In a year densely packed with Golden Jubilees we pay tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the death of one of the most influential writers of the XX century, not only in English language but in Western literature as a whole. When William Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize, back in 1949, he was a respected, but hardly a celebrated, American writer. As a matter of fact, the first prize his writing ever earned him was the Nobel, promptly followed by a number of Pulitzers and National Book Awards for subsequent, generally less highly regarded works. Nevertheless, the increased attention his previous novels and short stories received once he had been granted the highest form of recognition conceived by the literary establishment, then as now, derived in a long-lasting legacy that to this day remains pivotal, as well as highly relevant.
Born in New Albany, Mississippi on September 25, 1897, Faulkner’s literature is heavily influenced by his Southern environment from the very start. His publishing debut came at the age of 28, with Soldier’s Pay (1926), which was quickly followed one year later by Mosquitoes. Famously, Faulkner’s third novel, Flags in the Dust, was highly rated by the writer but rejected by every publisher he approached with it. Eventually, a much-amended version of the novel would come out as Sartoris in 1929, which these days is mostly famous for being the first of Faulkner’s novels to be set in his imaginary Yoknapatawpha County (which closely resembles the geography of Lafayette County in Mississippi, where Faulkner spent most of his childhood), and for purportedly leading Faulkner to ignore his editor and publisher’s advice when he embarked on the creation of his next novel: The Sound and the Fury.
The most emblematic of Faulkner’s novels, The Sound and the Fury (1929) is also unequivocally a writer’s book that tells the story of a family in decline, the Compsons, from multiple perspectives and from various different points in history. Widely regarded as one of the most important novels in English language, The Sound and the Fury explores Faulkner’s version of stream of consciousness, providing valuable insights into the four highly contrasting characters who carry the plot of the novel forward. The plot itself is so intricate it remains a mystery, especially in view of the absence of a reliable narrator. Nevertheless, the beauty of its carefully crafted narrative style lies in the fact that it mirrors, to some extent, the nature of human experience, where a general sense of what is happening is perfectly graspable, but an exhaustive account of every detail of the characters’ lives becomes inaccessible. By the end of The Sound and the Fury, the reader is perfectly aware of the crisis—financial, certainly, but also moral—that assails the Compsons, who no longer can stand each other, to the point where double crossings become the general rule.
Faulkner would hit the peak of his creativity during the 1930s, following The Sound and the Fury with As I Lay Dying (1930), a fascinating account of the clash of values across different generations in Yoknapatawpha County seen from the eyes of over a dozen different first-person narrators. Faulkner’s great merit in As I Lay Dying, shared with the rest of his oeuvre, is that he never allows the reader to fall comfortably onto a simple answer to the questions he raises. Hence, while ancient values prove unfeasible, long (too long) outdated and almost absurd, their alternative is hardly appealing, as it is put forward by ruthless, unsympathetic characters. And, to complicate things further, characters who fall between the two extremes often prove too weak to survive within their environment, ultimately running away, going mad or removing themselves entirely from the scene.
Faulkner’s first big break came with the publication of Sanctuary (1931), a highly controversial novel that tells the tale of Temple Drake, a rich southern belle who enjoys, above all, the mundane pleasures of life. By modern standards, Temple cuts a rather innocent figure, but cast against the mould of late ’20s American morality, she is so debauched that Faulkner’s novel sparked vigorous debates both about the alleged pornographic content of the book, as well as about whether or not its protagonist deserved the truly gruesome fate that befell her.
Permanently caught in financial difficulties, Faulkner was immensely prolific, penning no less than 50 short stories between 1930-36, among them some of his most famous ones, “Dry Spetember,” “Red Leaves,” “Lo!,” “The Unvanquised,” and many others. Faulkner also quickly followed the controversial Sactuary with another of his masterpieces, Light in August (1932), before joining the ranks of Hollywood as a dialogue writer first (his work is almost obsessively focused on the southern inflections in the speech of his characters) and then as a scriptwriter.
His first collaboration in celluloid came in 1933, in Howard Hawks’ Today We Live, the same year when Sanctuary was adapted as The Story of Temple Drake, starring Miriam Hopkins. While Faulkner was not especially fond of Hollywood, it provided a welcome respite from his dire economic situation and it also afforded him the opportunity to build his relationship with Howard Hawks. The pair got together again in the 1944 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, a poor man’s Casablanca (with a happy ending), starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the role that would seal the former’s divorce from Mayo Methot and his subsequent marriage to Bacall in 1945. Most famously, however, Faulkner worked with the same crew, (Hawks, Bogie, Bacall) in the adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled crime story, The Big Sleep (1946), one of the most iconic film noir productions in the history of Hollywood. That turned out to be Faulkner’s last collaboration in the film industry, bar his involvement in Hawks’ The Land of the Pharaohs, almost ten years later, now as a Nobel laureate and a close friend of the director’s.
In the 1940s, Faulkner continued to dissect life in the South, with major titles, such as The Hamlet (1940), the first of his books looking at the Snopes family, and Intruder in the Dust (1948), a gripping account of racial tensions in Yoknapatawpha County, where a free black man carries himself with too much dignity—too much like a white man—sparking widespread hatred among the local population, who, given the chance, is quick to pin a murder on him, without the privilege of a lawful trial.
Indeed, Intruder in the Dust contains vivid examples of the best of Faulkner’s art: deliberately slow, oblique and mysterious, his narrative style through the first half of the novel is perfectly suited to the kind of psychological drama that he intends to develop through the social interaction between a black man who simply refuses to take the place that a (pre)dominantly white (and male) society has allotted him and individual members of such society. As the plot of the novel unravels, however, Intruder in the Dust moves further and further into the form of a thriller, leaving behind the intimations of the protagonist and focusing plainly on the increasingly fast-paced action. This evolution is also palpable in the narrative style used by Faulkner, which turns far clearer and more direct for the sake of the storyline.
In other words, a famously difficult and often obscure writer, Faulkner is perfectly capable of streamlining his prose and expressing his ideas clearly. This is true of The Sound and the Fury, as it is of Intruder in the Dust. As the reader comes to understand this, the question then is begged, “why is Faulkner not as clear as this everywhere else?” Inevitably, the answer to this question leads us to issues of intentionality, where speculation is the only way out. Partly, that is the fun of reading books—not only Faulkner’s—trying to figure out what the author meant to say here or there. With Faulkner, the possibilities are as varied as numerous are the questions he raises in his texts. But, regardless of the theories that can be built around his fiction, one answer remains unequivocal and unquestionable: the reason why he isn’t always as clear as he could be is because he doesn’t wantto be; he wants readers to work with the text as they set out to figure out the puzzle. The fact that there are no clear-cut answers and that the puzzle is as intricate, as insightful and as exhaustive as it is are the reasons why Faulkner remains an eminence among writers. The fact that solving the puzzle (or trying, anyway) is so much fun explains why he remains so popular among readers. A bit like the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, then!
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY OCTOBER 13, 2012.