Enjoying William Faulkner


There is no denying that many, many people, myself included, have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of reading William Faulkner. But if you ask us whether we recommend his work, we might hesitate. The enjoyment we’ve gotten out of Faulkner we’ve worked hard for. He doesn’t make it easy. The guy writes sentences that are fifteen pages long.

There is one guy who can give you the background information that can be so helpful in understanding — and therefore enjoying — Faulkner. His name is Cleanth Brooks and he wrote a book called The Yoknapatawpha Country — or something like that. I’m not sure of the spelling. It’s been more than 30 years.

This guy knew Faulkner. He savored Faulkner. His greatest joy was to explicate or, in the terms of my elderly generation, to “turn someone on to” Faulkner.

I had the privilege of hearing Cleanth Brooks read “An Odor of Verbena,” and to me, that’s a lot like saying you heard Caruso.

I took his course at an Ivy League institution in New Haven, Connecticut, that has more buttheads than thinkers, and always will. But I am thankful, certainly, for the chance to hear him and meet him.

Just to give a short sample of why Faulkner is worth reading, but not so often recommended, is his quintessential work The Sound and the Fury. If you just pick it up and read it, you’re going to have to hang onto it for several years before you even begin to understand what’s going on.

Here’s why: The opening section is written by the idiot Benjy who gets things mixed up in time. It starts something like this: “He hit and then he hit and then he yelled “Caddie.”

Now here are three bits of background information: One, the only person Benjy ever loved was his sister Caddy, but she went away. Two, Benjy’s portion of the family inheritance was the lot across the street, which has been sold and is now a golf course. Three, Benjy has been castrated because of an incident. See how this information helps explicate those opening lines?

Benjy’s section is followed by one from Quentin, who goes to Harvard and commits suicide. It sounds grim, but it’s handled well.

Faulkner took a year off from the post office to read the Russians, and it shows in this work, which is unquestionably one of the greatest works of American literature, and of world literature. He got the Nobel Prize, remember?

It took three full-time guys to get him to the podium half sober, but that’s another funny story.

Caddy? She was last seen leaving a Berlin nightclub and stepping into a German staff car.

If you do read The Sound and the Fury, see how many allusions you can find to The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot. I found a lot of them, and we can compare lists. The lost bones, the pearls that were his eyes…

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