One of the best things to come out of 18th-century Newburyport, Massachusetts was the lengthy autobiography of one of its more colourful citizens, which did not contain a single full stop. Instead, the author provided the reader with a generous assortment of punctuation marks in an appendix, along with an invitation to ‘add salt and pepper as you please.’ In a 1936 review, Clifford Fadiman recommended that the prose of William Faulkner be taken with just such a hefty pinch of salt. Fatigued by ‘the Non-Stop or Life Sentence’ which he considered to be the ruin of Absalom, Absalom!, he declared that ‘all of Mr Faulkner’s shuddering invective pales in horrendousness before the mere notion of parsing him.’ Fadiman’s judgment was not, however, to prevail – once Malcolm Cowley’s Portable selection had, with some assistance from the French, put Yoknapatawpha County on the literary map in 1946.
From then on, an increasing number of readers discovered that this relatively obscure Mississippean had written not one but a whole series of awesome novels – ‘full of the land dug out of his skull and the holes filled with distance beyond the land’, to borrow the words the author himself used of his alter ego Darl in As I lay dying. As Faulkner’s creative powers declined so his reputation grew, aided by his en-Nobelment in 1950. By the time of his death in 1962 he was generally acknowledged to be the greatest American novelist of the 20th century, a judgment which now, with only ten years of the century remaining, seems more secure than ever.
Faulkner was one of those authors (T.S. Eliot being another) who prayed that his immortality as a writer would not entail a Life after death, since he believed all biographers treated the word ‘private’ as if it began with a ‘pry’. His prayer has not been heard by whatever questionable gods currently rule the literary world. In 1974, Joseph Blotner published a biography in two very substantial volumes. Other biographical studies, mercifully slimmer but not necessarily slighter, have followed, until now, with the appearance of Frederick Karl’s thousand-page blockbuster, Faulkner seems to have ended up with almost as many lives as a cat. Blotner’s benign chronicle amassed an enormous amount of valuable material, but at the expense of any decisive clarity of insight. Karl’s biography is admittedly short on new information but is immeasurably sharper than its predecessor.
‘You are shabby fellows, true, but poets still,/And duly seated on the immortal hill,’ wrote Byron with reference to the Lake poets. In honouring Faulkner’s Parnassian talent, Karl doesn’t try to conceal the shabbiness of several aspects of his personality. He emerges from these pages as another of the Great Authors one is glad not to have known – an ever-lengthening list from which it sometimes seems that only the blessedly sane and sunny Sir Walter Scott will in the end be omitted.
Faulkner’s ungrateful and ungracious treatment of his early mentor, Sherwood Anderson, may be charitably interpreted as youthful high jinks (although Karl brings out the malice of rivalry in it). His invitation in distinguished middle age to young women to come and inspect his valuable etchings (alias the manuscripts of his famous novels) may have been as pardonable as it was pathetic, given the Strindbergean state of his marriage. But the unguarded remark he made to his only daughter Jill is a terrible revelation of the ruthlessness that was the backbone of his genius. Jill explained:
I went to him – the only time I ever did – and said, ‘Please don’t start drinking.’ And he was already well on his way, and he turned to me and said, ‘You know, no one remembers Shakespeare’s child.’ I never asked him again.
Such a man was well able to understand the emotional coldness of the killer Popeye in Sanctuary.
In his darkest compulsions he was, however, more prodigally destructive of himself than of others. It is therefore tempting to see in him Ted Hughes’s shark, ‘That hungers down the blood-smell even to a leak of its own/ Side and devouring of itself’. Indeed Faulkner liked to strike the pose of the Romantic artist consumed by the demons that possessed him. Karl is less than fully convinced. There is a stolid quality about his approach which helps him keep his head when Faulkner and all about him are losing theirs. ‘Faulkner continued to show remarkable powers of physical recovery,’ he patiently repeats, as for the umpteenth time his author crashes a plane, or is catapulted off his horse, or drinks himself to the very edge of doom. Karl the sensible yet sensitive biographer is, in a way, just the kind of foil to his subject that Faulkner himself saw the need for in Absalom, Absalom!, when he made the cool, pink Canadian Shreve the auditor of a tormented narrative by Quentin, ‘the Southerner, the morose and delicate offspring of rain and steamy heat’.
