If I had not existed, someone else would have written me.
—William Faulkner (1897-1962)
This time last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death, I described “the big this-is-what-it’s-all-about moment where a 14-year-old who has been reading Mickey Spillane suddenly recognizes ‘the real thing.’” (“Fifty Years Later: Hemingway’s Hymn to the Writer and His Craft”). The book providing that moment was The Old Man and the Sea. With Faulkner, who died on July 6, 1962, almost a year to the day after Hemingway, the first shock of recognition came around the same age in a mass-market paperback edition of Sanctuary. The first thing I saw was a publisher’s note that immediately put Sanctuary and Faulkner beyond my range by referring to the novelist as “the modern master of the Grand Guignol” (whatever that was) and comparing his work with the plays of Webster and Tourneur (whoever they were). Next came the shock of encountering a character called Popeye in the first sentence when the only Popeye I knew was the cartoon sailor man and this was someone whose face “had a queer, bloodless color, as though seen by electric light.” When I went on to read that he had “that vicious depthless quality of stamped tin” and that his eyes were “two knobs of soft black rubber,” I knew I was “not in Kansas any more.”
Five years later I found myself pondering the first page of The Sound and the Fury. I was reading it outside of school, on my own, and I was lost. I had no idea what was going on. “I could see them hitting.” Hitting what? Caddie? Oh, golf. They were playing golf? The first time through was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I couldn’t put the book down, but what kept me reading had nothing to do with plot or character or suspense in the usual sense of the word. Faulkner’s departure from the conventional guidelines added a new dimension to reading. As I began to pick up on what he seemed to be doing, it was like sneaking into his secret workshop to look over his shoulder as he wrote, feeling a small part of what he must have felt, to be building something so mysterious and unique. By the end, I thought I’d discovered a new world but only barely. I knew I was still missing a lot, I wanted more, I couldn’t put the book away. So I went back to the beginning and started reading it over again.
Faulkner in Princeton
Some months ago, thinking ahead to a column on the 50th anniversary of Faulkner’s death, I began reading A Fable, which he finished writing here in Princeton in November 1953 in his editor Saxe Commins’s Elm Road home. Years later when we were living around the corner from the Commins house, I used to picture Faulkner in his overcoat walking off a hangover under the Hodge Road sycamores. He acknowledged his relationship with Commins in the dedication accompanying his collection of hunting stories, Big Woods (Random House 1955); presented in the form of an author-to-editor memo, it reads, “We never always saw eye to eye but we were always looking at the same thing.”
It’s best to read A Fable the way Faulkner suggested that readers come to James Joyce’s Ulysses, as “the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.” Even so, you soon get the impression that Faulkner approached the writing of the novel in the same spirit, in effect saying a prayer and betting everything he had on the power of his art while making himself available to that metaphorical “somebody else” who would write him if he “didn’t exist.” According to Dorothy Commins’s book, What Is An Editor: Saxe Commins at Work, Faulkner typed a two-page preface “as a favor to Saxe and to Random House,” to be used on the dust jacket of the finished book. The result was a rambling meditation on war and pacifism (“which does not work, cannot cope with the forces that produce the wars”), none of which was used in the eventual jacket copy, with its references to “mutiny in the trenches,” “the ageless tragedy and triumph of the crucifixion and the resurrection” and its promise to the reader of “a compelling story of violence and humility, of cruelty and compassion, of pathos and humor, of war and peace.”
Faulkner Plays 50 Choruses
At this point I should admit that I interrupted my reading of A Fable at page 215 in order to reread Light in August. Although I may never finish the book, I’m glad I read far enough to witness the feat Faulkner performs between pages 126 and 139, an Olympian run that begins inauspiciously with these two sentences:
“But when they reached the city they found no placid lake of grieving resignation. Rather, it was a cauldron of rage and consternation.”
I wonder if Commins had the nerve to point out that resignation-consternation trainwreck or the way the engine of Faulkner’s prose seems to come to a crashing halt when it hits a pair of labored, no-way-out, dead-end metaphors. “Seems” to come, I say, since what follows are 13 pages of Faulkner in full flight, all his jets and subsidiary igniters kicking in, propelling those “as if” and “not … but” clauses he’s addicted to. Give yourself up to it with a full measure of faith and the rhetorical onslaught sweeps you past bizarre liberties (“which was when the inspectors and inquisitors … realised the — not enormity, but monstrosity, incredibility; the monstrous incredibility, the incredible monstrosity, with which they were confronted”); when Faulkner’s locked in, it’s best to just sit back and let him play, the way you would if he were a jazz virtuoso standing on a storm-wracked promontory blowing 50 choruses against a gale-force wind. Like all great musicians, Faulkner has his own sound, as you’ll hear if you listen to the recordings of him reading from his work, his voice soft and swift and unstoppable, beyond mere accent and affect.
