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Nathan Hill, THE NIX (2016)

 

THOMAS HARDY, THEN AND NOW

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Thomas Hardy, THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE (1878), first half

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Entries in William Faulkner (4)

Monday
May052014

Faulkner and the Creation of Consciousness

Well, not consciousness, per se. Let's call it "literary consciousness." Or "narrative consciousness."

It's not that narrators before Faulkner were unconscious. It's that they were too conscious.

It all started because Faulkner gave up. After his first two books (fronted by the novelist Sherwood Anderson) went nowhere and his third was roundly rejected by publishers (and finally brought out in a highly edited form), he threw caution to the wind and created two novels back to back, THE SOUND AND THE FURY and AS I LAY DYING, that reshaped how literary characters went about the business of being characters. He sparked a change that we now take for granted.

In these two novels, the characters--speakers, all--are not rational. Instead, we hear a stream of their confessions and dreams, sieved through their unconscious. It's almost as if they're talking in their sleep, revealing deeply personal things about themselves in haphazard and sometimes misleading ways (ahem, Dewey Dell). That is, about the way your own unconscious self operates.

When Esther steps forward to tell her tale in Dickens' BLEAK HOUSE or when Moll Flanders narrates her life in Defoe's novel of the same name, they tell their tales in a rational, cohesive way. Start here at point A, move to point B, tell why A led to B, go on to C, and so on. They offer linear movement through their lives.

The characters in AS I LAY DYING offer something else. Call it, not narrative, but "performance." It's the self turned inside out, a messy jumble. Cora is trying to hold it together with religion. Darl is slowly going mad. Vardaman can only understand the world as a small child. Cash and Jewel are blinded by their dreams and regrets.

The only one who gives us any sort of linearity is the unseen narrator who is stitching it all together, calling the performers on stage one by one to make their pitch.

This is Faulkner: he narrated the unconscious. He tapped something almost untellable. He found below his characters the wellsprings, not of themselves, but of their imaginations (that is, of who they think they are).

His narrative technique opened the door to Philip Roth. You can't have Portnoy without Faulkner! It opened the door to Saul Bellow, to Flannery O'Connor, to Louise Erdrich (many consider her Faulkner's direct heir), to Toni Morrison (another direct heir), to Don Delillo, to Salmon Rushdie (yet another direct heir), to Ian McEwan, even to Alan Bennett.

In the end, I would posit that Faulkner has become more influential on literary writers than almost any other English-speaking author of the twentieth century. James Joyce was undoubtedly smarter, but his voice always stays in the head, a chilly intellectualism. Faulkner's voice is located further down and farther in, somewhere in the body.

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.

Monday
Oct242011

Faulkner and the Southern Renascence

Although sometimes called "the Southern Renaissance," the flowering of literature that occurred in the South in the 1920s and 1930s is better known by the spelling "renascence"--and is pronounced (tongue in cheek, mostly) the way certain Vanderbilt professors insisted it be said: "ruh-NA-suhns" (that middle "A" voiced like the "a" in "bathtub.")

The explosion of Southern literature can said to have been sparked by the (infamous) literary critic and satirist H. L. Mencken. Not because he was helpful, but because he was so darn snide. He titled his 1920 essay on the lack of any literary merit from the South "The Sahara of the Bozart," a sneer on the way "Beaux Arts" would be pronounced by Southerners. Mencken went on to write that a poet was as rare down there as an oboe player. And he offered this bit of cheeky doggerel: "Alas for the South, her books have grown fewer./ She never was much given to literature." (If you rhyme "fewer" with "literature," you'll hear the sneer.)

In response, certain Vanderbilt professors--poets and literary critics like John Crowe Ransom and Alan Tate--founded a series of literary groups (The Fugitives, The Agrarians) that eventually put the South on the cultural map--not necessarily because of anything they themselves wrote and published, but more because they formed a cohesive literary base, publishing magazines and journals, reading each other's works, supporting other writers--all of which eventually gave rise to the first generation of Southern literary greats like Tennessee Williams, Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Penn Warren, and (yes) William Faulkner.

The South was now on the literary map. In fact, it can be argued that until 1960, the South produced the most fulsome and gorgeous literary output in the United States--with these "founding" authors (none of whom saw themselves as part of a literary movement, with the possible exception of Robert Penn Warren) as well as with the writers who followed them in the next generation, the likes of Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and Walker Percy.

However, it's important to note one thing: Faulkner was an outsider, even to this group. He did not fit in. Ever. He was not a "Fugitive," was not an "Agrarian." He remained outside any literary movement until late in his life, until he won the Nobel Prize and a professor at the University of Virginia (Joseph Blotner) sought him out to give a series of (rather incoherent) literary lectures.

Faulkner was always the outsider. Born in New Albany, Mississippi, in 1897, he wanted badly to fight in World War I. He was too young for the U. S. military and too short (5'5"), so he enlisted in the Canadian forces, only to make it to flight school but never to the war. That didn't stop him from buying a uniform off an airman, coming home, and parading around in it, telling everyone about his daring exploits fighting the Kaiser in Europe (and leading to his first novel, "Soldier's Pay," about a daring veteran trying to fit in to his more mundane life back home). In the end, such lies only served to distance him from others.

