Tuesday, September 25, 2012

William Faulkner

On September 25, 1897, William Cuthbert Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi. His family had accumulated a great deal of wealth before the American Civil War. However, his family like many Southern families had lost all of its financial power during the conflict. His parents would move to Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner would use Oxford as the basis for the fictional town of Jefferson in Yoknapatawpha County.
While he wrote both poetry and many stories Faulkner is best known for his novels.  His first novel, Mosquitoes, was published in 1927.  Here are three of my favorites of the many novels of William Faulkner I have read:

The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury

“...I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire...I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”  ― William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury, which describes the bitter, incestuous dealings of a Mississippi family fallen on hard times, is one of William Faulkner's best novels. It is also one of his that is more difficult to read, at least for me.   I found it took several readings over many years to finally follow the different narrative voices.  However, though it is a stylistic tour de force, it was a profoundly rewarding read. The book, essentially the story of Caddy Compson, unfolds in four sections, centered in turn on each of the three Compson brothers — Benjy, a mentally disabled man; Quentin, a depressed, neurotic Harvard student; and Jason, an avaricious jerk — as well as on a black servant named Dilsey. All the brothers are obsessed with the dishonored Caddy, the slutty Compson sister, and with the family honor. The latter is a theme that recurs in Faulkner's work and seems part of the world that he created and placed in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Using a "stream-of-consciousness" style the story flows from these characters. 
The scope of the book is so broad that, like a Shakespearean play, it can sustain any number of specialized interpretations.  One may consider the idea of time:
 “Clocks slay time... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.”(The Sound and the Fury
While I like the idea expressed by Sartre that it is a metaphysical novel concerned with time, there is a lot more to it than just that.  Most interpretations touch upon the notion that the novel dramatizes a deterioration from the past to the present.  The impact of the past on the present is another theme that is recurrent in the novels of Faulkner.  The complexity and multiplicity of themes and potential interpretations is part of what made this one of the novels I have read and reread over the years. It is a powerful and amazing novel--one that I will never forget.

As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying

"I know her. Wagon or no wagon, she wouldn't wait. Then she'd be upset, and I wouldn't upset her for the living world. With that family burying-ground in Jefferson and them of her blood waiting for her there, she'll be impatient. I promised my word me and the boys would get her there quick as mules could walk it, so she could rest quiet."  - William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying gives the account of one family's mission to bury their mother in a distant city.  Written shortly after the somber The Sound and the Fury, this short novel  presents human existence as an absurd joke.  Addie Bundren claims her final resting place should be near her relatives in Jefferson, Mississippi as opposed to at home. Told from the perspectives of 15 characters--including Bundren family members and local residents, the constant change in point of view can make for an uneasy read. Much of the action and relationships must be inferred from this "stream of consciousness". Faulkner uses this technique to his advantage; the reader gets inside the mind of each character. For instance, Vardaman (the youngest Bundren child), rambles near-nonsense after his mother dies; but we see a shift as he calms throughout the journey.  Thus this story present death as its subject with the central image of the human corpse.  The furious passions and furious activity that result contribute to the intensity of this novel.  Building on an accumulation of incongruities this becomes one of Faulkner's greatest works, a small novel that is very powerful.

The Snopes Trilogy

The Hamlet is the first of the "Snopes" trilogy, completed by Faulkner in 1940 and followed by The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959).
The Hamlet follows the exploits of the Snopes family, beginning with Ab Snopes, who is introduced more fully in Faulkner's The Unvanquished. Most of the book centers around Frenchman's Bend, into which the heirs of Ab and his family have migrated from parts unknown. In the beginning of the book Ab, his wife, daughter, and son Flem settle down as tenant farmers beholden to the powerful Varner family.  These novels portray a saga that stands as perhaps the greatest feat of Faulkner's imagination. The Hamlet, the first book of the series chronicling the advent and rise of the grasping Snopes family in mythical Yoknapatawpha County, is a work that Cleanth Brooks called "one of the richest novels in the Faulkner canon." It recounts how the wily, cunning Flem Snopes dominates the rural community of Frenchman's Bend - and claims the voluptuous Eula Varner as his bride. The Town, the second novel, records Flem's ruthless struggle to take over the county seat of Jefferson, Mississippi. Finally, The Mansion tells of Mink Snopes, whose archaic sense of honor brings about the downfall of his cousin Flem. "For all his concerns with the South, Faulkner was actually seeking out the nature of man," noted Ralph Ellison. "Thus we must turn to him for that continuity of moral purpose which made for the greatness of our classics."

No comments: