One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner

by Jay Parini
492 pages,
ISBN: 0060935553

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A Brilliant Solipsism
by Hugh Graham

In objecting to a proposed profile of him in Life magazine, William Faulkner, the American South's greatest novelist, declared that he wanted to be "abolished and voided from history," a desire given eerie credence by something in his work that makes it seem authorless: the 'voice' of which we speak so confidently when discussing style, is not really a voice at all but something approaching an alien force.
A talent so otherworldy is in some ways a burden, an illness more than a gift. According to Jay Parini, in his biography of Faulkner, One Matchless Time, the man so afflicted was all his life a child: tiny, insecure, watching life from the sidelines, longing to be a participant, lying and engaging in role-play. Born in 1895, he came into a world wherein there was, perhaps, good reason for allowing imagination the upper hand: the defeated American South. His father ran a livery in Oxford, Mississippi, where Faulkner, the eldest of three boys, watched the countryside flow into the town. He was also taken to the hunting camps. The wilderness would later haunt the centre of his work. But that, like everything else, lay in a long shadow that began with a great-grandfather, southern aristocrat and Civil War General who died in a duel; succeeding generations of Faulkners represented a decline, reinforcing a sense of doom and marginalisation.
Faulkner seemed to live it out. As a boy he was solitary. He was a poor and lazy student. He dropped out of high school and failed to complete a year of University. During World War I, fantasies of heroism drove him to join the RAF in Toronto where he had barely learned to fly when the war ended. He returned with fake war stories and a fake wound. Into his twenties, he idled, living at home and trying to write, an eccentric with an aristocratic bearing whom the locals called "Count No Count."
Meanwhile, a mentor, Phil Stone, was introducing him to Eliot, Pound and Yeats. Competent poetry turned to better short stories, still rejected everywhere. Bohemian stints in New Orleans and Paris produced a first novel, Soldier's Pay. Not long after, The Sound and the Fury-the story of a fallen son of the South trying to find roots and meaning in a world where the historical past seemed to suggest no clear place for him and where the present was devoid of meaning-rang with the cadences and dreamy darkness of all the work that was to follow. From the late twenties to the early forties came triumph after triumph, at the centre of which lay the brilliant, driven and insane Absalom, Absalom. After that, even with the Nobel Prize, the fire began to die down. In the 1950s, Faulkner struggled on, battering himself with suicidal horseback riding and drinking until he died of the wear and tear in 1962.
For Jay Parini it is the child-outsider in the man that is ever present. This is the Faulkner described as "inward and passive," and "delicate". The young Faulkner whose work bears, Parini points out, a seam of "homoeroticism", may have had early, discreet homosexual affairs. However discreet, he preferred the company of openly gay literary men like Stone; Faulkner seemed determined to be who he was, so it's unlikely that the drinking came from repression or shame. Rather, he was a man who could truly live only when he wrote, while the necessary forays into the ordinary world had to be blunted with alcohol. The small, shy man is belied, in the end, by the ferocious bullet-track of his determination that the other world should prevail. This hell-bent drive is, as Parini points out, embodied in Lena Grove of Light in August, the pregnant country woman walking the road, blandly determined to find the father of her child. It is the dirt-poor family of Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying, irrationally propelled to drag her body through flood and fire to honour it with the right burial place. It is Mink Snopes, of The Mansion, released from prison after thirty years, with only one plan, to kill the cousin who had failed to intercede in his trial for murder.
