National Book Award Winners, part 4: 1951’s The Collected Stories of William Faulkner.

15 Aug

1.

Faulkner is . . . difficult to write about. He’s dense. He’s mercurial. He comes to us with decades of jargon-filled baggage, diluted and refracted through an army of professors putting their spin on the already difficult to comprehend southern gentleman from Mississippi. It’s hard to pin down his beliefs. It’s hard to see the man behind the words. His style is baroque. The quality of his work is all over the place. He’s known for his absurdly challenging novels set amongst the denizens of Yoknapatawpha County. His output was immense. He wrote ghost stories, satires, little colloquial sketches, grim adventures, and even a sort of precursor to the rural noir that has been popping up for the last couple of years.

He drank. A lot. He wrote some screenplays in Hollywood[1]. He fell off the literary map—and thanks to the French intellectuals of the 1940s, including Sartre and Camus—he was rediscovered in his lifetime.

Faulkner, smoking that goddamn pipe, at his typewriter.

Faulkner, smoking that goddamn pipe, at his typewriter.

He’s been lionized. He’s been feted. He’s been the subject of thousands of doctoral theses. He won the National Book Award twice, the Pulitzer Prize twice, and in 1949, was awarded the Nobel Prize. If there’s an American writer more secure in his place in literary history, I can’t think of one.

So I admit with some difficulty (and a little shame) that I’m not crazy about him. I find him labyrinthine, confusing, bewildering, at times just plain cheesy and dated. The Sound and the Fury has some incredible writing, but the structure and the loopy narrators make it difficult to understand. Ditto for many of his other most famous novels. I’m not a huge fan.

But his short stories, taken as a whole, are superb, and worthy of the critical accolades and attention.

But first, a brief interlude.

2.

There are three major divides in American fiction. The urban/rural thing. The maximalist/minimalist thing. And the North/South/West thing. Faulkner hits all three.

He’s an unabashedly rural writer. His characters live in hamlets, small villages, tenant farms and the places between things, woods, mountains. He’s also a major shaper of the country’s view of the South. From Faulkner we get the agrarian South of grand dames, crumbling families, armed moonshiners, casual racism, even more casual violence, and a vicious ignorance that often results in murder. He skirts the line between grotesques—think “A Rose for Emily”—and vivid, complex characters, such as Nancy in the fantastic “That Evening Sun.”

He’s one of the first major experimental writers who found a large audience. Faulkner is a Deep South Joyce. He is perhaps the best example of modernism in America—that hurricane that wrecked the arts, beginning some time in the early 1900s—I can think of. The old forms were exhausted, so the modernists blew them up. Painting became abstracted. Music became atonal. Fiction became fractured.

Modernism in music fell out of favor a long time ago. It stuck around in fiction for a while. Post-modernism added a spirit of playfulness to the mix, but experimental fiction—at least in America—has been relegated to small presses and tiny releases[2], with a few notable exceptions. We have little appetite for it.

Faulkner represents an extreme example[3] of the maximalist strand of American fiction: big, stream of consciousness,  byzantine, complex, often overly descriptive with swirling sentences and daunting diction. Faulkner gives us Pynchon, DeLillo, Doctorow, Gass, Gaddis, Wallace[4]. He gives us daring and verve, but also obfuscation and frustration.

We come to Faulkner on the losing side, in a sense, of all three major schisms in American fiction. It’s hard to see him on his own terms. His novels are  hulking, immense mansions, with many rooms, held together with long swooping sentences.

3.

Back to the stories. Faulkner knew how to bring readers along, especially in his short fiction. “Barn Burning” is correctly studied as one of the greatest short stories ever written. I read it routinely, and find new things in it with each revisit. “Lo!” is a very funny story about American Indians visiting the president in DC, and running around as his guests, just without pants. “Two Soldiers” is just great. With just a few duds, his short stories are strong, swift, often brutal, packed with great cinematic scenes. He dazzles. He beguiles. “That Evening Sun” is one of the great short stories that most people don’t know.

One of the great single volumes of American short fiction. (John Cheever is the other.)

One of the great single volumes of American short fiction. (John Cheever’s collected stories is the other.)

I’d quote from him, but the Faulkner Estate is extremely litigious over copyright. By all accounts they sue at the drop of a hat, send cease and desist letters and so on, which is short-sighted, irritating, and just plain wrong. I run a tiny shop here with an even smaller audience, so I’ll run just a single line, for academic/review purposes, the second line in “That Evening Sun” (Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner, p. 76):

 

The streets are paved now, and the telephone and electric companies are cutting down more and more of the shade trees—the water oaks, the maples and locusts and elms—to make room for iron poles bearing clusters of bloated and ghostly and bloodless grapes, and we have a city laundry which makes the rounds on Monday morning, gathering the bundles of clothes into bright-colored, specially-made motor cars: the soiled wearing of a whole week now flees apparition-like behind alert and irritable electric horns, with a long diminishing noise of rubber and asphalt like tearing silk,  and even the Negro women who still take in white people’s washing after the old custom, fetch and deliver it in automobiles.

They don’t write them like that anymore.

 


[1] John Mahoney plays a Faulkner-esque character in Barton Fink. A great performance.

[2] The National Book Award committee grappled with this issue themselves, in 1973, when they awarded two winners, the experimental John Barth, and the classical John Williams. I love them both.

[3] Hemingway represents an extreme example of the other: spare, understated, elegant. I would argue that Dos Passos bequeathed to us a third way, a bit of both, against the epic sweep of history, with a historian’s knowledge and a poet’s precision.

[4] As well as the inimitable Barry Hannah, among a host of others.

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