Getting back up on the horse

Samuel Rutter writes on the life, work and fatalistic Southern failings of William Faulkner.

franco James Franco in film adaptation of *As I Lay Dying*

Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner William Faulkner has been portrayed in popular culture as something of a boozy, tortured genius (think the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, for one). We can expect to see less of the man and more of his work on screen in the near future, with HBO purchasing the television rights to his fiction under the direction of Deadwood creator David Milch, and the ubiquitous James Franco directing an adaption of his classic novel As I Lay Dying, expected to be released later in the year.

What follows is not an essay about the power of his prose or the subtle brilliance of his structure, because as Richard Hughes’s introduction to the Vintage Classics edition of The Sound and the Fury makes clear, if it were possible to summarise the force and the importance and the splendour of such a novel in a single page, there would be no need for the novel itself. Anyone who has read Faulkner’s fiction will be familiar with how his prose at times seems turgid or meandering (surely no other writer of the twentieth century has his characters spend so much time in the back of wagons), before breaking into passages of sublime clarity and shimmering beauty.

Yet despite the accolades he earned later in life and the reputation he enjoys today, William Faulkner spent much of his life failing – failing in business, failing in love and failing in writing. He didn’t fail in the flamboyant or suicidal way Ernest Hemingway did, or with the wry morbidity of Samuel Beckett. Like the Southern gentleman he was, he failed fatalistically, and made a point of quietly carrying on anyway.

The golden era of Faulkner’s writing was the decade spanning 1929 to 1939, which saw the publication of novels such as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and The Wild Palms. Faulkner’s novels of this period seem to me best described as difficult pleasures, and it is worth noting that they were no less of a challenge for the author to write as they are for us to read. Faulkner considered himself first and foremost a poet. He is said to have realised his failure at poetry and so turned to the short story as a money spinner, only to further ‘descend’ into the lowly mires of the novel.

A dip into the vast amount of biographical material available (such as the excellent two-tome account written by the recently deceased Joseph Blotner) reveals that Faulkner still had his work routinely rejected by journals and magazines well into the 1940s and 50s, despite his burgeoning reputation. Coupled with this rejection was the extreme mental and physical toll the excruciating process of writing took on the author. Often, upon the completion of a manuscript, Faulkner would embark on a cycle of drunken destruction and abandon, as if it were somehow necessary to wipe the slate clean after every piece of work.

The world of work was no more glamorous for Faulkner, whose careers included almost entirely unsuccessful stints as a postmaster, power plant supervisor, mule breeder and Hollywood scriptwriter. Faulkner’s ornate style meant that hiring him to write dialogue for blockbusters was sort of like hiring Michelangelo to repaint your letterbox. He had a few notable successes when collaborating with Howard Hawks, such as on the adaption of The Big Sleep, but his time in Hollywood was replete with drunken episodes and pages upon pages of discarded scripts.

It also seems from Faulkner’s letters and early writings that what he really wanted to be wasn’t a novelist or a poet but a pilot. Conflicting biographical accounts abound of the extent to which Faulkner managed to achieve this dream. He often used to lie to friends and journalists about his time in the air, but what appears to be certain is that he joined the RAF in Canada but was still in training by the time World War I ended. He tried again during World War II but was too old. Over the years, through persistence and saving, he managed to purchase his own aircraft, which he flew gingerly until a near-fatal accident and the death of his brother in a plane crash in 1935 finally broke his nerve.

Yet perhaps the greatest arena in which we see Faulkner fail and persist is in that of love – an important theme in both his life and work. Faulkner was a great lover of women, harbouring a deep, slow-burning passion for the few who entered his life. He was deemed too poor a prospect by the parents of his adolescent love Estelle Oldham, and he was rejected after a long courtship by his early muse, Helen Baird. Estelle, in circumstances rare for that time, was divorced by her husband and fortuitously came back into Faulkner’s life, and he entered into a tortuous marriage that would also see his first daughter die days after her birth. His first mistress, Meta Carpenter, was as neurotic as Faulkner was volatile, and his earthly longing for Jean Stein went largely unrequited, the young author seeing him more as a mentor than a lover.

Faulkner had a tonic for such occasions, which he would prescribe just as easily for head colds as for heartbreaks. Served on a silver platter, a hot toddy (bourbon and sugar mixed with the juice of half a lemon and topped off with boiling water) was a ceremonial fix that comforted only in small doses. In his twilight years, Faulkner took to long horse rides in the countryside surrounding his home, Rowan Oak. True to the fatalistic Southern tradition, he was thrown and severely injured on a number of occasions, yet refused to give up the practice. Faulkner kept getting back up on the horse, because he seemed to realise that it was the struggle that was important. If we have to be reductive, we can perhaps leave it to Quentin Compson, his most archetypical narrator, to sum up the Faulkner way of living, writing and loving: ‘No battle is ever won. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.’

Samuel Rutter has published fiction, translation and criticism in Australia and abroad. He is a contributing editor to the journal Higher Arc and currently teaches in the School of Languages at the University of Melbourne, where he is a PhD candidate in Spanish.