: “There are good men everywhere, at all times.” Indeed, a careful reading of Faulkner reveals that no golden age ever really existed, at least not in any pure form.)

Not surprisingly, Faulkner has influenced generations of later writers, at home and abroad. Southern fiction in the twentieth century, as might be expected, owes a lot to Faulkner. “I don’t think anyone did more for this particular region,” says Robert Penn Warren. “He showed us how to make literature from these materials. He was almost too powerful.”3 The list of southern writers directly influenced by Faulkner (“the Dixie Express,” as Flannery O’Connor famously called him) is long and surprising, ranging from Truman Capote and O’Connor herself to Cormac McCarthy and Larry Brown. But his influence extends well beyond the South. One sees his fecundity and defiance of the traditional rules of fiction playing out in, say, the gothic fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. His commitment to a particular place and interlocking circles of characters is reflected in worlds created by such writers as Louise Erdrich and Frank Howard Mosher. Toni Morrison, whose dense evocations of racial division reach back to his work, owes an immense debt to Faulkner, whose style has permeated her own. The list of writers from South America whom Faulkner influenced extends from Borges to Márquez, Onetti, Vargas Llosa, and beyond. The European writers who came under his spell include Sartre, Camus, and Malraux, among others. Quite recently, the British writer, Graham Swift, based a prize-wining novel of his own, Last Orders, on As I Lay Dying. “When you look over modern European fiction of the last century,” said Alberto Moravia, “you will find Faulkner’s fingerprint everywhere, sometimes visible and sometimes not.”4

In the end, however, William Faulkner stands alone, a master of tragic farce, a wild-eyed comedian, a raconteur of the highest order, still sitting around the campfire in the Big Woods, still talking in the thousands of pages that remain his legacy. He not only told his stories; he retold them, using his great “revisionary capacities, which enabled him to scrutinize and put under question the constituent elements of the modern, mythologized ‘world’ he had erected across the Yoknapatawpha novels,” as Patrick O’Donnell nicely put it.5 These revisions forced him to confront the limitations of his art as well, as subjectivities clash, as the material world appears (or disappears) between the lines of his fiction.

Just as no single narrative in Faulkner exists as authoritative, complete, and uncontested, no biographical work can do so either. The mystery of the man cannot be “solved.” He is the sum of his work, as well as the sum of all biographies and critical texts. My Faulkner remains, necessarily, a selective representation, the facts combed in one direction and not another. For me, his life has been worth considering at length because of the work itself, believing that the life informs this work in useful ways, helping us to read it more attentively, to understand it more fully. If my book is successful, it will bring readers back where they belong, to Yoknapatawpha County.