The style is always a rapids: thought, dreams, occurring notions; parentheses within parentheses, endless sentences, absence of punctuation; huge, italicised intrusions from the past. And it is only here that Parini lets us down. Like the rest of us, he is brought up short when facing the enigma. It's as if he were a dog, circling around something which he cannot quite identify, and he resorts to near-clichTs, describing Faulkner's writing as "a patterned dance around the object," referring to "psychic formations"; to characters being "whirled around by the cycles of history", and to "layered viewpoints". He also takes for granted the usual approach: the "many voices" from different characters in which Faulkner writes a narrative. But Parini is mistaking the means for the end. The voices are only a vehicle for an utter, concrete, physicality-of dust spinning in sunlight through slats in barns, the immense heaviness in the old houses and forests and fields. It is this thick, palpable feeling with all the atoms alive and milling, that rings through voices, which carries the moral threads, the idea that struggle and survival is first and foremost a matter for every individual, deep inside the singular yet universal human heart.
Why else would Faulkner have made such a second-rate screenwriter, the trade by which he had to make ends meet in Hollywood? Screenwriting is technical and spare, as full of replaceable parts as replaceable writers. A hand like Faulkner's would burst a screenplay with logorrhoea and unspeakable dialogue-which it did. The studios took him on for the prestige but he wasn't happy there and worked only with resignation.
For Faulkner, women represented as difficult a foray into the ordinary world as screenwriting. Parini says that the models for his "Madonna" characters were his loving black nannie, "Mammie Callie" and his abiding if distant mother, Maud; and that Faulkner's fictional women are either "Madonnas" or calculating bitches and whores. But in life, and over a long period, he had fulfilling affairs with Meta Carpenter, the assistant to the Hollywood director Howard Hawks and with two other younger women. His marriage to Estelle Oldham, a primal "Madonna" and "girl next door", and a drunk as well, was a nightmare. Their love seems to have been more symbolic than real, rooted in the myth of home.
Still, he did his duty. Far from the artist as irresponsible rake, sacrificing all to the furnace of art, he comes off as responsible, even loveable, with the faults of his time and place. His loyalty was ironclad: he fussed over their only child Jill, loved children, cared scrupulously for bereft relatives who became, finally, responsibilities-even when his attentions were darkened by his drinking.
Thus the child of make-believe actually became a Southern paterfamilias. His mores were typical. His attitude to blacks was paternal. Faulkner retained unpaid servants, though he treated them well. Meanwhile, there remained at the core of his work an acute consciousness, ahead of his time, of the relations between blacks and whites. Underlying his support for desegregation was the awareness, running deep in the novels, of the white South's most awkward secret-that many blacks were not fully black and some whites weren't fully white. The flux of the bloodstreams runs like a surging underground river in Absalom, Absalom! as the lies and violence of racism pollute the relations even among the whites themselves.
Nor could Faulkner subscribe to the anti-modern agrarianism of many of his fellow southern writers. It was only on his own terms that Faulkner opposed the creeping industrialization and commercialism embodied in the aggressive redneck upstarts of the Snopes clan of his eponymous trilogy. He saw the same modernity in the crime and depredation around urban gangsters and rural stills, frozen for all time in Sanctuary.
Though he reviled the lynch mob mentality of much of the South, he believed the South should solve its own problems; he rejected the moral intrusions of the liberal North and stated that if push ever came to shove he would side with his native soil. Anyone facile enough to call him a 'reactionary' should remember that Sartre and Camus were among his most forceful supporters and that he spoke openly against racism. Nor can Faulkner, in my view, be forced into the confines of postmodern literary theory. Of course you can easily trap him in the leg-hold of 'Modernism': you can call him on his 'strategies of domination'. It is all doubtless there. But the armature of 'Theory' seems grudging and mean beside that which it would try to seize-that which feels authorless.
Where does it come from? I think Parini has let us know in a sleek, gentle biography that gets at the roots, without quite telling us what he is doing. It comes from 'Yoknapatawpha', the mythical county that Faulkner invented for the characters, the imaginary towns and villages that gradually became permanent as they recurred in novel after novel. This county is a living solipsism that continually refers to itself-with its own laws and fate and doom-as well as to all of humanity at the same time. Why else would the proprietor of Yoknapatawpha marry a woman from an old family, as stuck in it all as he was, and tie his life to her, throughout his affairs and the hell and the drinking, right to the very end?

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