William Faulkner's 4th novel

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Many readers tell me they start The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and then quickly give up because it’s too confusing. That’s not surprising. In this author’s fourth novel, which he believed to be his best, Faulkner challenges readers by shifting abruptly in time between past and present, let alone starting the book with a demanding first-person narration by the mentally challenged Benjy Compson. The novel is a 20th century classic, the one many believe they should read if they’re going to read or ‘tackle’ Faulkner. I typically recommend Absalom, Absalom! instead because it’s the novel among Faulkner’s great ones that I enjoyed most.

I have doubt, though, about that recommendation. I haven’t read all of Faulkner’s novels. Maybe I should recommend the scandalous, dark potboiler Sanctuary that Faulkner wrote to make money – and that attracted reader attention to his work for the first time. Except readers want to read an important Faulkner novel, just like they want to tackle James Joyce’s Ulysses. You can’t preen about having read Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as Young Man like you can preen about having read Ulysses – and like you can preen about having read The Sound and the Fury. It’s not escape or an unputdownable reading experience that’s at play here. It’s an accomplishment.

Photo From Sotheby's

Photo From Sotheby’s

The doubt about my Faulkner recommendation also comes from being fascinated by Faulkner as a person. When I blurt out that I love Faulkner, it doesn’t mean I love his books, rather all that is of him: his life in Oxford, Mississippi, at his home Rowan Oak; his script writing days in Hollywood, working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and film director Howard Hawks; his long road to getting published, the richness of his imagined Yoknapatawpha County, how his work progressed and the effect literary critic and editor Malcolm Cowley* had on his reputation; his speeches and essays that speak thoughtfully and intellectually about the human condition; and his individuality.

The last page of William Faulkner: The Cofield Collection, a photography book illustrating Faulkner’s life, tells of a typewritten note appended to the back of a framed portrait of Faulkner taken by photographer Jack Cofield. The note says:

“I once read a statement by Rudyard Kipling (made, I think, in one of his last interviews in London), which I think applies to Bill Faulkner the man as well as William Faulkner the author: ‘The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it you’ll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.’ Bill Faulkner lived up to this principle to a T.”

Photo From Heritage Auctions

Photo From Heritage Auctions

The Culture Trip’s The Nine Best Books by William Faulkner You Should Read describes the prose of Sanctuary as “considerably more fluid than a lot of Faulkner’s denser novels, and thus easier to grasp for readers less familiar with the author’s particular style of writing.” It describes The Sound and the Fury as “a notoriously arduous and disturbing read, whose often disorienting narration requires patience and persistence.”

In Flavorwire’s The 50 Best Southern Novels Ever Written, eight of the 50 are by Faulkner. No wonder they refer to him as “that titan of American letters.” Among the eight, The Sound and the Fury is called his best novel, while Absalom, Absalom! is called “the greatest Southern novel every written.” That’s enough for me to continue recommending it as the one to read. As for me, I have a desire to keep reading Faulkner, but it has to be the right time. To randomly pick up one of the titan’s complex novels as a next book to read feels like selecting a complex, expensive wine to drink when you’re thirsty. One needs to be ready to read Faulkner.

*Malcolm Cowley and the Nobel Prize: By 1944, William Faulkner was off the literary radar screen. “His seventeen books were effectively out of print and seemed likely to remain in that condition, since there was no public demand for them,” Malcolm Cowley writes in The Faulkner-Cowley File. Cowley, recognizing Faulkner’s neglected genius, brought his literature back into public focus with The Portable Faulkner, published by The Viking Press in 1946, which Cowley edited and introduced. Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Speaking of that prize, I recommend reading Faulkner’s short, moving acceptance speech in which he says, “the basest of all things is to be afraid.” His words resonate today, including this famous quote:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

Faulkner_EsquireMagazineI purchased this May 1962 Esquire magazine for my William Faulkner collection. It includes a 6-page excerpt from this Southern author’s then-forthcoming novel The Reivers. I acquired the magazine sight-unseen. What would it matter what was on the cover or elsewhere; I simply wanted the excerpt. When the magazine arrived in the mail, though, it wasn’t Faulkner that I turned to, even though smack there on the cover it says “Preview Look at William Faulkner’s New Novel.”

Who wouldn’t get distracted with “A Bachelor’s Choice of 9 Most Eligible Girls” and that cover photo of Jennifer Billingsley, who at the time was starring in the hit Broadway musical “Carnival.” I immediately flipped to the article, retitled as “A Bachelor’s Choice of Marriageable Girls” and about choked with incomprehension when I saw Mommie Dearest Joan Crawford as the grand finale of the photo spread. 1962 was the year she starred with Bette Davis in the psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. “Adored by a million,” her caption says, as well as “bright-star magnitude” and “unlisted phone.” Hilarious, in a way, but more so the captions for the other less recognizable eight, including a receptionist at Time magazine who “fascinates,” and the daughter of actress/singer Lena Horne who “loves parties” and a painter who “is a swinger.”

Well, you just never know what will turn up when collecting the works of authors. I’ve found unusual photos, notes and articles tucked away in books. And for my Faulkner collection, the more unusual the better. I can’t afford first editions of his famous novels, so I gather up the more affordable off-beat. Such as the Argentine edition of The Sound and the Fury in Spanish; and Album Faulkner, 318 photos concerning the author and his life, which I purchased at Square Books in his hometown, Oxford, MS. Written in French, Album Faulkner was published in 1995 by Éditions Gallimard in France, the country that recognized Faulkner as a great writer before readers in the U.S. Indeed, his popularity in France continues.

