William Faulkner was a literary genius, and one of America's most important and influential writers. Drawing on previously unavailable sources -- including letters, memoirs, and interviews with Faulkner's daughter and lovers -- Jay Parini has crafted a biography that delves into the mystery of this gifted and troubled writer. His Faulkner is an extremely talented, obsessive artist plagued by alcoholism and a bad marriage who somehow transcends his limitations. Parini weaves the tragedies and triumphs of Faulkner's life in with his novels, serving up a biography that's as engaging as it is insightful.
Veteran novelist and biographer Parini (Robert Frost; The Last Station) crafts a thorough account of the Nobel laureate's life (1897-1962), pausing with the publication of each book to reprise its plot and critical reception, and add his own evaluation of its merits. This is a reasonable approach, which benefits from the insights of such literary figures as Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, whom Parini interviewed before their deaths. But there isn't any startling new material to supersede Joseph Blotner's massive 1974 biography, though Parini strains to be up-to-date by emphasizing Faulkner's friendships with gay men and his fiction's homoerotic elements (unquestionably present, but hardly worth the amount of attention they receive here), as well as considering feminist assessments of the writer's female characters. His solid account makes it clear that once Faulkner established himself as a major American author, he basically did two things: write and drink. The clumsy prose ("It was with some relief, for her, that nothing came of her husband's efforts"), surprising from such a distinguished literary man as Parini, does not increase the book's readability. There's no question, however, about this biographer's admiration for his subject. Newcomers will find all the basic facts about a great American writer and his work, but Faulkner remains, as Parini acknowledges, a "mystery [that] cannot be 'solved.' "
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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June 14, 2005
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Excerpt from One Matchless Time by Jay Parini
A Sense of Place
The past is never dead. It's not even past.
-- Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
A sense of place was everything to William Faulkner, and more than any other American novelist in the twentieth century, he understood how to mine the details of place, including its human history, for literary effects. His novels, from the outset, are obsessed with what T. S. Eliot once referred to as "significant soil," but the outward details of place quickly become inner details as Faulkner examines the soul of his characters through the prism of their observations, their rootings and branchings, their familial and social as well as geographical contexts. Place, for Faulkner, becomes a spiritual location from which he examines a truth deeper than anything like mere locality. Faulkner saw himself as taking part in a great process, moving through history and, in an intriguing way, creating a counterhistory of his own.
He would focus in his fiction on a parallel universe based on the "real" universe of Lafayette County, Mississippi. Faulkner's invented region, Yoknapatawpha County, was named after an actual stream that ran through Lafayette County, the name itself meaning, according to Faulkner, "the water runs slow through flat land." Lafayette was among several counties created by various acts of violence in northern Mississippi in the 1830s, when the native Chickasaw tribe was driven westward, displaced by a procession of planters, slaves, and small farmers, all of whom worked together to fashion an economy based on cotton. At least for a while -- before repeated plantings of cotton depleted the topsoil -- this economy worked well for the white population of Lafayette, especially those living at its middle and higher end. Not surprisingly, this prosperous class regarded the abolition of slavery as a threat to their way of life and joined forces with those who believed in secession.
Their allegiance to the Old South was, for the most part, unwavering. In Faulkner's fiction, the Sartoris clan would stand in for this class, the planter class, and their failure over generations is one of his most compelling themes, counterpointed by the implacable emergence of the Snopes clan, representing the greedy, unscrupulous white folks who come from the outlying country and who form a kind of counterpoint to the Sartoris clan, although it is somewhat misleading to regard this dialectic in a simplistic fashion, since there are admirable Snopeses and selfish, inconsiderate members of the Sartoris family.
The Civil War came as a tidal wave, sweeping over northern Mississippi with a vengeance. Oxford itself -- Faulkner's hometown, and the focal point of his imagination -- was ransacked by Union troops (which included many liberated slaves in their ranks) in August of 1864. The aftershocks of this horrific war reverberated through the decades, and Faulkner's characters might be considered survivors of an original trauma, often unspoken, absorbed and transmogrified in their own lives and relived as other kinds of trauma. Even World War I, which obsessed Faulkner, was in a sense an extension, for him, of the original war, which destroyed families by pitting brother against brother, father against son. (Faulkner plays out some of these conflicts in A Fable, a late novel set mostly on the western front, and in many stories.)
It is in the nature of things for violent acts to repeat themselves, even though the original source of the violence is lost to view. In many ways, Faulkner's writing is about uncovering these hidden sources of disruption, about following their echoes and unconscious reenactments down the decades.