Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Faulkner and Southern History

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Faulkner and Southern History

Article excerpt

A View from Germany

In the summer of 1961, Uwe Johnson, a young German writer whose first novel had appeared two years earlier, visited William Faulkner in Charlottesville, Virginia. He had tried Oxford, Mississippi, first, but had been directed north. Johnson had been an avid reader of Faulkner's novels while a student at Leipzig University in the 1950s; there, he would read The Sound and the Fury to his friends in English, quickly translating into German the passages they did not understand. The young man had looked forward to meeting Faulkner for some time, but the visit was a bitter disappointment. Faulkner was not in a good mood and quickly slipped into one of his familiar poses. Who knows? Perhaps Johnson, who was quite tall, intimidated him, and Faulkner had never thought much of Germans anyway.

Johnson's disappointment clearly shows in a letter written to friends in Germany after he had left Charlottesville. "I only wanted to ask him something and thought that he'd start talking then," he wrote, going on to say that when he called at Faulkner's home on Rugby Road he was told, "Mr. Falkner (sic) is at a horse show ..., Mr. Falkner is taking a walk, Mr. Falkner will be glad to see you around seven--if it's raining." "And it was raining," Johnson's letter continues, "and he said--Oh, I come here only to go huntin' and fishin': I normally live in Oxford.... Here we mostly have bad weather. We hope you have better weather at home." Then Faulkner put an end to Johnson's questions and to the conversation: "I'm not a literary man. I don't understand what you are trying to ask me. I don't give a damn about what happens to my books, America doesn't read, when they earn money I spend it I am not a literary man thank you for stopping by."(1)

To understand Johnson's disappointment, it helps to know that he admired Faulkner and had made him his own, had appropriated him and absorbed him to an extent hard to exaggerate. Faulkner was his model, a literary father-figure. For a young author in Germany in the 1950s there were few such models to lean on. Many German writers before the war had compromised themselves under the Nazis; others had chosen to go into exile, so that a sense of literary continuity hardly existed. In East Germany, the state-prescribed ideology of socialism made the situation even more complex than in West Germany. So, as a young writer, how did one begin?

Against this background, it is easy to see that after 1945 the German literary world discovered, or rediscovered, American writers, among them William Faulkner, with a certain sense of elation. Of Faulkner's novels, only Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, and Pylon had been published in German translations before World War II; Light in August was then reissued as one of the very first rifles to appear under the imprint of Rowohl's publishing house after the war. As one looks at the names of Faulkner's German translators, one is struck by their sheer number--more than thirty tried their hand at rendering his novels and stories into German, surely a sign of the difficulty of the task. But despite these efforts, Faulkner never became as popular in Germany as he did in other European countries. Hemingway, Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, and John Steinbeck attracted more attention, not to mention Thornton Wilder, whose The Skin of Our Teeth--next to Our Town--was one of the most often staged American plays in Germany after World War II. Those who had survived the war obviously felt that they had indeed barely scraped by.

Nonetheless, Faulkner was available, and translations of his novels did come out--in 1951, Sanctuary and, in a strange conjunction, Intruder in the Dust were published; in 1953, Go Down, Moses, in 1954, The Unvanquished; a year later, A Fable; in 1956, The Sound and the Fury and Requiem for a Nun -- and so on, well into the 1960s. And although he did not have a large popular following, Faulkner's powers were widely recognized by postwar German writers. …

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