Vol. LXIII, No. 38
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Eighty years ago, while Wall Street was reeling, American literature was striking it rich. In a three-week period in October 1929 Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury arrived in the nation’s bookstores. That same month newsstands featured another iconic work, Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, which was being serialized in Black Mask magazine. According to the 2009 stock market of literature, that October 1929 quartet is a gold mine. First editions of A Farewell to Arms and The Sound and the Fury in good condition are going for $25,000 while one dealer’s asking $45,000 for a copy of Look Homeward, Angel and another is trying to get a cool $136,000 for a first of The Maltese Falcon, no doubt thanks to the landmark movie starring Humphrey Bogart. Hollywood high rollers like nothing better than collecting books that were made into famous films. You don’t want to know what first editions of Frankenstein go for.
The Road of Excess
Although Thomas Wolfe’s stock in the marketplace of literary opinion has been yielding comparatively meager dividends for decades, his mythic stature seems to have compensated for the fact that he’s not taken as seriously as Hemingway, Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose 1925 masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, is going for $55,000 these days. The thing about Wolfe is, he’s a young writer’s writer. If anyone can make aspiring novelists greedy for glory, it’s Wolfe. When you’re in your late teens, Wolfian excess — the romance of titanic nocturnal literary labors and immense manuscripts — has an irresistible allure. More than anyone else, Wolfe popularized the compelling notion of being a “great writer.” Even if nothing he ever wrote can touch The Great Gatsby or The Sound and the Fury, the doomed giant (dead at 37) retains his own stock of literary currency. In a much-quoted interview, Faulkner saw the magnitude of Wolfe’s labor as a virtue in itself, putting him at the top of the list when asked to rank his contemporaries. Though he may have regretted ever saying so, he credited the North Carolinian for trying to do the impossible, for trying, as he put it in another context, “to put the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin.” Wolfe would probably agree. Early in The Web and the Rock, published in 1939, the year after he died, he prayerfully states his mission: “Oh Christ, could we make speech say what no speech utters, could we make tongue speak what no tongue says! “
However fondly you may remember Wolfe, as you get older you find yourself resisting the idea of going back to reread him. He says it himself in the title of the last of his two posthumous novels, You Can’t Go Home Again. It’s possible, however, to go back to him if you reread his work selectively, and you don’t have to read far in Look Homeward, Angel to appreciate why its appearance in the winter of our financial discontent had such an impact. At its richest his prose makes you think of Whit-man, and his characters are magnificent. W.O. Gant’s Shakespearean lamentations still hold up, and so does Ben Gant’s bitter presence and poignant death, and so do the moments that readers and writers get all dreamy remembering, moments in which he manages to suggest a world of wonder and nostalgia with images as simple as a plume of woodsmoke or the sound of a train. In the end, Wolfe’s reputation was bankrupt by the excess (and inherent waste) that made him famous, and so, like some great record-breaking homerun hitter of the steroid era, he’ll always have an asterisk by his name.
As William Faulkner admits in a 1956 Paris Review interview, The Sound and the Fury is the novel that he loved “as a mother loves the child who became the thief or murderer more than the one who became the priest.” In the same interview, he offers the polar opposite of Wolfe’s self-conscious view of the creative mission: “If I had not existed, someone else would have written me …. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important.” Imagine Wolfe making such a statement. As he searches for the fictional route that will “rid” him “of the dream” that became The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner rarely if ever intrudes on his creation the way that Wolfe and his massive ego constantly do. It’s the “someone else-wrote-me” concept in action, as if the creation of the book were the task of a 33-year-old idiot named Benjy and his brothers Quentin and Jason. For a reader, the experience is devious and fascinating. Instead of the voice of a writer self-consciously embarking on a “big book,” you get this:
“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” The first time I read the opening pages of The Sound and the Fury I was lost. I didn’t have one of those maps or guidebooks in my pocket devised to ease the otherwise blindsided reader’s way into the mystery. At the top of that first page in my ancient, quaintly disintegrating copy of the Modern Library paperback, along with the dates
I’d finished reading and rereading it, I wrote “Faulkner — 61 years old. The greatest?” I probably wrote it the day he died, July 6, 1962, a year and four days after Hemingway shot himself. When you’re young and writing, you’re emboldened by the kinship, however delusional, you feel with your heroes. They go where you go, and so Faulkner was with me
four years later in a rat-infested hotel in Katmandu when I finished my third reading of The Sound and the Fury in the absolute silence of three a.m. in the below-freezing chill of my mud-floored cubicle. No one in the world knew where I was, neither parents nor friends. It was just me and Faulkner curled up in an Army surplus sleeping bag. That was when I finally understood what it was that had sent me back to the beginning those other times. Not that the mystery was any less wonderful. That was the beauty of it. With Faulkner, no matter how much you thought you understood, there was no end to the mystery except knowing what he meant in the interview when he said, “I couldn’t leave it alone, and I never could tell it right,” and in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech when he spoke of “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself” as the only thing “worth writing about.”
When I tried to describe to a friend how it felt the first time I read the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms, I resorted to a version of Faulkner’s analogy. Not that Hemingway had tried to put the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin but that he’d translated something that finely cadenced and lasting into prose. You can go back again and again to those opening paragraphs and still wonder how a simple assortment of simple words can fall so perfectly into place. No wonder: Hemingway was a poet. He could even turn dialogue into poetry and he could pack the essence of a novel into a five or ten page short story.
Rereading A Farewell to Arms recently in my old Modern Standard Authors edition, I came to the passage on page 13 where Frederick Henry is explaining what kept him from visiting his friend the priest’s home in Abruzzi. The priest had made preparations for the visit and felt sorry that his American friend had neglected to come. “I myself felt as badly as he did and could not understand why I had not gone,” Henry tells us, and then goes on to say that he tried to explain to the priest “how we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things.” The long paragraph that follows comes about as close as can be imagined to demonstrating what Faulkner meant by “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Henry had wanted to go to Abruzzi, “where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was clear cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare-tracks in the snow and the peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting,” but “had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafes and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again unknowing and not caring in the night, sure that this was all and all and all and not caring.”
The passage goes on as Hemingway describes Henry’s conflicted attempt to make the priest understand how drinking and whoring diverted him from the promised visit. The narrator finally has to admit, as Faulkner admitted about the writing of The Sound and the Fury (“I never could tell it right”), “I could not tell it; as I cannot tell it now.” The priest understands, for if anyone is Hemingway’s muse in that book, it’s the priest: “He had always known what I did not know.”
The paragraph about not going to Abruzzi is hard to read aloud without being moved because you can feel Hemingway’s excitement in writing it and you wonder if someone had read or shown it to him on the early morning of July 2 1961, he might have held on a while longer.
If I haven’t discussed The Maltese Falcon, it’s because the movie has always engaged me more than the novel. And although Hemingway apparently hated it, Frank Borzage made a great movie of A Farewell to Arms. For whatever reason, the same cannot be said of The Sound and the Fury (1959) and Look Homeward, Angel, which no one in Hollywood was willing to take on, though there was a version that was made for television in 1972.
The books I’ve been writing about are all available just about everywhere. Although I was never entralled by As I Lay Dying, which shares the same Modern Library edition with The Sound and the Fury, I intend to reread it next year in the same edition, which, like the others pictured here, is beaten and battered, and priceless.
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