‘Jesus, the South is fine, isn’t it,’ says Shreve from behind the cold moons of his spectacles. ‘It’s better than the theatre, isn’t it. It’s better than Ben Hur, isn’t it.’ To read Faulkner is to know the feeling; to read Blotner is to be in on the act; but to read Professor Karl is to be led backstage during the actual performance. The Hollywood factory where Faulkner worked so ineffectually in the later Thirties and the Forties could teach him little he didn’t already know about acting. A young airman with a cultivated English accent and a limp from being supposedly wounded in action, a languid student dabbling in the arts at Ole Miss, a tramp in smelly clothes with pockets ample enough to cradle liquor bottles, a diligent bookshop assistant, a postmaster allergic to mail, a bearded bohemian at home in Paris, the genteel owner of a large house full of gracious living, a courteously distant celebrity, a dapper dandy, an ambassador for American culture – he was all and none of these over the years.
Blotner simply recorded the sequence and passed on, just as he noted Faulkner’s frigid silences, his early love of flying and of hunting, his late passion for farming, his grudging but unwavering fidelity throughout his life to his immensely extended family. Karl’s contribution is to demonstrate that the key to an understanding of Faulkner lies in all these apparently random role-changes. And his great achievement is to trace, through them, the transformational grammar of Faulkner’s fantasies and fictions.
On this reading, the mature Faulkner’s life and writing consist of different manifestations and permutations of basic elements in his early life and background. The model adopted is broadly that of the Freudian family drama, but Karl’s treatment of it is liberal and flexible. He emphasises that Southern history and culture were themselves important actors in this psychosaga. Very much his mother’s son in respect both of his slight physique and of his refined temperament, Faulkner may unconsciously have wanted to break his amiable father’s (tenuous) hold on her affections. But he could conceive of manhood only in the conventional Southern terms of a manliness at which his (younger) brothers excelled. Hence, perhaps, his lifelong demonstrations of virility – a display that included his flying stunts, his break-neck horse-riding, his demented drinking, and even the years of accomplished lying which were his early apprenticeship in the art of fiction. As his aunt fatalistically remarked: ‘It got that when Billy told you something, you never knew if it was the truth or just something he’d made up.’
Systematic psychological explanation can easily become reductive, and it very occasionally does even in Karl’s capable biography. But in general he is extraordinarily good in his handling of crucial areas of Faulkner’s character, precisely because he recognises and respects its obdurate and sometimes perverse complexity. Faulkner’s drinking, for instance, could be simultaneously a refuge, a solace, a stimulus and a ploy, without ever ceasing to be an alcoholic disaster. His role-playing was likewise both a sign of weakness and a source of strength. Under cover of a false identity, his inner being could develop at a separate pace and in its own subversive way. This strategy of concealment allowed him to give nothing of his essential self away until he, and it, were ready.
Even then, all he did, in a sense, was brood in company instead of brooding alone. His novels came out of experiences that had been not so much accumulated as obsessively hoarded. Blotner relates a story not repeated by Karl.
When the Faulkner children lost baby teeth they received dimes in exchange. Being only two years apart, Billy and Jack each happened to lose a tooth at the same time. After comparing them, Billy walked over to the outdoor well and held his hand over it for a moment. ‘I dropped mine in,’ he said. Jack walked over and tossed his in too. ‘So did I,’ he told his brother. Then Billy stretched out his arm and opened his hand to reveal the tooth still in his palm. ‘I didn’t,’ he said.
Faulkner’s instinct to retain is infused here with a spirit of sibling rivalry in a complex primal scene which anticipates his later interest in trickster figures and deceivers.
The single most important aspect of Karl’s biography is the commitment it shows to honouring Faulkner the writer. His compulsion to write is accepted as an aspect of his nature which one should not seek to explain in other, supposedly anterior terms. On the other hand, his development from febrile Keatsian poet into a great novelist is properly treated as the major event which it is the business of biography to try and explain. Professor Karl never forgets that in the final analysis Faulkner lived to write. That is what made the final years of his life so desolate. Faulkner the real writer died twenty years before Faulkner the man – and the man knew it. So remote from his early genius did he feel by 1950 that he was reluctant to accept the Nobel Prize, which he felt had been awarded to an entirely different person.
Not only did Faulkner live to write but, so Professor Karl would have us believe, his life entered deeply into all his writings. This biography sets out to make a case for regarding Faulkner’s fiction as intimately autobiographical. The difficulties which beset this kind of argument are of course as legendary as they are legion, and they were well summed up earlier this century by Paul Klee in a deceptively simple analogy. An artist’s work is related to his life, Klee suggested, in much the same way that a tree’s branches are related to its roots. In both instances there is an evident causal connection, which nevertheless baffles analysis. There is also a kind of inverse and convoluted logic which appears to govern the whole slippery structure of inter-relationships. And there is a seemingly simple correspondence of shapes which turns, on closer investigation, into a snakepit of squirming transformations and transubstantiations.
As Faulkner’s writing got poorer, his fiction became ever more transparently autobiographical. But the real challenge to his biographer, as Karl freely acknowledges, is to tackle the novels of the great period, from The Sound and the Fury (1928) through Go down Moses (1942). Since he singles out As I lay dying (1930) as the representative Faulkner text, his comments on this particular work can be reasonably taken as illustrative of his general method. He discerns in this strange ‘epithalamion’ a working-out of Faulkner’s emotional difficulties at the time of writing. His recent ‘cursed’ marriage to Estelle having entailed a betrayal of his possessive mother, Faulkner, on the one hand, made futile amends (like Anse) by providing Addie Bundren with an epic funeral journey, and, on the other, took revenge by inflicting on her corpse more bizarre forms of humiliation than most minds could possibly have conceived. Faulkner’s hostile feelings towards his father come out in his depiction of Anse, the mean-spirited and sly little dirt-farmer. The contrasting natures of the half-brothers, Darl and Jewel, hint at Faulkner’s image of himself as the peculiar one in the family.
Karl’s handling of this discussion is full and subtle. Nevertheless, there are some weaknesses associated with the strengths of his method. Because of his awareness of how tentative conclusions of this nature must necessarily be, he tends to multiply speculations with an air of honest humility which is both endearing and exasperating. What particularly tests the long-distance reader’s patience, though, is the biographer’s readiness to entertain ideas which Karl himself admits are absurd – the elemental qualities of the Bundren family can’t, for instance, be usefully related to Faulkner’s ‘Vulcan-like’ labours as a power-station stoker. Equally regrettable in a book of this length are the examples of tedious repetition. Twice within the space of a single page we learn that the impression of wanting to get back to the basics of life in As I lay dying is a reaction against the way in which Faulkner’s ‘personal life was becoming increasingly complicated’. Moreover, Karl’s thoroughness does sometimes degenerate into mere doggedness, and then he seems unwilling to let a novel go until he has shaken the very life out of it.
Anyone who belongs to a minority culture (in my own case, the Welsh) may balk initially at the full title of this biography: William Faulkner: American Writer. Is the implication, one wonders, that Faulkner is somehow greater when viewed as an American than when identified with the South? Isn’t it the essence of great literature to demonstrate there’s no point too small, or too soft, as Whitman put it, to act as the hub of the whole human universe? It turns out that what Karl primarily has in mind is the inescapably marginal and adversarial position of the true writer within American culture. And his conclusion is as challenging and as chilling as it is undoubtedly fitting in Faulkner’s particular case: ‘Most major American writers die alone – not only because they have carved out their own space, but because their need to assert themselves in America has cut them off from what might be personally authentic. They become part of the film not the reality.’ That is America’s comfortable way of liquidating its artists.
Karl’s biography is a solid monument to the man and the writer. By contrast, with the emphasis in the Macmillan Modern Novelists Series sternly fixed on ‘close examination of important texts’, David Dowling’s study sets out ‘to foreground the aspect of Faulkner’s language play’, which, he roundly asserts, ‘takes us more surely than the American South, symbolism, Gothicism or psychology to the heart of Faulkner’s genius’. He demonstrates at the outset what this approach is capable of yielding. A masterly analysis of two passages from The Reivers and one from Absalom, Absalom! bears out Alfred Kazin’s claim that Faulkner’s style is ‘the most elaborate, intermittently incoherent and ungrammatical, thunderous, polyphonic rhetoric in all American writing’. But then Dowling rather falls victim to a series format which requires him to provide (fast) running commentary on all Faulkner’s work – and to make the discussion sophisticated yet accessible. Faced with an order almost as tall as the tales Faulkner’s characters tell, it’s not surprising that Dowling sometimes falls short of what his General Editor airily promises. The discussion is so densely compressed that the prose cannot fail to become turgid at times. But its thinking is lively enough to make this a book worth consulting.