Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Faulkner As Is

I have a well thumbed copy of the Collected Stories of William Faulkner, Vintage edition that I have spent time with sporadically for years. Every time I pick it up I read a little more, always planning to spend more time on Faulkner, explore the novels beyond As I Lay Dying, which I’ve read twice, and never quite getting to it. Time to change that.

I guess my appreciation of Faulkner’s stories has grown with each reading and, in the case of many of these stories, re-reading. I think most of us think of Faulkner as a great “Southern writer” most known for setting much of his work in the same continuum – the recurring characters and lineages of the fictional Yoknopotophaw County, in Mississippi. But he’s so much more than that; he’s the Nobel-winning author that made significant contributions to literature in time, pace, setting, psychology and character – and this, too, obscures him, for at the one end of appreciation he is too small and at the other too big.

What you need to get under you is just that these stories are so damn good, by themselves. For starters, there’s the language. Always, the language, the prose, the ability to make great sentences. Here’s one that blew me away the other day, from “Victory:” “The dark earth bites into the sun’s rim.” A sentence like that, you can hold in your hands. More:

The sun is setting. The village rises in black silhouette against the sunset; the river gleams in mirrored fire. The bridge across the river is a black arch upon which slowly and like figures cut from black paper, men are moving.

Faulkner puts his words together the way a poet does, he selects details a poet would notice that convey a world of meaning and upon which entire scenes and experiences hinge.

So he’s a great writer. But he’s also very accessible. That’s key, I think. My most recent re-readings have driven home to me that though Faulkner is a giant among literary figures, his works are also entertaining and readable and, dare I say it, good examples of Virile Lit. For he writes stories about thieves, con artists, tough men, stories that wouldn’t be out of place in the Western or crime genres. He has here a number of amazing stories about war and about a fictional tribe of native Americans – read “A Courtship” for a story that could have walked out of the pages of a 1930s adventure serial.

I’m not saying they’re all adventure stories, but he maps the human heart the way James M. Cain does. Ostensibly, Cain’s work is “crime fiction,” but that’s just Cain’s particular perch, from which he navigates the terrain of his characters, and often the crimes Cain portrays are not transgressions against the law at all – they are the crimes of basic humanity, greed, emotional violence and manipulation. Faulkner is the same way – you’ll just never find them together on the same shelf in the book store.

What I think Faulkner achieved, what I will read more of to find out, is a perfect balance between literature of great artistic merit, heavy language, and work that is enjoyable, even thrilling. If so, it’s no wonder he is numbered among our greatest writers – but don’t let the fact that he is canonical keep you from appreciating him just as is. That’s my intention.

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