Sunday, September 25, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. Faulkner

He was a colicky baby. In the heat of the insect-loud September and October darkness he would keep his mother awake almost every night. She would rock him steadily, the tiny woman in her kitchen chair. According to family lore, it was a straight chair, and with each forward motion the front legs would strike the floor with a sharp report that echoed through the open windows. She and her husband had lived in New Albany for almost a year now, but they did not know many people. They were stand-offish, thought some of the neighbors, and after hearing the sound again and again, one said, "Those Falkners* sure are the queerest folks. They chop kindlin' all night on the kitchen floor." For the whole first year of his life the baby would wake with the colic, and his small, strong mother would hold him in her arms and rock him. It was as if auguries already hovered around the cradle: sensitivity, pain, love, and clannishness.
            --from Faulkner: A Biography by Joseph Blotner

William Cuthbert Faulkner came into our world on this day in 1897 and though thousands of undergrads laboring over term papers have hurled multi-syllabic curses in his direction over the years, I for one am glad that colicky baby survived to grow into an author I deeply admire.  Sure, I probably hurled a few choice run-on profanities in Faulkner's direction my first time through The Sound and the Fury, but I've come to love the man's work--to the point where his influence has bled through to my own fiction (a good half-dozen editors have, at one time or another, probably grumbled at my sentences which have been known to fill entire paragraphs and, in one or two cases, multiple pages).

As the aforementioned undergraduate at the University of Oregon in the mid-1980s, I read and struggled through a couple of Faulkner's novels, appreciating his artistry on a technical level but never really connecting emotionally with the work.  Until, that is, I came across As I Lay Dying.  That novel proved to be my gateway drug to not only Faulkner but the rest of his contemporaries in Southern literature: Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, etc.  Though the syntax is just as tangled in As I Lay Dying as it is in The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom!, I found myself held fast to every page as a choir of voices (15 characters over 59 chapters) told the story of the Bundren family on an odyssey through Mississippi to bury the matriarch Addie.  For all of Faulkner's wordiness, one of the most striking moments of the novel is that five-word chapter: "My mother is a fish"--not to mention the chapter narrated by Addie herself, her corpse serving as one of the most lucid voices of the entire novel.

Here's another chapter, narrated by Jewel, from early in the book when Cash is building his mother's coffin outside her bedroom window while she's still alive:
      It's because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box. Where she's got to see him. Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you. I told him to go somewhere else. I said Good God do you want to see her in it. It's like when he was a little boy and she says if she had some fertilizer she would try to raise some flowers and he taken the bread pan and brought it back from the barn full of dung.
      And now them others sitting there, like buzzards. Waiting, fanning themselves. Because I said If you wouldn't keep on sawing and nailing at it until a man cant sleep even and her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn't get them clean. I can see the fan and Dewey Dell's arm. I said if you'd just let her alone. Sawing and knocking, and keeping the air always moving so fast on her face that when you're tired you cant breathe it, and that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less. One lick less until everybody that passes in the road will have to stop and see it and say what a fine carpenter he is. If it had just been me when Cash fell off of that church and if it had just been me when pa laid sick with that load of wood fell on him, it would not be happening with every bastard in the country coming in to stare at her because if there is a God what the hell is He for. It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.

Those of you who have been long-time followers of The Quivering Pen may remember one of my earliest blog posts was about my William Faulkner coffee mug.  Nearly every day during the composition of Fobbit, I filled that mug with the finest brew of black caffeine gold (plus a splash of creamer) and had it at my elbow while I typed.  When I lifted it to sip, Faulkner's head came toward my lips.  Corny as it may sound, I drank inspiration from Faulkner in all senses of the word.  Today, sir, I raise the mug in your honor.

*Not a typo. William later added a "u" to the old family name.

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