norbert blei | minding faulkner | part 1

5 10 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 200 | October 4, 2009


Minding Faulkner…
Part I

Norbert Blei

today, this morning. Another rainy, overcast, cold dead morning …the trunks of trees darkened with rain water…the woods drenched in the scent of decay…the dying already on its way in the suddenness of wind, falling temperatures…in the hands of hunters spotting deer, surveying the forests after dark…yet the green prevails, momentarily…green leaves of maple, birch, beech…greener still, rain-washed, awaiting final falling act of color…those stretched out, singularly beautiful days of light spangled in braches, free falling in waves down to earth… before winter rearranges the landscape once more in starkness, sharp texture…

I carry three books of Faulkner to the coop from last night…books I took from the shelf at god knows what awkward hour of darkness, or why. Faulkner? Someone I’ve never been that close to in all my writing life…someone I turn back to upon occasion…an image…a remembrance of a story (“A Rose for Emily,” “The Bear”)…some recollection of the author’s life or words, suddenly brought to mind.

Maybe it was the beginning of Garrison Keillor’s, The Writer’s Almanac for September, 25th– Faulkner’s birthday…that I was remembering

September 25th….is the birthday of William Faulkner born in New Albany, Mississippi , 1897. He liked to get up early, eat a breakfast of eggs and broiled steak and lots of coffee, and then take his tobacco and pipe and go to his study. He took off the doorknob and carried it inside with him. There he wrote his novels by hand on large sheets of paper, and then typed them out with two fingers on an old Underwood portable. He was prolific this way — in a four-year span, he published some of his best novels: Sartoris (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), and Light in August (1932). In 1949, he won the Nobel Prize in literature.

Or maybe it was coming across those old books of his on my shelves…NEW ORLEANS SKETCHES by William Faulkner, which I purchased from my favorite used book dealer, Paul Romaine, back in Chicago…1959? The writer within me, just beginning to stir. Romaine placing this very early book of Faulkner (only 25 when he wrote it?) in my (about the same age then?) hands—saying, in effect: “Read this. Early Faulkner. When he met Sherwood Anderson (already a favorite of mine) in New Orleans.” This, a paperback edition, published in Japan, The Hokuseido Press, $1.50.– which I read that evening, thinking: This is newspaper work, apprentice stuff…(not realizing that some of the pieces were indeed freelanced by Faulkner for the Times-Picayune)…that this was the kind of stuff I was beginning to learn to write and publish for Chicago newspapers and magazines… And certainly not quite realizing at the time that this is where it all begins–or once did for young writers who fed newspapers, which in turn nourished young writers—Anderson, Hemingway, Faulkner, Sandburg, Masters…

Early Faulkner/New Orleans for sure (I see now)…no sense of what lies ahead, just the sheer joy of being in ‘place’, observing, listening…turning everything into words, scenes …’sketches’–in search of stronger forms, firmer language… heft, resonance, all that it takes to raise the voice to story—that stays

More birthday bio from Garrison’s Almanac:

He grew up in Oxford, Mississippi. When he was 24, he went north when a friend got him a job at the Doubleday bookstore in New York. His uncle, a judge in Oxford, said, “He ain’t ever going to amount to a damn — not a damn.” At first, Faulkner was a good salesman, but pretty soon he started telling his customers not to read the “trash” they wanted to buy. He went back to Oxford and took a position as a fourth-class postmaster at the University of Mississippi, but he was forced to resign because he kept magazines until he’d read them, let holiday hams spoil before he delivered them, and closed down early to drive out to the golf course in his yellow Model T Ford. He went to New Orleans, where he met the writer Sherwood Anderson. In college, Faulkner had written poetry, but Anderson said: “You’ve got too much talent. You can do it too easy, in too many different ways. If you’re not careful, you’ll never write anything.” Anderson encouraged him to try fiction, and Faulkner moved into his apartment and wrote his first novel , Soldiers‘ Pay (1926).

I never read SOLDIER’S PAY. Never read much of his poetry. I re-read SANCTUARY and THE SOUND AND THE FURY a few years ago. Marvels, both. Yet neither book ‘comfortable’ to my reading nature. (I am not alone.) Still the writer, the work continues to nudge one—in my darkest hours? I promise to return to him more often…something there, in him, I need to know, to learn, to untangle the privacy (honor?) of his provincial (sophisticated?) art. (Heart?)

William Faulkner’s most violent book was probably Sanctuary (1931), which he first wrote as a potboiler. He wanted it to shock people. He said he wrote it after having “made a thorough and methodical study of everything on the list of best-sellers. When I thought I knew what the public wanted, I decided to give them a little more than they had been getting.” There are nine murders mentioned in the story, and a college student is raped with a corncob by a gangster. When Faulkner’s publisher read it, he said, “Good God, I can’t publish this. We’d both be in jail.” But Sanctuary was published, and it sold more copies in three weeks than The Sound and the Fury sold in two years. When his wife read it, she said, “It’s horrible.” Faulkner said, “It’s meant to be.”

