by Geoff Page
It was one of those poet/teacher dreams. About a week ago. I was in a rambling school I’d never seen before and had been suddenly prevailed upon to give a talk on the great American novelist, William Faulkner. The audience was scattered over one of those large open-plan areas and aged roughly sixteen — not the best age for Faulkner, I would have thought. I’m not sure if I’d been introduced or not but suddenly I was telling them everything I remembered about Faulkner from when I was devoted to his work in my early twenties.
I noticed, reassuringly, off to my right, that there were three or four Asian students who nodded enthusiastically as if they too had read those particular novels and agreed fervently with what I was saying. For the rest, there was a general susurrus of inattention which did not, however, prevent me from holding forth. As with many dreams, the situation was intimidating, if not humiliating. I’d not even had time to check Google or Wikipedia, let alone re-read a novel or two or glance again at the great man’s Nobel Prize speech. I was not to be deterred, however. I’d been commissioned and I was stuck, as one so often is in dreams.
I couldn’t even recall the man’s birth date accurately. 1894? 1897? I remembered his death though — in 1963. I told them about his love for the American South, its terrible history of slavery and conflict, his hatred of the carpet-baggers who swept in during “Reconstruction”, his determination that the South had to settle its own moral problems — when it was ready and not at the behest of the goddamn Yankees.
I mentioned, in this connection, the novel, Absalom, Absalom, and its tormented central character. I told them of the writer’s drinking binges and how he never read the critics — or claimed he didn’t. Also of how he would disingenuously refer to himself as “just a farmer who likes to tell stories” and pretend that the great Modernists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf had had no effect on him. At one stage, I must also have told my sixteen-year-olds about his shortish sojourn in Hollywood, writing the script for Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, among others — and proving a disappointment to everyone concerned, including himself.
I’m sure I told these students too (rambling here and there without a note) how I personally first became involved with Faulkner and his writing. His novel, The Sound and the Fury, was on our second year English course at my bucolic university back in 1959. I doubt very much if it’s there now. While not finding it an “easy read”, I really liked it and was soon consuming other Faulkner novels from the university’s surprisingly well-stocked library — while, no doubt, ignoring the classics I should have been absorbing for my exams.
I must have told these (resolutely uninterested) students something of the order in which I encountered the works. Light in August was an early one. So was Sartoris. Even in a dream, I probably steered clear of Sanctuary, with its grotesque central sexual episode. I would have mentioned the early one about flying (what was its name now? Pylon, I think). And that other early one, Mosquitoes — of which I remember little, I had to admit.
Did I expatiate too on the late long one dealing with the war, the “great” war, the war that Faulkner was just too late to see action in, though he trained as a pilot in Canada and wrote admiring (and compelling) short stories about airmen over France and Belgium? The novel (the name of which I wasn’t able to remember) was a slightly unwieldy tome about the French mutinies of 1917 with a mysterious Christ-figure at its core. It worked as a self-administered antidote to his earlier martial enthusiasms.
Naturally, I brought up As I Lay Dying (rather experimental and written in a few months while Faulkner was working as a nightwatchman tending some furnace or other). This must have sidetracked me a moment and I found myself telling them of his early job in a U.S. Post Office and how he quit — saying, over his departing shoulder, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to be a goddamn slave to every son-of-a-bitch with a dime to spend on a postage stamp” — or words to that effect. There may have been a chuckle of recognition here from the sixteen-year-olds who felt much the same about serving up interminable Big Macs. I don’t remember hearing it though. Dreams can be curiously soundless at times.
It was at this stage maybe that I retailed the anecdote of the now-somewhat-neglected short story writer, Sherwood Anderson. It was Anderson who told his protegé one day in New Orleans that he would send the young man’s first novel to his own New York publisher along with a recommendation (Scribner’s, I think it was — or Random House?) providing he didn’t have to read the damn thing first.
Since this was all a dream, I had no cause to hold back from the personal. I told them how, in my Dip Ed year, I had been allowed by an unusually thoughtful and progressive teachers’ college lecturer, Paul Lamb, to write my short thesis (15,000 words, I think it was) on William Faulkner rather than on what Plato said about education — or the more important rules of softball.
