Thursday, March 11, 2010

Art that Changed My Life: William Faulkner

I could just as easily label this "Art that Changed My Life: The Sound and the Fury" as that one book remains the sole reason I put Faulkner near the top of my list of favorites. Sure, Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite American writer, but The Sound and the Fury is the finest novel any American has produced to date (at least that I've come across). Of course, there are other notable works to come from within these borders; Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court comes to mind. And Sherwood Anderson was certainly an inspiration. There's Cat's Cradle and The Scarlet Letter. And let's forget about Moby-Dick. Many see a connection between Melville and Faulkner, and who am I to dispute this. What I will say is this: where Moby-Dick put the U.S. of A. on par with the great Russians of the 19th century, Faulkner's efforts matched those of the European modernists. With his "big four" (As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, A Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!) we had a firm place in the brave new world of literature, alongside Joyce and Proust and Woolf. Yay-rah!

To be sure, any sentence in Absalom, Absalom! is as staggering as your average hypotactical Proustian moment. As the Frenchman recreated a society, Faulkner did likewise. That Faulkner's land was apocryphal and resided in the deep south of Mississippi might scare away the Europhile fuddy duddies eager to imbibe wine over whiskey and foie gras over cornbread.

Okay, I'm not trying to rag on the Europeans, but all too often us Yanks get overshadowed by the giants of the fake continent. Thankfully, with Faulkner we have permanently staked our place on the literary world's stage. It doesn't matter that some of his books are unreadable (never made it through A Fable, for example); If a person writes a book as great as The Sound and the Fury, they need never write again. (Think about Juan Rulfo, for example.)

And what about The Sound and the Fury? Well, I came to this book fresh off of Hemingway's preverbal teat. I had waded through The Old Man and the Sea, said A Farewell to Arms, and even agreed that The Sun Also Rises (though, in Ernie's hands, not very well). Hell, I even tried For Whom the Bell Tolls, giving up after the first fuck scene. I was ready to let my manhood swing alongside Ernie and to call him the bull macho of American letters, when out of nowhere comes Bill, drunk, confident, uncompromising, wild, restrained, proper, and brilliant. I could never go back. The Sound and the Fury has affected me like few other books. It ties for 1st place in my heart (a 3 way tie with The Master & Margarita and The Obscene bird of Night). Perhaps it is a case of reading it at the right time, or maybe it was the awe of his vision that got me. You have to marvel at the manner in which Bill lets each section of the book become its own, filling in what the last left out, drifting through time and memory, relating individual experiences and trying to tell a story that sprang from one idea: a young girl climbing a tree to look in a window and see her dead grandmother, who dirties her panties in the process and bests her brothers. From this seed grew a mighty fucking oak.

I could go for pages about the book (as others have) and still sound like an idiot (as others have not). I rank this book up high, yes, but I include it, and its author, on the list of art that changed my life as it and he have done exactly that. After Faulkner, nothing seems impossible and so much else seems trite.

Carry on, mates.