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Saturday
Mar102012

The Two Faulkners

In some ways, there are two Faulkners. You can see the shift between the two in the 1930s when you compare modernist, almost cubist masterpieces like "Absalom, Absalom" (1936) with the more straightforward, rambling, story-telling in "Light in August" (1932). Eventually, the latter style will win out and become the way Faulkner writes throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, before his untimely death.

Think of it this way. There's the first Faulkner, mostly in his twenties and thirties, a high modernist, heady and intellectual, into literary gamesmanship and obfuscation, enamored by ridiculously complicated references to art and history. The first Faulkner's writing is dense; it takes great pleasure in defying and disorienting its reader. It's packed with allusions, not just quotations from other books and historical incidents, but instead complex rewritings of those allusions in a rather warped but playful intertextuality--like Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. If you've ever read "The Sound and the Fury" or "As I Lay Dying," you'll know what I mean.

Then there's the second Faulkner, in his forties, fifties, and sixties, more like some half-drunk uncle who just wants to sit on the porch and tell you a long story, complete with rambling asides which abruptly veer into the tragic. The second Faulkner's writing is thick, not dense, a thicket of words (but not allusions), more like (dare I say it?) Marcel Proust and Henry James, but decidedly Southern, less about the mental games and more about the story itself, into local color, but always also headed for the joke, except when he can't make it there. (Of course, I don't presume to say you actually have a drunk uncle, but I'm sure you can imagine what I mean.)

"The Hamlet," of course, is of the second Faulkner, the mostly unknown Faulkner. It's actually a bit of a privilege to read this second Faulkner--so few even know the work. 

As we'll discuss, these two Faulkners are indicative of the great divide in twentieth-century literature, the stark difference between modernism and postmodernism--and here it is, happening right before your eyes. In fact, I will contend that the second Faulkner is actually far more radical--artistically, at least--than the first.

With George Eliot, you had to get in there with her and make the text happen. The two of you had to wrestle through "Middlemarch" together--she, on your shoulder, telling you what it all means; you, sometimes brushing her away because you don't think that's what it all means--or don't care because you just want to get on with the story. Her sentences defy you, her logic is even more intense, and at all times she forces you to grapple with the novel, to make it make meaning.

With "The Hamlet," you just have to ease into a chair and let the novel happen to you. Faulkner's not asking for anything from you except that you listen. Still, a shot of bourbon helps.

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