He flunked out of the University of Mississippi after three semesters, partly because he would not attend class and also because he simply refused to play the game. He wrote a paper on Hamlet in which he claimed that Ophelia was really Hamlet's sister. When asked to explain himself, he said that he thought it made "a better story."

Faulkner was also poised to be part of the generation of Americans who went to Paris to be the avant garde (think Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein). But while he did make the journey, he never could fit in, was far too poor, couldn't afford the glam life in cafes, and never really hooked up with any of them, stayed out on the fringes. That didn't stop him from writing letters home, full of stories of his literary exploits among the Parisian lights. When his aunt and a cousin came to Europe for "the grand tour," he bought canvasses, blotched them with paint, tossed them around his one-room apartment, and claimed when his relatives showed up that they'd just missed Picasso, Braque, James Joyce, and the rest.

So he wanted to be in the center--but did everything in his power to make sure he stayed out of it. (Think about the book we're reading. Does it have a central character?) Although later picked up by the finest editors of his day in New York, Faulkner held them at a distance, never going to parties or taking part in the literary culture of the city.

Although drafted by Hollywood to write scripts--which he did for the likes of the fabulously noir "To Have and Have Not," as well as "Gunga Din" and Chandler's "The Big Sleep"--he hated the West Coast and hightailed it home as often as he could. Once, when he was having trouble finishing a script on set, he told Howard Hawkes he could write better at home. Hawkes agreed, thinking Faulkner would hole up in his apartment. Instead, a few days later, to Hawkes' surprise and with filming halted, he discovered Faulkner was back in Mississippi. (This in the early '40s before cell phones, even before many people in rural America had house phones.)

Faulkner also had numerous love affairs, distancing himself from his marriage throughout his life. And he was a raging alcoholic, rarely ever sober by his late-40s. (LIGHT IN AUGUST was written in his early 30s.)

He lied constantly to reporters, made caustic fun of people interested in his work, and pushed away most others. When a reporter from New York came to his home in Mississippi to interview him for a big spread in the 1950s, Faulkner hired African-Americans to loll about the front yard because he thought the Yankee would like to see the South as Yankees thought the South was. Needless to say, such shenanigans did not bring him any closer to anyone in the world.

As you can see, Faulkner yearned for recognition and was determined to be an outsider, someone who did everything in his power to stay beyond the center of the circle, maybe even beyond its rim, to distance himself from everything around him that might have given him heft and stability. Most literary figures would relish the attention of New York and Hollywood; Faulkner wanted nothing to do with any of it. He wanted to write. If Faulkner ever had a center, it was found somewhere in his books. He poured everything into them, every ounce of his emotional and even physical reserves. They left him a wreck, the mere shell of a person. They exhausted him. (Read much of LIGHT IN AUGUST and you can see why.) If he is the most towering figure of the Southern Renascence, and one of the three or four greatest writers America has ever produced, he didn't want to be put in those circles, didn't seek it, and probably would snicker today at the thought of it.

Instead, he was most happy (if he ever really was happy) head down at his desk, writing. In an interview of "The Paris Review" in the early 1950s, he had this to say: "Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him."

And beat "him" he did. So well, in fact, that one could argue no American writer has ever beaten Faulkner.

Saturday
Oct152011

Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi

William Faulkner's LIGHT IN AUGUST (1932) is set in his fictional--no, mythical--county: Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi. It's pronounced yawk-nuh-puh-TAW-phuh, from two Cherokee words: yocona and petopha, meaning "split land." In a lecture at the University of Virginia, Faulkner--ever one to "go on" (as my grandmother would have said)--claimed it meant "water flows slow through flat land."

Over the course of fourteen out of his nineteen novels, as well as umpteen short stories, Faulkner developed, refined, reworked, changed, and deepened this square stamp of imagined Mississippi soil. It's supposedly in the northwest corner of the state; the county seat is Jefferson (note the irony: the pastoral-loving, founding father who believed in the theory of personal liberty while he fathered children by his slaves).

Major characters in some novels appear as minor shadows in others. (There's an off-the-cuff remark about Colonel Sartoris shooting Joanna Burden's kin in LIGHT IN AUGUST. Sartoris is more fully given his story in the early novel FLAGS IN THE DUST.) Characters refer off the cuff to events in other novels. You don't have to have read other Yoknapatawpha novels to start with one, as we do here. But the echoes and shadows lend a certain "ah-ha" to the novels if you've read others, as if you've by chance come upon a forgotten fact or person. Gavin Stevens, the Harvard-educated district attorney who first pops up just toward the end of LIGHT IN AUGUST, will become one of the most important figures in a series of later Faulkner novels, from INTRUDER IN THE DUST to the Snopes Trilogy.

In 1945, Random House asked Faulkner to make a selection of his works for a volume to be called "The Portable Faulkner." (If you recall, the editors had asked Willa Cather to do the same--to which she'd refused, saying, "I am not portable.") Faulkner obliged and even hand-drew a map of Yoknapatawpha for the volume, placing the names of some of his novels and short stories over pieces of the land. It became this: