At 100, the American century's greatest novelist Faulkner: A sense of nation, a grasp of spirit, a voice that rises above all others.


September 21, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Thursday is the 100th birthday of the greatest 20th century American writer of prose fiction.

William Faulkner won't be here to join the celebration, of course. He made damn sure that wouldn't happen. If the drinking didn't get him then another fall from a horse would have, which he considered no reason to stop drinking or riding. He pushed his physical constitution and his luck no less than the limits of narrative form. In each case he rode to the precipice, and, much to the gain of American literature if not his health, jumped.

The Mississippi native and Nobel Prize winner died of heart failure at 64 on July 9, 1962. Thirty-five years have passed since then and nearly three remain in the millennium, perspective enough to say that no American in this century rode to greater literary heights or probed to greater depths of the American myth than Faulkner. He occupies the canonical summit alone, as he so often wanted to be, with a bourbon in his hand and a nice view of the living nation mired in the karmic stew he illuminated so well.

In the 1950s and 1960s it might have seemed that he shared the peak with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck. But clearly now it's Faulkner alone among 20th century American writers who unearths enormous masses of a distinctly American clay and sculpts fiction that stands up in its experimental daring to the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. For that combination of qualities, no American writer published since his birth on Sept. 25, 1897 approaches Faulkner.

His work makes a remarkable blend. Think of a collaboration of Mark Twain and Joyce, or Flannery O'Connor and Feodor Dostoevski.

Faulkner likened a writer in the throes of work to a fellow building a chicken coop in high winds: you just grab whatever you can and nail it down. At times it seems that he's run out of nails, as if he's overwhelmed by the hail of lumber flying toward him. As if he wrote in a kind of fever.

For 13 years starting in 1929, Faulkner rode a wave of creativity unparalleled by any American writer. While shuttling back and forth from Oxford, Miss., to Hollywood to write screenplays, he wrote dozens of short stories and 10 of his 18 novels, including the five most scholars consider his greatest work: "The Sound and the Fury," "As I Lay Dying," "Light in August," "Absalom, Absalom!" and "Go Down, Moses."

Harold Bloom, Yale professor and one of the country's prominent literary critics, writes that these books' "combined effect is extraordinary." They exert the force of mythmaking, Faulkner's creation of a universe parallel to the one in which he grew up: Yoknapatawpha County, modeled on Lafayette County, Miss. Faulkner stood in his muddy boots on this 2,400-square-mile patch of soil and captured the attention of the world, if not always his own neighbors. In the late 1940s, when most of his books were out of print in the United States, Jean-Paul Sartre said that among the young people of France, "Faulkner is a god."

Jay Watson, English professor at the University of Mississippi, is struck not only by the sheer volume of quality work Faulkner produced, but the "combination of really bold experimentation, formal experimentation and real passion and moving human content, which is a win-win proposition that you don't get in a lot of writers."

Consider those Faulknerian sentences, rushing breathlessly onward, often without benefit of punctuation. A Faulkner sentence may press a century into an instant or freeze a single moment for pages. Such is the chaos of human experience. Ambiguous, baffling, disturbing and often unresolved. More than any American writer of his time, Faulkner sought to plunge the reader into this experience.

As in "The Sound and the Fury," when Quentin Compson stands in a gale of inner voices, his beloved sister Caddy having slipped via marriage forever from his fantasy embrace:

"The month of brides, the voice that breathed - She ran right out of the mirror, out of the banked scent. Roses. Roses. Mr. and Mrs. Jason Richmond Compson announce the marriage of. Roses. Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed. I said I have committed incest, Father I said. Roses..."

Faulkner fragments the narrative of "The Sound and the Fury" as you might shatter a mirror. The picture appears in shards, some of them reflecting several other pieces at once. Yet in their disarray the pieces convey a profound sense of loss. The Compson family's center of gravity, its chief source of love and compassion, has vanished from the scene. The family flies apart, its members as scattered as the disparate versions of the saga.

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