Dark house

Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.’ Thinking although I have not been quite a month on the road I am already in Mississippi, further from home than I have ever been before. I am now further from Doane’s Mill than I have been since I was twelve years old. 

 *****

I'm reading William Faulkner's Light in August, and it is one of the best things I've read in a very long time. Faulkner is a giant, an immense writer of great power. If the world were a better and smarter place, people would forget about Cormac McCarthy and read Faulkner instead. McCarthy writes a lot like Faulkner, except that McCarthy lacks empathy and a broad vision. As I Lay Dying is 10,000 times better than The Road. That is a fair comparison, as both novels feature odysseys and take as one major theme the relationship of parents to their children during traumatic events, each book starting with a dead wife, to boot. I don't know why I'm having a go at poor Cormac. My own novel Cocke & Bull is quite Faulkneresque, and is also a wee little insignificant thing in the shadow of Faulkner's books. Which is perhaps the point of this short but rambling post. I've always admired Faulkner, but for the first time I've actually seen what he's doing, how well he's doing it, and how amazing it all is. Of course you can also see the influence of Chekhov in the works of Faulkner, that awareness of man's bafflement over his predicament, and the moral fog in which most of us stumble and fall.

 *****

The whiskey died away in time and was renewed and died again, but the street ran on. From that night the thousand streets ran as one street, with imperceptible corners and changes of scene, broken by intervals of begged and stolen rides, on trains and trucks, and on country wagons with he at twenty and twenty-five and thirty sitting on the seat with his still, hard face and the clothes (even when soiled and worn) of a city man and the driver of the wagon not knowing who or what the passenger was and not daring to ask. The street ran into Oklahoma and Missouri and as far south as Mexico and then back north to Chicago and Detroit and then back south again and at last to Mississippi. It was fifteen years long: it ran between the savage and spurious board fronts of oil towns where, his inevitable serge clothing and light shoes black with bottomless mud, he ate crude food from tin dishes that cost him ten and fifteen dollars a meal and paid for them with a roll of banknotes the size of a bullfrog and stained too with the rich mud that seemed as bottomless as the gold which it excreted. It ran through yellow wheat fields waving beneath the fierce yellow days of labor and hard sleep in haystacks beneath the cold mad moon of September, and the brittle stars: he was in turn laborer, miner, prospector, gambling tout; he enlisted in the army, served four months and deserted and was never caught. And always, sooner or later, the street ran through cities, through an identical and wellnigh interchangeable section of cities without remembered names, where beneath the dark and equivocal and symbolical archways of midnight he bedded with the women and paid them when he had the money, and when he did not have it he bedded anyway and then told them that he was a negro. For a while it worked; that was while he was still in the south. It was quite simple, quite easy. Usually all he risked was a cursing from the woman and the matron of the house, though now and then he was beaten unconscious by other patrons, to waken later in the street or in the jail.

11 comments:

  1. Scott has surfaced! Hello, Scott!

    I can't begin to tell you how insanely wild I was about Faulkner when I was a teen and young woman. Well, I was a Southerner, and I loved to write, so perhaps it was inevitable. Eventually I managed to take a seminar with Cleanth Brooks...

    The curious thing is that my father (who loved to write poetry and fiction and published in his own field of analytical chemistry) intensely disliked Faulkner. My father was a south-Georgia sharecropper's child who experienced many things that could have been in a Faulkner novel, and he felt Faulkner had been unfair to his people.

    I expect he might have felt the same way about "A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage," which was inspired in part by my father and by family lore. But mostly it is a bridge over gaps in what I knew. And probably he wouldn't have approved of my bridge!

    Such a useful phrase you have there: "If the world were a better and smarter place..."

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    1. I have been busy busy busy! As you can see, I barely took the time to write anything here, just reeling out barely-connected sentences.

      When I was a kid, the only Faulkner I read was "A Rose for Emily" which I feel is not much representative of Faulkner, but I read it in a class on horror fiction, alongside Shirley Jackson, Poe, and W. W. Jacobs. In my early 20s I read As I Lay Dying, a pretty good book but also probably not representative of the main thrust of Faulkner, but it got me interested enough to read Absalom, Absalom, Go Down, Moses, and The Sound and the Fury, all in one summer. Later I read a bunch of short stories and a few years ago Sanctuary, which I think is a better book than its reputation would have it.

      Of course I love the Old Testament voice of Faulkner and the themes of family and the weight of life itself upon all of our backs. Just the sort of stuff I tend to write about, I have come to discover. My parents disliked the whole Southern Gothic movement because those writers didn't reward characters with happy endings. My father grew up on a farm in rural Georgia but his father was a city man who never embraced the rural experience and moved back to the city as soon as he could. My mother also grew up on a farm but she moved to Washington DC when she was 18 and never looked back. Neither of my parents would approve of the way I write about families.

      The bridge-building engineer story in Camellia is based on your family history, isn't it?

