How to Read Faulkner

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 6, 2005 | Go to article overview

How to Read Faulkner


Byline: James E. Person Jr., SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

To many readers today, the novels and short stories of William Faulkner (1897-1962) are more reverenced than read. The unwary Faulkner novice setting out for the first time to tackle "The Sound and the Fury" or "Absalom, Absalom!" is likely in for a shock, for in much of his fiction Faulkner's allusive, modified stream-of-consciousness style can baffle even the most determined reader: What is happening now in the plot? Who is the he Faulkner has been speaking of for the past eight pages? Are there two characters by the same name in this novel?

At the same time, literary historians assure us that Faulkner is unsurpassed in capturing the essence of rural and small-town life in the Deep South from roughly the time of the Civil War through to the outset of the modern age. But he is not a regional writer only, for his works speak of the human condition, the need for faith, tradition, roots, and community when all these elements are broken or vanishing.

Faulkner has been often imitated but never surpassed, and Southern writers know this and stand aside for the great Mississippian's reputation. On one occasion short story writer Flannery O'Connor famously said, "Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down."

How then to make Faulkner's work understandable, to slow down the "Dixie Limited" just enough so that its contours and workings can be seen and appreciated? In "One Matchless Time," Jay Parini largely succeeds. A renowned poet and biographer of Robert Frost and John Steinbeck, Mr. Parini has taught courses on Faulkner's fiction for many years at Middlebury College. His new work shares with the reader the benefit of his extensive knowledge of Faulkner. Mr. Parini's mastery of the great Mississippian's life is sure, and his explications of all Faulkner's major fiction is refreshingly insightful.

An added strength is that Mr. Parini's prose is quite accessible to the lay reader. The author has invested a staggering amount of research into "One Matchless Time" and it shows, with graceful transitions from authorial statements to substantiating references from secondary sources.

Any biography of William Faulkner can only be promising that begins by invoking his famous quotation from "Requiem for a Nun," "The past is never dead. It's not even past." In the case of this book, the past that Mr. Parini focuses upon is the post-Reconstruction South of Faulkner's upbringing, with its racial tensions, burgeoning industrialization, crumbling class structure, loss of wilderness, and sense of loss in general.

From this background arose those short stories and novels set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County that appeared during the "one matchless time" of 1928 through 1942: "The Sound and the Fury," "Absalom, Absalom!," "Sanctuary," and "Go Down, Moses," among several others - not to mention such short stories as the masterful "A Rose for Emily."

While he is a Faulkner admirer, he is no Faulkner worshipper, for Mr. Parini does not shy from describing Faulkner's personal weaknesses and less-accomplished work.

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