Paul (Mr Lamb to me, in those days) was also a Faulkner fan. He seemed to have read, fortuitously, the exact half of the Mississippian’s oeuvre that I hadn’t. We would thrust books upon each other with a “You mean you haven’t read the Snopes trilogy yet? Well, here’s The Hamlet. Start there. The Town and The Mansion can come later.” If this was Education Theory, I was all in favour of it.
My thesis (long essay, really) was grandly titled, William Faulkner: An Introduction. Legibly (and lovingly) handwritten throughout. Not much more than a plot summary of all the novels, with a few references to critics here and there, I suppose. If Faulkner himself disdained reviewers and academics, why should I have to spend much time on them? It was significant too that Faulkner was still alive at this point (1962) and wasn’t to die till the following year. I think he’d just published The Reivers, an eminently forgettable novel compared to his work in the 1930s and 40s. We sensed that he was on the way down but that didn’t lessen the excitement.
I don’t know how much these hapless students had been told about my own writing. I never quite did hear the introduction I’d been given. Their teacher, who had long since left the room (for a smoke?), must have said something about my numerous volumes of poetry, I surmised. At least the three Asian students still looked interested.
I began to tell them how Faulkner was the first writer I read who made me want to be a writer myself. The joy of reading the overlapping, intersecting and cumulative stories of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County ( I didn’t write it on the blackboard) gave me a sense of just how satisfying it would be to create, over several decades, something similar oneself. I think I would have mentioned the famous quote from his Nobel speech: “The past is not dead; it is not even past”.
When seen as a whole, his novels were a huge achievement of the imagination. I was only to discover later that the great Latin-American writer, Gabriel García Marquez, twenty years or so my senior, had had a similar experience and went on to create One Hundred Years of Solitude. Many have also seen the substantial ghost of William Faulkner in the novels of the somewhat younger American novelist, Cormac McCarthy.
No doubt I revealed to my audience, since I was in a confessional mood, how the early short fiction written in my first couple of years teaching did not turn out well and how within three or four years I had swapped to poetry — for which I had more talent and which was undoubtedly better suited the exigencies of full-time teaching. My dreams of a Yoknapatawpha County on the Clarence River (NSW) receded — without regret, for the most part. By then, I had other heroes — William Carlos Williams, for one. Some of my readers (were those Asian students among them?) may still detect a trace of Faulkner’s sense of history in those of my poems and verse novels set on the Clarence — despite my not having lived there for any length of time since I was twelve.
In the same spirit, I found myself discussing how, before giving up on fiction pretty much altogether, I had proceeded to read the great bulk of Faulkner’s talented contemporaries systematically (Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, John Does Passos et al). None of them quite measured up to the man himself — though both Hemingway and Fitzgerald were more accomplished stylists. Did I sneakily inform them that Faulkner’s first two publications were slim imitations of Keats and ludicrously short of his later achievements in prose? That seemed a small consolation, at least, to have written better poetry than Faulkner managed.
I’m sure I must also have told my students in this regard how the tone of Faulkner’s dialogue and narrative was often indistinguishable and how this really didn’t matter; how dialogue didn’t have to be realistic anyway; that this was all a misconception etc etc. I would have mentioned one of his simple methods of characterisation. How a man called Ratcliffe, I think it was, (Faulkner’s names often had symbolic functions — the Reverend Hightower, for instance) always wore a blue shirt and was referred to as wearing it each time he appeared (even in different novels).
I don’t remember how the dream ended. It’s a week ago now. Often they’re gone in thirty seconds. Perhaps the teacher came back from his staff room to rescue me. Perhaps his students quietly and collectively exited the room and left me in mid-sentence, the three Asian ones saying a soft “thank you” as they slipped by.
I do remember waking up though and being amazed at my recall when, to be honest, I’ve not really read Faulkner for the past fifty years and have never taught him. About fifteen years ago maybe, I dipped again into the first few paragraphs of Light in August but without the old excitement. Did I tell them this too? I suspect not. I think they were gone by then.
Photo credits: Top image sourced from Brain Pickings: http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/09/25/william-faulkner-paris-review-interview-writing/ Last image sourced from Nobel Prize: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1949/faulkner-facts.html