Faulkner is, in my mind, the greatest novelist of all time. Of course, this comes from one who has not read all the greats; but in Faulkner I get the sense that it would be unnecessary to do so. When he names his magnum opus after a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, there is the hint that he is going to wad the whole of life and history into a ball and bowl you over with it. Faulkner had stories to tell the size of the universe, all set in the rural backcountry of mythical Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.
I relate to Faulkner on a personal level. I had my picture made beside his bronze, bench-sitting statue on the square in Oxford, MS, back in 2005. In this college town the University affectionately called “Ole Miss” sits off to one side. At its center is the Lafayette County Courthouse, graced with a massive Confederate Memorial on the front lawn. All the main roads from the country spoke into the square, and one has to drive around the towering obelisk to the Lost Cause in order to get to another main route out. Here, Faulkner literally sat on the benches watching plain folk and listening. This was the hub of the universe, not New York City or London or Paris.
Faulkner came back to Oxford after the Great War (the one that was supposed to “make the world safe for democracy”) limping in a British airman’s uniform – he had joined the Canadian Air Force when the U.S. Army Air Corps rejected him on account of his stature. Both accessible and distant, he carried himself about like an English snob. A few disgusted local folk referred to him as “Count No ‘Count” behind his back.
Faulkner was himself a lost cause, and most people around town knew it. He could not live up to the legend of his poet-warrior great-grandfather, a genuine hero of the War Between the States, or his grandfather, a successful businessman. With each passing generation the Falkner clan was sliding downhill. William painted and drew and took random classes at white-columned Ole Miss (but not a degree). He was mostly a hard-drinking, Bible-pondering, people-watching layabout.
I am slowly sipping Leary’s sketch of Faulkner’s life and work like a hot cup of spiced-chai on a dreary afternoon – a welcomed respite from Carl Menger’s Grundsätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre (Principles of Economics). But it’s not pleasure reading. I find myself confronted with my own proclivity to romanticize the past and hate the present.
[Faulkner] denies himself the luxury of direct statement. Almost everything that he writes is qualified by modifiers or by parentheses which extend or obscure simple meanings. For a statement is final and static, arresting motion. It is incapable of capturing the constantly moving experience of living. Nouns which name need modifying. No man is simply a man. He is a kind of man, and to describe his kind requires subtle nuances. Any attempt to snare words arrange themselves as elusively and unexpectedly as do the forces, past and present, of shame, despair, or jubilation which twine and twist together to make him what he is…Actually, the more I think about it, I suspect ol’ Menger would have been tickled with Faulkner. His Volkswirtschaftslehre was based entirely upon the premise that people act, and no mathematical formula can quite explain it.
…in his story “The Bear,” in which the boy Ike McCaslin can come near to the great beast only when he puts aside his compass and watch and gun, instruments which provide precise direction in time or place, or which accomplish the cessation of life – like assertive sentences which are exact but deadening, Faulkner must be read as a poet is read…
In life, he seems to say, no story is ever finished. Lovers die, but not love. The secrets of no person are ever completely revealed. Life is motion. To arrest motion is to make it inert and static, like the carved or painted figures on a Grecian urn of young men who forever chase but never catch young girls…
But a benchwarmer can get right close.