I’ve listened to recordings of Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Hemingway, Yeats, Pound, but no poet or writer I’ve ever heard is as insidiously seductive as Faulkner. It’s hard to imagine that a literate person of either sex could resist the way he makes love to the word “avatar.” The cassette I’ve been listening to includes passages from The Old Man, As I Lay Dying, and A Fable, as well as the Nobel Prize acceptance speech that no one at the ceremony could hear because he rushed the words and was standing too far from the microphone. It’s true, he seems happiest when he’s reading uptempo, feeding off the momentum, muting the rush of rhetoric; in terms of intonation, cadence, and melodics, the musician who comes to mind with his, in Nat Hentoff’s words, “pulsating ease,” is Faulkner’s fellow Mississippian, Lester Young.
Faulkner and Blackness
In 1959, his skin darkened with the help of a dermatologist and long sessions under an ultraviolet lamp, the novelist John Howard Griffin (The Devil Rides Outside) took his chances travelling through the Deep South as a Negro and published the results two years later in his book, Black Like Me. In 1931-32, after, incredibly, producing Sartoris, Sanctuary, The Sound and the Fury, and As I Lay Dying in the space of three years, William Faulkner wrote Light in August. You could say that Faulkner was safe within his fiction while Griffin put his life on the line passing as a black man in the reality of the South, but in Light in August, Faulkner dared to submerge himself and his art in the “black abyss” of race by creating and inhabiting and finally destroying Joe Christmas, who had passed as a white man until, obsessed by the enigma of his origins, he began fatally announcing that he had Negro blood.
Faulkner and Milch
According to a Dec. 1, 2011 New York Times article by David Itzkoff, when David Milch found that his daughter, Olivia, was studying Light in August at Yale, it “renewed [his] engagement with the material,” eventually leading to discussions between his company, Red Board Productions, and the William Faulkner Literary Estate for the purchase of the rights to 19 novels and 125 short stories by Faulkner that could be adapted for film or television. HBO said in a news release that it would have the first opportunity to finance and produce these projects. Admirers of the great HBO series Deadwood, with its rhetorical overtones of Shakespeare, Dickens, and, yes, Faulkner, may agree with me in thinking that if anyone can do cinematic justice to the author of A Fable and Light in August, it’s David Milch.
In a Nov. 30, 2011, interview with the L.A. Times, Milch says that his interest in Faulkner “deepened” when he was at Yale assisting Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and R.W.B. Lewis “on a history of American literature.” What attracts him in Faulkner is that he “speaks to us on the questions of race, the challenges of modernity and modern man’s dilemma in all of its aspects.” Asked about the challenge of filming “an unfilmable writer,” Milch contends that Faulkner is “enormously cinematic,” his prose and dialogue “superb, and compelling, and absolutely authentic,” and “his ear … just impeccable.”
When he was asked which of Faulkner’s works would begin the series, Milch said the decision had not been made. My guess is he will choose Light in August. If he does, he might cast Ray McKinnon, who was so heart-breakingly brilliant as the Rev. Smith in Deadwood, as the fallen Rev. Gail Hightower, in whose kitchen Joe Christmas is gunned down and castrated by a National Guardsman with the “voice of a young priest” and a face that has the “serene, unearthly luminousness of angels in church windows.”
For an example of the challenges Milch will face if he means to put the essence of Faulkner on film, consider the language surrounding Hightower as he thinks he should never have let himself “get out of the habit of prayer.” When he turns to the book-lined wall of his study, what is he seeking? Something theological? No.
“It is Tennyson. It is dogeared. He has had it ever since the seminary. He sits beneath the lamp and opens it. It does not take long. Soon the fine galloping language, the gutless swooning full of sapless trees and dehydrated lusts begins to swim smooth and swift and peaceful. It is better than praying without having to bother to think aloud. It is like listening in a cathedral to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to not understand.”
Good luck, David. Keep the faith.