The Reivers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and also became a movie starring Steve McQueen. The excerpt published by Esquire is “The Education of Lucius Priest.” Along with Ms. Billingsley’s portrait, the cover carries the library stamp of Wellesley, Mass., Pine Manor Junior College, which Faulkner’s daughter Jill attended. William Faulkner died two months after this edition of Esquire, on July 6, 1962. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.

I’ll be moderating a panel about book collecting this weekend. The preparation has led me to consider my own book collecting habit, and I wonder if I’m expressing attention deficit disorder in that area of my life. It all began when I decided to collect William Faulkner, but as you can imagine, first editions of his books are pricey, so I took the tack of “what I can afford” Faulkner.  That means I own a first edition of The Sound and the Fury in spanish, published in Buenos Aires.  At least, I think it’s a first. I stopped collecting Faulkner and began collecting Katherine Anne Porter for a while, and then Thomas Pynchon and Shirley Jackson. Oh, and Louis Bromfield, William Styron, Andre Dubus and James Salter.  There are also first edition paperbacks of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels on my bookshelves as well as my Perry Mason collection.

I envy “completists,” who focus on one author or idea, because I think they’ll end up with collections worthy of a library installation or a great sum of money.  A few years ago, I was on a bus with collectors touring libraries in Washington D.C. Everyone introduced themselves and what they collect.  Their answers were so very neat and tidy.  The journals of Arctic explorers. Miniature Bibles. Books published by Thomas B. Mosher.  Alphabet books for children pre-20th Century. My thoughts scurried about as to what I could say. “I seem to like everything” didn’t sound very sophisticated. Someone before me said he collected modern firsts, so I used that. It was close enough. Nobody needed to know about my erratic collecting of bird books.

Here’s something else. I find myself buying the odd one-offs.  Books that fit nowhere into any of my collections.  Like, The Second Funeral of Napoleon in Three Letters to Miss Smith of London and The Chronicle of the Drum published in 1841. William Makepeace Thackeray penned it using Michael Angelo Titmarch as his nom-de-plum. Then there’s this $75 paperback, WeeGee’s Naked City.   What attracted me was the blurb on the cover:  “Weegee photographs that O. Henry might have done if he had worked with a camera.” 

Obviously, I don’t complete, I don’t focus and I can’t afford the top ticket items that would make my collections worthy of a bus announcement,  but book collecting is a thrill for me. Everything — from the search to the surprise-find, from roadtrips to attend book festivals to borrowing from the house maintenance budget to pay for a must-have — figures into that thrill.   And I’ve learned along the way, something I hope the panel communicates to our audience, there are all kinds of ways to collect, and all kinds of collections. Neatly packaged and defined is not a requirement.

This post was updated 10.17.10 with improved images of the books.

A Loving Gentleman by Meta Carpenter WildeI have a treasure: a letter from Meta Carpenter Wilde.

I wrote to her, after reading her memoir, A Loving Gentleman: The Love Story of William Faulkner and Meta Carpenter, published in 1976 by Simon and Schuster. Meta Carpenter was William Faulkner’s lover of many years. Her NYT obituary says 18 years, but the book’s dust jacket says 30. The latter, I’m guessing, reflects the years they stayed in touch.

They met in Hollywood in 1936. Meta Carpenter worked as a secretary and then a script girl for the director Howard Hawks. Faulkner wrote for Hawks’ movies to help finance his lifestyle and his wife Estelle’s spending habit. The Nobel Prize-winning author wanted to marry Meta, but he also neither wanted to lose his Mississippi home Rowan Oak nor his ability to live with his beloved daughter, Jill.  Meta Carpenter eventually broke off their relationship to marry another man. On her wedding day, Faulkner went on a non-stop drinking binge.

I read A Loving Gentleman in July 1977. I was a secretary at the time, a college graduate engaged to be married and searching for a career. Meta Carpenter’s career story resonated with me, and the romance with Faulkner enchanted me (ever a romantic). In my letter written to her that summer, I shared a little about my life. She replied a year later, apologizing for not responding sooner. She wrote that she had been recovering from open-heart surgery, adding, “I am just now beginning to answer letters from people like yourself who were kind enough to write to me about my story.” Here’s more of what she wrote in the letter 31 years ago:

“I am so happy for you that you have found a good place in the professional world and even with your own shorthand and enough determination, you can have a happy and productive life. I was never a skilled secretary and maybe that is why Mr. Hawks promoted me to Script Girl…as we were called in those far-off days. That early training Mr. Hawks made possible for me to have also made it possible for me to have a career in the motion picture industry and finally to have screen credit on the pictures on which I worked. This was certainly not a goal in itself to work toward, but it does signify some expertise…and it all started from secretarial work. So keep up your good work.”

When people ask, “What’s the most valuable book in your book collection?” I don’t think of a book, I think of this letter associated with Meta Carpenter’s memoir. Not because it’s financially valuable (I have no idea if it is or isn’t), but because the letter is so personal — not a publicity response — and from someone close to Faulkner, whose books I read and collect.

This post was updated 10.17.10 with improved images of the book and letter and 4.14.11 and 6.25.15 with minor edits.

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