Blessay 7: Those Bright Books of Life

What shall I read next? For people who still love books and are able to devote large amounts of time to reading, this is an important question. Not the next current and anxious non-fiction read in our increasingly utilitarian culture (I once worked in a library where the most issued books were on how to write a CV, how to invest money properly, how to lose weight, how to be a better parent and how to overcome depression. All self-help books casting their long shadow – the fear of failure and how to avoid it.)

What I want to always keep reading is the novel. The serious novel. You could argue that it also helps the self. That it provides comfort and understanding. Well, yes and no, or maybe. Let’s drop any medicinal role for the novel. For me that’s prescriptive and conformist. For most great novels are often about disappointment and failure. (‘How to still be a Semi-Romantic and fail well in a Brutal Society’ might be a title I’d permit to join the self-help book gang. So long as the author pointed to difficult and disconcerting novels to assist you.)

I don’t want comfortable reassurance. I want energy and challenge. I’d like the novel to be as D.H.Lawrence declared’ one of the bright books of life’ where for him our sympathy ‘flows and recoils’; can determine our lives and reveal ‘the most secret places of life.’ So it is to the old bright books that I now return. And re-reading, or re-visiting an author’s territory is an imperative as I grow older.

William Faulkner has been opened up again. I first read Faulkner at the age of twenty. It was The Wild Palms. Jean-Luc Godard had enthused about the book’s distinct narratives. It has these two disparate stories placed as alternate chapters. For me this had a disjointed effect, akin to experiencing the ‘jump-cuts’of a Godard film. It was all very cool and I was moved, excited and puzzled by The Wild Palms. This made me read As I Lay Dying, that moved and excited me, but puzzled me less. Yet attempting to read The Sound and the Fury I was only puzzled. I couldn’t get my head round its famous opening chapter where the story is told through the eyes of Benjy – a man with the mental age of a six year old. After that, apart from dipping into a collection of his short stories, the Faulkner file was closed.

A month ago I bought a copy of Light in August and was enthralled. Here was still puzzlement but the enigmas were more familiar, more to do with my lived experience and, by now, greater awareness of modernist literature. In Faulkner I encountered temporal and spatial perspectives that were sensual, absurd, vivid and strange.

‘The sharp and brittle crack and clatter of its weathered and ungreased
wood and metal is slow and terrific: a series of dry sluggish reports
carrying for a half mile across the hot still pine windy silence of
the August afternoon. Though the mules plod in a steady and unflagging
hypnosis, the vehicle does not seem to progress. It seems to hang
suspended in the middle distance forever and forever, so infinitesimal
is its progress, like a shabby bead upon the mild red string of road.’

Such writing, veering on the wonderfully odd, and later on the grotesque, is fused with a tragic and mythic grandeur. Take this other passage from near the end of Faulkner’s book.

‘He remembers it now, sitting in the dark window in the quiet study waiting
for twilight to cease, for night and the galloping hooves. The copper light has
completely gone now; the world hangs in a green suspension in colour and
texture like light through coloured glass. Soon it will be time to begin to say
Soon now. Now soon. ‘I was eight Then,’ he thinks. ‘It was raining.’ It seems
to him that he can still smell the rain, the moist grieving of the October earth,
and the musty yawn as the lid of the trunk went back. Then the garment, the deep folds. He did not know what it was, because of his dead mother’s hands which lingered among the folds.’

Both extracts have a poetic density. Faulkner’s view of the American South of the 1920/30’s enters some timeless mythic realm. And like all great writers he makes you see things you never noticed before. In terms of racial inequality the south was a ghastly place back then. Yet he was always experimenting with form, and his heightened imagination pushed back the social realism of a character and situation into modes that were biblical, classical and certainly archetypal.

Now I’m able to appreciate his literary vision. Whereas at the age of twenty it was ‘merely’ the cinematic cut of his prose that grabbed me. (The only film adaptation of Faulkner that works for me is Clarence Brown’s 1952 film of Intruder in the Dust, mainly because this book has a more linear narrative. The other Faulkner films fail because they tidy-up any ‘stream of consciousness’ making it maddeningly linear. Faulkner does have a ‘cinematic complexity’ but it’s too far too interior to be filmed. Unless you were to ask certain French directors of the 60’s to have a go, especially say Alain Resnais – alas, deceased.)

I now felt confident to try The Sound and the Fury again. I finished the tour de force of the opening chapter and pushed on into Faulkner’s descriptions of Benjy’s family. They are some of the most unforgettable characters in American literature. Faulkner fragments time and memory round the Compson family. Incidents and conversations overlap and interrupt, narratives collide, converge or diverge in their tragic history till you feel they are fatally caught in traps of time.

‘The three quarters began. The first note sounded, measured and tranquil,
serenely peremptory, emptying the unhurried silence for the next one and
that’s it if people could only change one another forever that way merge
like a flame swirling up for an instant then blown cleanly out along the
cool eternal dark instead of lying there trying not to think of the swing
until all cedars came to have that vivid dead smell of perfume that Benjy
hated so.’

Behind Faulkner is Proust. Yet not the Proust of soaring lyrical sentences but a recorder of time kept in check by the moral stopwatch of a Conrad. His characters can’t escape their destinies. They have to confront the often brutal and violent consequences of their actions. Sartre admired Faulkner for his depiction of the difficulties of right action and right reflection. Faulkner’s work is full of harsh contingencies of circumstance battling alongside his tender concern for men and women, as they try so hard to relate.

A word often appearing in Faulkner is peremptory. I first learnt of that word through The Wild Palms where Faulkner writes of a peremptory knock on the door. It means ‘urgent or commanding’ or ‘admitting of no denial or contradiction.’ But in Faulkner’s world there is plentiful denial and contradiction. Redemption, of sorts, does reside in his dark humour but Faulkner’s tragic intensity, that insistent pounding on the door, is obligatory. I hear it loudly and have to respond. Read him. Re-experience a world more confrontational than consolatory. Again I open the door and enter his Southern Gothic house.