William Faulkner said, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one.”

[Source: The Writer’s Almanac, September 25, 2009]

Last night, along his New Orleans Sketches , I pulled a small paperback from the shelf: THE PRIVATE WORLD OF WILLIAM FAULKNER by Robert Coughlan, An Avon Book, 50¢. (1953).Though old, dusty, discolored, the book is brand new. A biographical portrait. Untouched—but for a bookmark only 36 pages in, beginning with Chapter 3: “The Artist as a Young Man.” As far as I read…all those years ago. I thumb through the slim volume and come upon this…

William Faulkner is a small, wiry man with closely cropped iron-gray hair; an upswept mus¬tache of a darker color; a thin, high-bridged aqui¬line nose; heavy-lidded and deeply set brown eyes in which melancholy, calculation and humor variously are reflected; and a face tanned and webbed, especially near the eyes, with the creases and lines and tiny tracings of advancing middle age and the erosion of many days spent in the open in all weathers. He is entirely self-possessed, with a manner easy, courteous, speculative, and deadly. He is a quiet man; yet when he is at ease, with his short legs outstretched and a blackened pipe in his thin lips, and perhaps a drink at his elbow, he is like a somnolent cat who still in the wink of an eye could kill a mouse. Faulkner does not look or act like what he is. He acts like a farmer who had studied Plato and looks like a river gam¬bler. In the way he looks there is something old-fashioned, even archaic.

I place the book next to my chair to read straight through, another night soon. “Ruthless” settles in. If I could sleep, I would. But the woods, the cold, the darkness, the “Time”…the end of summer, the persistence of fall, (the stalk, the hunt—THE END)…death in the woods/winter…all this and Faulkner got my mind going again…I go back to the shelf to find and feed on more of his work…Where was that beautiful rippling prose passage from “The Bear”?

He was sixteen. For six years now he had been a man’s hunter. For six years now he had heard the best of all talking. It was of the wilderness, the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document:–of white man fatuous enough to believe he had bought any part of it, of Indian ruthless enough to pretend that any fragment of it had been his to convey…. It was of the men, not white nor black nor red but men, hunters, with the will and hardihood to endure and the humility and skill to survive, and the dogs and the bear and deer juxtaposed and reliefed against it, ordered and compelled by and within the wilderness in the ancient and unremitting contest according to the ancient and unmitigable rules which voided all regrets and brooked no quarter; — the best game of all, the best of all breathing and forever the best of all listening, the voices quiet and weighty and deliberate for retrospection and exactitude among the concrete trophies — the racked guns and the heads and skins — in the libraries of town houses or the offices of plantation houses or (and best of all) in the camps themselves where the intact and still-warm meat yet hung, the men who had slain it sitting before the burning logs on hearths when there were houses and hearths or about the smoky blazing piled wood in front of stretched tarpaulins when there were not. There was always a bottle present, so that it would seem to him that those fine fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank, drinking not of the blood they spilled but some condensation of the wild immortal spirit, drinking it moderately, humbly even, not with the pagan’s base and baseless hope of acquiring thereby the virtues of cunning and speed but in salute to them. Thus it seemed to him on the December morning not only natural but actually fitting that this should have begun with whiskey.



3 responses

5 10 2009
David Dix sr.

Thank you for this reflection today. On this cool fall day It makes me think of searching my dusty book shelves, looking form some Faulkner. In defiance of the dip in temps, in my layered worn garments and a knit cap from the unisex basket, I will read today with Blei’s fine suggestion something from the used book store stash, maybe 50 cent variety. Have been right never to throw any books away, especially paperbacks. May have some whisky; Just a snippet….


5 10 2009
Susan Hannus

So…are you taking the doorknob off tonight?

6 10 2009
Robert M. Zoschke

Wonderful literary reflection on Faulkner from Blei this morning. As always, Blei hits all the nails square on each head. Ah, Faulkner…It’s almost with a guilt over the recollected discomfort in “getting through what I got through of him” that my reader’s eyes pass him on my bookshelves..(Why did I find too much of his a struggle to get through? Why do I feel guilty passing him by and choosing other books off of the shelves? Because he’s Faulkner with a Capital F Faulkner?) The one I’ve always cherished from Faulkner is The Reivers and I re-read from the hardcover edition and look at, with relish, the Signet first edition paperback copy with Steve McQueen from the movie version of the book right there on the cover in all his McQueen Glory. Thanks again to Norb for a marvelously crafted and poignantly moving dispatch today.

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