William Faulkner as Practice
I’ve been to The Strand several times and found the shelf in the fiction stacks that houses the great William Faulkner. It’s at the end of an aisle, easily accessible from the tables in the middle of the floor that teem with new authors, black studies, banned books, short stories by women under thirty, and the like. There, only feet from the glittering displays, sit whole shelves filled by an old, alcoholic southern white man who locked himself away in a Mississippi town and wrote unreadably dense novels about a “fictional” Mississippi town and the people that he found there.
I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve glanced up from a table, seen the F’s in the fiction stacks just a few feet away, thought What the Hell, and walked over to stare at the titles. I’ve picked up Absalom, Absalom! or The Sound and the Fury at least a dozen times, opened to a random page, and started reading. I don’t think I ever made it from top to bottom of that first page.
For years, I was a practicer. The notion that people were good or bad at things irritated me. Everything was a matter of some aptitude combined with enormous quantities of elbow grease. At the time, that was mostly with respect to music –– playing my instrument, learning other peripheral or associated skills. I could easily translate it into other similar pursuits: skilled jobs that required repetition and mental and physical dexterity. But for some reason I had some trouble fitting the same idea to less immediately obvious areas.
New guitar player wants to play Recuerdos de la Alhambra? Put in the time.
Jackass who fancies himself intelligent wants to read one or two of the most notoriously challenging novels in the English language by one of its least forgiving authors? Pick one up in a moment of bookstore pique –– if it doesn’t click straight away then it probably isn’t meant to be.
The idea of reading being a skill, of reading one author requiring a vastly different set of tools than reading another, of honing my ability to weed through a particular person’s wildly idiosyncratic manner of storytelling never occurred to me until this spring when I decided that – come hell or high water – I was going to read The Sound and the Fury. Instead of going to The Strand and picking it up off the end of that shelf in the fiction stacks, I ordered a used copy of a collection of Faulkner’s first four novels: Soldier’s Pay, Mosquitoes, Flags in the Dust, and The Sound and the Fury.
If I were to set out to play Tarrega’s Moorish masterpiece, I wouldn’t buy the music and lock myself in a room. The notion is silly. I would buy his book of right hand exercises, his numerous etudes, his short pieces, the music of composers who wrote similar music that was less challenging. Then I’d sit down with the piece and figure out what was really challenging about it, what skills I could work on elsewhere. I’ll put the analogy away now.
I started working through Faulkner’s novels the same way he did: from the beginning. It took time but I learned the Faulkner-isms one by one as he developed them. I learned the way that he liked to leave shadows of things without ever describing the thing itself, long before he ever set out to write The Sound and the Fury, which amounts to one enormous shadow of thing that never appears in fully solid form. I learned to appreciate the abstraction and to allow the confusion to confuse me when he intended it to.
The idea, in general, is sound. Why not work my way up to something that has been challenging for me? But the Faulkner journey was a case study in both the challenges and the enormous rewards of putting that kind of time into an author.
The obvious downside is that not all work by great writers is, itself, great. Saul Bellow wrote of Phillip Roth that, “unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair and teeth, speaking coherently.” Bellow notes in the one statement both the clumsiness of most authors’ early writing and the truly rare gift of an author who steps onto the page for the first time complete. Not all first novels can be Invisible Man or The Bluest Eye or Go Tell It On the Mountain.
To that point, Soldier’s Pay is a bad novel written by a genius flailing for what will make others recognize him as such. Over the course of a dreary novel about an injured soldier coming home from the Great War to a fiance unworthy of his companionship, Faulkner drops eloquence like a hammer:
“Nine day, or ninety day, or nine hundred day sensations have a happy faculty for passing away, into oblivion whence pass sooner or later all of man’s inventions.”
Soldier’s Pay is beautiful in spots but profoundly dull as a novel. I don’t have much different to say about Flags in the Dust or Mosquitoes other than that I didn’t particularly like either, though they were marginally better than Soldier’s Pay. The point is that, into that whole flailing morass of schizophrenic brilliance and confusion, dropped The Sound and the Fury like an anvil from a cliff onto a cartoon coyote’s head. But to get there, I had to stumble through some truly mediocre novels by virtually everyone’s standards. Flags in the Dust gets mixed reviews, in large part because Faulkner himself regarded it highly, but the other two are mostly forgotten except by those who read them for precisely the reason I did: to stamp the passport.
So the downside was that practicing my way through novels, setting out to tackle all of the peripheral stuff that helped me to understand the doozie, was substantial and not entirely pleasant work. That a novel would require that much work to understand, meant that, to get to the good stuff, I had to wade through an awful lot of bad.
The upside of having read the way that I did, was that, when I finally got to The Sound and the Fury, what should have felt like a foreign language compared to his earlier writing, made sense. It made sense the way a lightbulb does to an electrician. The flow of one thing to another, the intricate lines and wires running through the walls, the rubbing of electrons, the voltage and circuits, all coming together to convince a single filament to light the desk before me. The upside was that The Sound and the Fury meant something when I got to it, that I was invested in Faulkner and really understood what made the man so important. I loved it and went immediately on to As I Lay Dying which is probably one of my favorite books after that first reading.
I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize that reading would require the same practice that anything else requires. Maybe a different sort with a somewhat different mindset, but practice nonetheless; the same practice that I readily put in with my writing. I’ll never go to a music store and pick up a piece of sheet music expecting to play it (well) right there. Hopefully we’ll call this a lesson learned.