Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

The Designs of Faulkner's "Yoknapatawpha Saga" and Balzac's Human Comedy

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

The Designs of Faulkner's "Yoknapatawpha Saga" and Balzac's Human Comedy

Article excerpt

ALL THE BIOGRAPHERS OF FAULKNER HAVE AGREED on his extensive reading of Balzac. It will of course remain impossible to point out just how much of Balzac Faulkner read and remembered. According to Joseph Blotner an 1897-99 set of La Comedie Humaine in translation was in the library at Rowan Oak (Library 90-92). Susan Snell, after Blotner, asserts that both Stone and Balzac read "all" Balzac, and much of it aloud together (75). At the time, in his book-reviews for the New Orleans Times-Picayune such as "American Drama: Eugene O'Neill," Faulkner referred to Balzac's standard-setting work as a yard-stick of achievement (NOS 86-89). While emphasizing the limits of the exercise, several critics have made valuable attempts to chart the vast field of Faulkner's concrete debt to Balzac's plots and characters. In two articles in the Mississippi Quarterly Philip Cohen noted so many examples of influence that his studies look comprehensive.l

Although the purpose of this essay is not to complement the instances of influence that Cohen collected, my unsystematic exploration of the Faulkner and Balzac canons allows me to contribute a few more blocks to the building. FauLkner's admiration for Balzac's first mature novel, Les Chouans, did not only develop in a parallelism between the Bretons' resistance to the armies of the French republic and that of the Confederate troops in the Civil War in The Unvanquished -the first section of both novels is entitled "L'Embuscade/Ambuscade," and "Vendee" in Faulkner is obvious. A few years later, when Faulkner was asked to prepare the screenplay for "The De Gaulle Story," a Warner Bros. project, he naturally thought of setting his village community in Brittany and remembered the names of the protagonists in Balzac's novel-in which the peasants' names included "Pille-miche," "Marche-a-terre": hence Faulkner's choice of "Coupe-Tete" in the De Gaulle Story screenplay; "Chopine" after "Galope-chopine" in Balzac's Chouans. Ironically the French advisor to Warner Bros., Henri Diamant-- Berger, criticized Faulkner's name-choice and commented: "there has never been a name like that in France" (Brodsky and Hamblin 383).

The plot of Le Colonel Chabert, a short novel, would have been appealing to young Faulkner. Like Donald Mahon, Chabert comes back from the war to find that he does not belong in the peace-time society anymore. But the plot more deeply foreshadows Requiem for a Nun: Chabert returns as the ghost of his wife's past; like Temple Drake in Sanctuary, she was a prostitute, and Chabert has not forgotten any more than Nancy. Chabert and Nancy strangely choose as their lawyer a man who is a close acquaintance of the oblivious respectable wife: Derville, the former Mme Chabert's own lawyer, Gavin Stevens, the uncle of Temple's husband. Like Derville, Stevens tries to get the woman to face her past by threatening to expose her to her present husband.

The reality of influence is, however, debatable: for instance would it not be vain to claim that Flem Snopes is inspired by Rastignac, du Tillet or Nucingen, rather than by Dickens's Uriah Heep? In many ways, Faulkner creates Flem while breathing the air of a literary world inhabited by figures of cold-hearted go-getters: Flem is a variation on a type common in the nineteenth and early twentieth century novel, the age of triumphant capitalism, when such characters can be read about in the novels of Balzac, Dickens, Twain, to name but a few.

Certainly both Balzac and Faulkner concurred in creating a cosmos of their own. In his classic introduction to the Portable Faulkner, Malcolm Cowley consciously endeavored to emphasize the "general design in which one novel [of Faulkner's] was linked to another," something which, he claimed, earlier critics had unduly ignored (xxxi-- xxxii).2 Cowley mentioned parenthetically that La Comedie Humaine "may have inspired" Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha series:

Just as Balzac, who may have inspired the series, divided his Comedie Humaine into "Scenes of Parisian Life," "Scenes of Provincial Life," "Scenes of Private Life," so Faulkner might divide his work into a number of cycles: one about the planters and their descendants, one about the townspeople of Jefferson, one about the poor whites, one about the Indians, and one about the Negroes. …

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