norbert blei | minding faulkner | part 2 | writer-at-work

7 10 2009

William Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable typewriter in his office at Rowan Oak, which is now maintained by the University of Mississippi in Oxford as a museum.

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 201 | October 7, 2009


Part ll

Norbert Blei

To take a full measure of a writer’s life, work, character, I relish the possibility and surprise of looking beyond the book, the style, the body of work he or she is most noted for.

Yes, Faulkner IS Sanctuary, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying… (Hemingway IS The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea; Tolstoy IS War and Peace, etc.) but could there be something else that might prove revealing?

I see within most serious writers both ‘the dancer’ and ‘the walker”–or the pedestrian. The dancer, in Faulkner’s case, is exemplified in the passage I quoted from his story “The Bear” in the previous entry (#200), Part I.

The dancer is where the art lies, where discovery lives, where everything comes together, words and ideas in a swirl…there is form, rhythm, movement…there is meaning and beauty and immense satisfaction. It’s the magic act, right before the writer’s eyes. He can hardly believe his own words—coming from where? He is in that zone again, where time has no meaning, the day disappears.

The ‘walker’ is more careful, deliberate, perhaps a little unsure of his steps … casting an eye before, around, glimpsing back at times. Leisurely. He checks his watch. Moves in a straight line. Time may be of the essence, but there is no hurry. He’s fairly certain where he is headed, that he will accomplish what he set out to do. He slows to examine a plant, stops to turn over stone, pick up a stick, check a bird in a tree…all the while proceeding toward his destination, almost within sight. Just ahead.

Here’s Faulkner, in that ‘pedestrian’ mode. Faulkner on Camus… Hemingway…Melville.

Great stuff. Insightful.

Albert Camus

CAMUS said that the only true function of man, born into an absurd world, is to live, be aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom. He said that if the only solution to the human dilemma is death, then we are on the wrong road. The right track is the one that leads to life, to the sunlight. One cannot unceasingly suffer from the cold.

So he did revolt. He did refuse to suffer from the unceasing cold. He did refuse to follow a track which led only to death. The track he followed was the only possible one which could not lead only to death. The track he followed led into the sunlight in being that one devoted to making with our frail powers and our absurd material, something which had not existed in life until we made it.

He said, ‘I do not like to believe that death opens upon another life. To me, it is a door that shuts.’ That is, he tried to believe that. But he failed. Despite himself, as all artists are, he spent that life searching himself and demanding of himself answers which only God could know; when he became the Nobel laureate of his year, I wired him ‘On salut l’ame qui constamment se cherche et se demande’; why did he not quit then, if he did not want to believe in God?

At the very instant he struck the tree, he was still searching and demanding of himself; I do not believe that in that bright instant he found them. I do not believe they are to be found. I believe they are only to be searched for, constantly, always by some fragile member of the human absurdity. Of which there are never many, but always somewhere at least one, and one will always be enough.

People will say He was too young; he did not have time to finish. But it is not How long, it is not How much; it is, simply What. When the door shut for him, he had already written on this side of it that which every artist who also carries through life with him that one same foreknowledge and hatred of death, is hoping to do: I was here. He was doing that, and perhaps in that bright second he even knew he had succeeded. What more could he want?

[from: ESSAYS SPEECHES & PUBIC LETTERS by William Faulkner, edited by James B. Meriwether, Random House, 1965. Originally published in Transatlantic Review, Spring 1961; the text printed here has been taken from Faulkner’s typescript.]

The Old Man and the Sea

His BEST. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.

[from: ESSAYS, SPEECHES & PUBLIC LETTERS…Originally published in Shenandoah, III (Autumn 1952)]


It is a difficult question. I can name offhand several books which I should like to have written, if only for the privilege of rewriting parts of them. But I dare say there are any number of angels in heaven today (particularly recent American arrivals) who look down upon the world and muse with a little regret on how much neater they would have done the job than the Lord, in the fine heat of His creative fury, did.

I think that the book which I put down with the unqualified thought “I wish I had written that” is Moby Dick. The Greek-like simplicity of it: a man of forceful character driven by his sombre nature and his bleak heritage, bent on his own destruction and dragging his immediate world down with him with a despotic and utter disregard of them as individuals; the fine point to which the various natures caught (and passive as though with a foreknowledge of unalterable doom) in the fatality of his blind course are swept—a sort of Golgotha of the heart become immutable as bronze in the sonority of its plunging ruin; all against the grave and tragic rhythm of the earth in its most timeless phase: the sea. And the symbol of their doom: a White Whale. There’s a death for a man, now; none of your patient pasturage for little grazing beasts you can’t even see with the naked eye. There’s magic in the very word. A White Whale. White is a grand word, like a crash of massed trumpets; and leviathan himself has a kind of placid blundering majesty in his name. And then put them together!!! A death for Achilles, and the divine maidens of Patmos to mourn him, to harp white-handed sorrow on their golden hair.

And yet, when I remember Moll Flanders and all her teeming and rich fecundity like a market-place where all that had survived up to that time must bide and pass; or when I recall When We Were Very Young, I can wish without any effort at all that I had thought of that before Mr. Milne did.


* Faulkner was one of a number of authors asked what book they would most like to have written.

[from: ESSAYS, SPEECHES & PUBLIC LETTERS…Originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, July 16,1927]

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.