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    2. Yes, I am busy too--so hard to juggle all the parts of one's life at times! But looks like some good news on the horizon, bookwise, though no thanks to me--just surprises. Hope all is going wonderfully well with your busy times!

      It is remarkable how Faulkner was once held in high regard and now he has almost vanished from public consciousness. Maybe a man who could claim that all of us "labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity" is just not the writer for a time when we are cleansing evidence of history from our landscape and our universities and few of our young people know any history or care to think about glancing into eternity.

      Pip is a sort of composite figure that contains elements of my father and one of my sons--that's very unusual for me, as I like to make up everything. My great-grandfather on my father's side was indeed a bridge builder (of several sorts.) He had 22 legitimate children and 2 illegitimate children with a neighbor woman. They were, as in the story, mixed race. She died and my great-grandparents took in the children. One of them was my grandfather's favorite brother growing up. Doesn't sound much like the picture we have of the deep South... The house and porch, the hedge and flowers, the well, the road and cotton fields: those are all memories of the "Aunt Minnie place" that my grandparents and their children turned from gullies into a farm but never owned.

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    3. I think this idea (is it a particularly American idea?) that identity is something we choose, as if we assemble ourselves out of the bins at a marketplace, is destructive, is working against community and even against something basic to humanity. We cut ourselves apart from the world, stand alone and declare our uniqueness and then wonder why we feel isolated and why life has no meaning. Faulkner talked about the evil of selfishness, but more than that he talked about how the world only works when we can lean on each other for support, when there is someone who will lend us his shoulder and wisdom. That's not a popular idea these days.

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  2. Faulkner is the most underrepresented author on book blogs, based on what I judge people ought to be reading. Maybe everyone read him before starting their book blog. I hope so.

    I met a quite pure Faulknerian in Lyon, at the crime novel festival. Michael Farris Smith - he even lives in Oxford, for pity's sake. A number of (old) French people in the audience were complaining about the syntax of a sentence. "It's not right" - well, it's pure Faulkner, although if I did not imagine it he winced when someone (my wife) mentioned Faulkner's name. This all led to a terrific defense by the author. "Maybe it's not perfect but maybe it's great."

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    1. I read most of my Faulkner before there were blogs. Before there was a world wide web, in fact. Faulkner's star seems to be steadily falling. You never hear anyone talk about Faulkner. Though meine Frau and I were talking about Modernism last week, about Faulkner and Melville and Lawrence, about how the best of the Modernists kept pushing away at language and narrative, trying new things, some of their attempts comically clumsy now but often enough breathtaking and strange and yes, imperfect but great. Meine Frau works in publishing and we have our arguments about usage and consistency and the Oxford comma and things like that. I'm on the side of the importance of the impression produced, grammar be hanged. I would never survive as a writer of nonfiction.

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    2. Apparently I'm calling Melville a Modernist. Yes, I think I stand by that.

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    3. I agree about that falling star, and I think that Lawrence's star has been doing the same. Of course, anyone who thought he knew something about the men and women of his time and made that understanding a part of his writing is probably in trouble now.

      And I expect that our categories (Modernism) will change in time. Schools don't seem to use many literary-historical categories these days. It's hard for academics to explode the canon if they keep suggesting through courses that various movements and groups of somehow-related writers are important to literary history, so I guess there's an obvious reason why literary history is dying as a mode of thought or discipline. Then again, the current age appears to despise history and doesn't want to learn from or about it.

      Tom's anecdote is interesting. I had the impression that Faulkner was one of the writers the French loved in the past, so I was a bit surprised at the reaction of older readers.

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  3. Since it is inevitable that I will become insufferable on this subject, I might as well dive in.

    In France - that phrase is the signal of insufferability - I say, in France, Faulkner's star is not falling, literary history is thriving, and the canon is unexploded. It is not the current age but just this little corner we live in.

    French education in the humanities is so much better than ours. It is a delight to witness it.

    The French still love Faulkner. At the event I attended, the French were taking sides. One side of Faulknerists, another side anxious about correct grammar. Anxiety over correct language is more popular in France than Faulkner, that was clear enough. But there was applause after that "maybe it's great" line.

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    1. Please do continue becoming insufferable. It gives me hope!

      I've been relieved that all my grad school experience was done just before the theorists took over, and that it demanded a lot of reading and had a historical structure. Likewise I'm glad that I won tenure and promptly got out of academia.

      My skin crawls when people talk about cultural appropriation as though it were an actual thing to battle rather than the ancient Silk-Road way of swapping and influence--the way art has evolved from its most origins until now. And so many other tendencies that are fashionable just oppose and threaten art, poetry, and fiction by striking at our ability to enter in to other minds or our old longing to reach toward the heights.

      I am glad our rather big little corner is not the whole world.

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  4. A little late here...
    I spent part of one college summer in Oxford, Mississippi and read a lot of Faulkner. Light in August was one of my faves of his (and still is). Thanks for this post...I'll use it as a much-needed push to revisit a few of his books.

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