ONE MATCHLESS TIME

A Life of William Faulkner

By Jay Parini. HarperCollins. 492 pp. $29.95Forty-three years after the death of William Faulkner, the amount of scholarship (mostly pedantry) devoted to his work almost literally defies calculation, much less careful absorption by any single reader. As Jay Parini notes toward the end of One Matchless Time, in which he attempts to connect Faulkner the man and Faulkner the writer, Faulkner's work for some time has been read more on campuses than by the general public, with the result -- neither mentioned nor explored by Parini -- that it has been torn to pieces by the academic shredder. Many university careers have been built on the foundation laid by Faulkner, and professors by the scores owe their tenure to him, but astonishingly few books of real merit have emerged from all this scholarly hairsplitting.

Take, by way of example, the Faulkner biographies. Two (by Joseph Blotner and Frederick R. Karl) are massive; two (by Stephen B. Oates and Parini) are of standard length; one (by David Minter) is relatively concise. All are the work of academics. Though Minter's and to some extent Parini's can be recommended to the lay reader as useful introductions to the life and work of the 20th century's greatest American writer, none comes even close to being both "definitive" (however one cares to interpret that term) and of a literary quality suitable to its subject. No Lytton Strachey or Leon Edel has stepped forward to give Faulkner his due.

Whether this really matters much is, at the least, open to argument. Faulkner himself told Malcolm Cowley, rather famously, that it was "my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books"; how sincere he was in this is unclear, but he did understand that to readers it is a writer's work, not his life, that matters. Though first Karl and now Parini have struggled mightily to find actual and psychological connections between Faulkner's life and work, most evidence indicates that the two were surprisingly separate and distinct. Understanding Faulkner's work, in other words, doesn't seem to require knowing the details of his life.

Precisely why Parini has chosen to take a stab at this rather elusive business is something of a mystery. In his very first sentence he informs us: "In the mid-seventies, Robert Penn Warren urged me, on one of our regular hikes through the Vermont woods near Mount Stratton, to 'take on Faulkner.' " Apart from being a deftly executed piece of name-dropping, this isn't very helpful, and Parini's subsequent declaration that this book is "an attempt to reach through Faulkner to find him in his work, the work in him, without reading crassly backward from the work into the life" doesn't add much either, since the same could be said of just about any literary biography.

Whatever the explanation for One Matchless Time, Parini brings certain strengths to the task -- fairness, balance and sympathy -- and one important weakness: He doesn't know much about the South. Yes, he's read about it, and he's doubtless attended some of those Faulkner "festivals" that the Dixie literati throw at the slightest excuse, but that isn't the same as living it and knowing it. Interestingly, of the five Faulkner biographers, only Minter is a Southerner (Oates is from Texas, which isn't the same), and the lack of true familiarity with the region shows in the work of all four others -- in particular that of Karl, whose hostility to the South is blatant.

Parini does understand that Faulkner had "divided views about the Old and New Souths" -- as a young man he "sentimentalized relations between blacks and whites," but "the mature Faulkner understood the destructive nature of slavery" -- but the rich, complex, ambiguous nature of the South and its history largely eludes him. By the same token, though he understands that Faulkner's views on race were equally complex and ambiguous, he doesn't really seem to understand what it was like to be a white Southerner of decent instincts but strong fidelity to tradition during the years (1897-1962) of Faulkner's lifetime. Faulkner was deeply, genuinely torn, and the painful twists and turns he underwent were scarcely unique; many others among his contemporaries suffered them, which is to say that in important ways he was representative of rather than an exception to his time, place and class.

Parini tells Faulkner's story straightforwardly, adding little to the immense body of Faulkneriana that has accumulated since Blotner's doorstopper was published in 1974. He has interviewed Faulkner's daughter, Jill Summers, who conveys her abiding love and respect for her father as well as the grief his drinking inflicted on his family, and a few others (Warren, Gore Vidal, Elaine Steinbeck, Graham Greene, Mario Vargas Llosa) whose connections to Faulkner are slender at best, though some of them have mildly interesting insights or recollections. He is better than most at showing how astonishingly influential Faulkner has been on writers outside the United States, not just in France -- where he was venerated well before most American readers had heard his name -- but in Latin America, where the effect his work had on the likes of Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez was absolutely pivotal.

Though Parini does tell Faulkner's story in a workmanlike way, there isn't all that much of a story to tell. Apart from his writing -- which in Faulkner's mind seems to have taken place in its own separate universe, a point Parini makes with some care and skill -- he really didn't do much. He spent an appalling amount of time not just under the influence of alcohol but falling-down drunk, booze being for him "a form of self-medication, a way of fending off the pains of his own past as well as the continuing agony of his personal life"; his marriage to the former Estelle Oldham was mostly unhappy, at times dreadfully so, yet each granted the other a perverse loyalty; he fled into affairs with several women, but doesn't seem to have found real happiness with any of them; he puttered around his house and farm outside Oxford, the Mississippi town where he spent almost his entire life; he worried obsessively about money, even after the Nobel Prize of 1949 and its aftermath made him modestly well-to-do.

As Faulkner seems to have known better than anyone who has studied him, with the possible exceptions of Malcolm Cowley and Cleanth Brooks, the work, not the life, matters. Parini writes perceptively, though not especially originally, about Faulkner's "string of incomparable masterworks between 1928 and 1942 -- 'one matchless time,' as he called it," -- and declines to overrate his lesser work, A Fable in particular. To my taste he underrates Faulkner's later work -- The Town, The Mansion, The Reivers -- which certainly doesn't have the depth and power of The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, As I Lay Dying, et al., but has very real charm and rich humor. But as is generally true of Faulkner's biographers, Parini approaches him and his work with a certain humorlessness, which may explain his response to these books.

Parini correctly ranks Faulkner alongside Balzac and Dickens. All three created universes of their own, incredibly populous places in which the writers tried, in Faulkner's words, "to put it all, if possible, on one pinhead," and got, each in his own way, very close to just that. Parini also has wise words for the reader:

"Faulkner cannot be read; he can only be reread. A single book can hardly be consumed in isolation from the other work in a satisfactory way; indeed, the whole of Faulkner moves together, as one tale informs another, as characters evolve in time and place. Particular stories and characters make more sense when the whole of Yoknapatawpha County comes into view, its concentric circles widening out from the courthouse in Jefferson to the plantation houses and cotton fields, the wild country of Frenchman's Bend, populated by Snopeses and Varners, to Beat Four, where the Gowrie clan resides, making whiskey and fighting among themselves."

To say the same thing another way: Read Faulkner, not about Faulkner. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

William Faulkner in 1954, at home with his typewriter in Oxford, Miss.