WILLIAM FAULKNER; Novels 1930-1935. Edited by Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk. Library of America. 1034 pp. $27.50.
WITH THE PUBLICATION of this, its 27th volume, the Library of America enters a new world. All 16 writers previously admitted to the library, which seems to have become our literary equivalent of baseball's Hall of Fame, were creatures of the 19th century, though a handful of them lived and wrote into the 20th; in their different ways they were the founders of American literature, their work done in the distant past and their style frequently archaic to the eyes and ears of today's reader. But now, with William Faulkner: Novels 1930- 1935, the library moves fully into the 20th century; four years after its inception, it hears for the first time the voice of modernism.
It also publishes for the first time an author whose work is still in copyright, which apparently explains the rather curious decision to start the library's Faulkner series not at the beginning of his career but at what was, in terms of productivity, close to the middle of it; the library has an amicable and mutually beneficial arrangement with Random House, which has the rights to all of Faulkner's important work, but it cannot proceed with the absolute freedom that it had when dealing with writers out of copyright. Thus it is important for readers to bear in mind that before the period covered by this volume, Faulkner had already published Soldier's Pay and Mosquitoes, his apprentice work; Sartoris, his initial venture into the fictional, soon to become mythological Yoknapatawpha County; and The Sound and the Fury, the first of his indisputably great novels.
But if Novels 1930-1935 is published out of sequence, that in no way diminishes the specific rewards offered by the novels it contains or the more general pleasure of seeing Faulkner take his place among Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne, James and the others already admitted to the library. That Faulkner is the first 20th-century writer it has published is entirely appropriate, for he is the only real giant our literature has published in this century, the only writer to produce a body of work that is large in every sense of the word. However worthy and influential the work of his celebrated contemporaries Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe, it is dwarfed by Faulkner's vast and singular accomplishment; whether intentionally or not, the Library of America recognizes this by granting him pride of place.
THE FOUR NOVELS in this volume are As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August and Pylon. It is an odd grouping, but then Faulkner in his way was an odd writer; Novels 1930-1935 permits us to see his greatest strengths and his greatest weaknesses, and thus is both instructive and revealing. It reminds us that Yoknapatawpha was the lasting preoccupation of Faulkner's life, that its story sprang full-blown into his imagination, and that whenever he ventured away from it he was in terra incognita; it gives us all of the momentous themes that characterize his fiction, and it introduces many of the characters and families who appear over and over again in the novels before and since.
As an example of the extent to which Faulkner was in the grip of Yoknapatawpha and its tangled history, consider that about midway through As I Lay Dying a character remarks that "There's one of them Snopes horses Jewel's riding" and, a few pages later, the narrator says: "It was a descendant of those Texas ponies Flem Snopes brought here twenty- five years ago and auctioned off for two dollars a head and nobody but old Lon Quick ever caught his and still owned some of the blood because he could never give it away." Here we have, in two casual references, a quick sketch of a story that did not actually appear in print until fully a decade later: the celebrated horse-auction scene in The Hamlet. Ten years before he wrote it, Faulkner already knew about Flem Snopes and those horses, knew the story's exact place in the lore of Yoknapatawpha; the telling of it awaited only the passage of time and the arrival of the appropriate moment in the appropriate novel.
As I Lay Dying is generally described by Faulkner scholars as a tour de force, and in its use of multiple narrators it most certainly is; each has a unique, immediately identifiable voice, and each makes his or her contribution to the unfolding of the story in exactly the right moment. What is sometimes overlooked, though, is that this tale about the death of a rustic matriarch and her family's desperate attempt to bury her as she wished is nothing so much as a macabre comedy, a hugely funny and ingenious parody of hillbilly ignorance, superstition and stubbornness; Anse Bundren, its lazy and unbereaved widower, is a rustic rapscallion to be ranked right alongside Erskine Caldwell's Ty Ty Walden and Jeeter Lester -- not to mention Faulkner's own Snopeses, Flem and Mink and Montomery Ward and all the rest.
Snopeses are also to be found in Sanctuary -- Senator Clarence Snopes does some wily conniving, and a couple of Snopes nephews have an uproarious stay at Miss Reba's Memphis whorehouse -- which is a far better novel than Faulkner liked to pretend it was. He used to claim that the novel had been written solely to make money, hence what he called "the most horrific tale I could imagine" with its notorious rape of Temple Drake with a corn cob. In truth, though, it is a work of considerable artistry and power that deals with a number of notable themes. These include the complex relationship between town and country, and the clash between the privileged and the poor: themes that remind us, among other things, that Faulkner was very much a novelist of manners as well as a purveyor of Southern gothic.
These same themes are to be found in Light in August, but from Sanctuary to Light in August can only be described as a quantum leap. Quite simply, Light in August is Faulkner's greatest accomplishment, the book into which he poured all that was in him. To attempt to discuss it in a paragraph or two is preposterous, for it so overflows with character and incident, theme and meditation as to take one's breath away. The story of its central character, Joe Christmas, who "carried with him his own inescapable warning, like a flower its scent or a rattlesnake its rattle," comes as close to classical tragedy as anything in American literature: an innocent corrupted by the denial of love, an Everyman whose race is neither white nor black and whose true identity is forever unknown -- to him and to us.
Light in August embraces all of Faulkner's themes, ranging from wry commentary on manners and society to brooding contemplations of th nature of evil, of time and memory ("Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders"), of the terrible burden of history, of how the land shapes those who occupy it, of the black presence as "a shadow in which I lived, we lived, all white people, all other people." These are dark themes and in many ways Light in August is a dark book; yet it is actually far lighter, far more accessible to the serious but non-scholarly reader, than Faulkner's two other masterpieces , The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom! If there is room in one's life for only one of Faulkner's books, then Light in August should be it.
And then, alas, Faulkner wrote Pylon. He was working at the time on Absalom! Absalom!, and apparently needed a respite from it. So he took himself right out of Yoknapatawpha and went to New Orleans, where he set this story about barnstormig daredevil pilots and their followers as seen through the eyes of a wraithlike newspaper reporter. Along with A Fable, it is as close to a genuinely bad novel as Faulkner ever came, and publication in the handsome Library of America format does nothing to improve it. Its characters and story are neither interesting nor compelling, much of its dialogue is awkward (its characters insist on saying "Yair" for "Yes"), and its prose is about as murky as Faulkner ever got -- murky to no evident point, as opposed to the labyrinthine passages in Absalom ! Absalom! and Go Down, Moses that always take the reader where Faulkner wants him to go.
What Pylon tells us is that when Faulkner left Yoknapatawpha, he was at sea. This is not a negative comment, but an acknowledgement that what he liked to call his "postage stamp of native soil" was the only place where he was genuinely at home. Yet small though Yoknapatawpha may seem, it is the largest place any American writer has invented; to read its story is to be taken into the very essence of American history and mythology. Thus it is that with the appearance of Novels 1930-1935, the Library of America truly lives up to its name.