Saturday, March 05, 2005

I've got a nice pile of books for review to carry me through March -- and all that stands in my way is William Faulkner.

I'm in the process of reading Jay Parini's recent biography of the old boy for the Free Times, and whenever I review a literary biography I always try to submerge myself (if only a little) in the author himself. I didn't really need to do that this time, and if I had the slightest sense of practicality I wouldn't have bothered, because I've been reading Faulkner on a semi-regular basis for decades now. For the past few years I've read Absalom, Absalom! annually, and I still read the odd short story of his now and then, and I've got a reasonably okay background on his life to at least write a review of a biography. But I figured this was as good a time as any to dive into some new work that I had never tackled.

That work is Go Down, Moses, and God is it difficult. Whenever I read a book by Faulkner for the first time, it's like I've never read him before. I find myself submerged in murk and gasping for air -- or at least yearning for someone to tell me what year it is, which character is speaking, and what the fuck he's talking about, and by the way, Bill, could you PLEASE throw down a period now and then? Thank you.

Especially section 4 of "The Bear," a migraine-inducing head-scratcher where the more-or-less protagonist of the book, Isaac McCaslin, plows through a lot of old documents of family history with his cousin McCaslin Edmonds. This is, I warn you, not the story "The Bear" you read in your high school lit class -- that shorter, more linear version is only part of this much, much larger and more convoluted one.

It's difficult the way all his great novels are. I always think of Faulkner as a cubist: he smashes narrative and reassembles it, and not exactly piece by piece. You have a head here, a foot there, a thumb over here, and you work to put them all together in a coherent way. You, as a reader, have to find the coherent thread of the story he tells. He makes you an archaeologist: you discover some clue and you think what does this have to do with that.

Naturally, the geneaology of this story -- as in Absalom -- works the same way: all you have are scraps and pieces, and you have to work back to the beginning. You may even have to take notes; I've got a whole spiral one devoted to Absalom. Or, if you're a little too tired of that and you don't trust what you think you know, you may have to find someone else who knows more and can even supply a chart -- which is helpful, even if like me you may find it personally demeaning that you can't quite figure it all out on your own. (But come on, can I be expected to know that there are TWO characters named Lucas Quintus Carothers McCaslin, TWO characters named Sophonsiba, TWO Amodeus's, and when he refers (as he does in section 4) to McCaslin, does he mean Isaac McCaslin or McCaslin Edmonds? I believe it's the latter, in case you're interested, but hey, I'm a novice where this book is concerned.)

The way I've always seen Faulkner is this: the story starts in a blur that, gradually, comes into focus. Look at The Sound and the Fury, for example: we start with a narrative section by a retarded adult. Enter the book cold, and it likely will just confuse the hell out of you. Over the succeeding sections, the details of Benjy's story come a little more into focus, and when you re-read it, it makes more sense. This is key to all Faulkner's great works: it repays all the attention you give it. In fact, I think you have to read his books several times to really say much about them, to address even, say, their flaws. That's what I've always noticed about Absalom -- that once you get the story down, you see all that's glorious and strange about this convoluted history, and you also see Faulkner's defects as a writer -- not just his windiness, which can actually prove to be extraordinary poetry, but the way he'll hand his characters these long semi-Biblical philosophical digressions that seem less to come out of them than their creator.

All of this also applies to Go Down, Moses.

In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children's teeth are set on edge. --Jeremiah 31:29

Faulkner writes from a very Old Testament perspective, and his stories are all about the sins of the fathers, sins which usually involve slavery-era racism, rape, mixed parentage, and the way the progeny years down the road has to bear that burden. In Absalom that figure was Thomas Sutpen; here it is this Lucius Quintus Carothers Mccaslin guy, who spawns two families, white and mixed, and over the course of the book's seven inter-related stories you have all these inter-related characters. The whites bear a burden of guilt, often, or brutality. The blacks, or children of mixed blood, bear a burden of servitude to white society, and they either buckle under the strain or die trying to fight back.

For all my venting about this book, though, I know I'll go back over it and back over it, that I'll find myself very often wondering if this is, after all, any way to read a book -- is a book supposed to be this complex? How much of your life should a work of art command? Should it take over your life? When is it ever enough? Do you ever reach a point where you've really understood it all? This is of course what I think we demand from high art: something incandescent, something that's never complete, something where you can never, ever really, really come to a perfect solution -- something that offers itself up to myriad interpretations.

I think that's why, even as I wander through the dense thicket of this book with waders and goggles, I feel I'm reading something great. It's a pain to read it once, it will be I think extraordinary to read it an eighth time.

Having said all that, I must add that my feelings regarding Parini are very mixed. He can, at his best, make you want to read Faulkner or to revisit him. He certainly has helped me out in trying to make sense of Go Down, Moses. He can be a very patient teacher of Faulkner, but he doesn't really seem to tear into Faulkner the way you want him to; it seems at times very superficial and uninspired. I think this is perhaps a too-safe biography and a somewhat mundane one, and that Faulkner doesn't anymore take shape before our eyes in this book than he does in a documentary or in an average chronology.

I go back and forth between reading Go Down, Moses and Parini. It works well. One could not be more complex, one could not be more simple.

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