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September 01, 2010


I've always wanted to read Faulkner's novels in chronological order (i.e. in the order he wrote them)...but his body of work is so huge, I've never managed to find the time! So if someone is trying Faulkner out for the first time, so to speak, I think diving right into one of his more well-known books is best. Novels like Absalom, The Sound and the Fury, and As I Lay Dying are classics for good reason: you really can't go wrong with any of them!

(And it's curious, come to think of it, that I'd want to read Faulkner's novels in order, given how his narratives almost never proceed in a logical, chronological fashion! So if there's any author that you really can read in any order, picking up this book then another, it's probably Faulkner! I've always wondered, though, what sort of progress I might discern from one novel to another, but that's a project that will have to wait until I have a whole other lifetime of hours in the day!)

Faulkner's novels kind of remind me of Shakespeare's plays: each wrote four great tragedies, if I can call The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!, and Light in August tragedies, and the rest of them are comedies (maybe a bigger stretch to call the Snopes novels comedic, though The Reivers is certainly a comedy) or something like Shakespeare's histories. Nothing wrong with starting with the big four . . .

If the big four seem a bit daunting, though, some of Faulkner's spare dialog and memorable scenes (memorable at least to various characters and narrators in some of his works, who refer to the same scenes often enough) remind me of films he helped write, like The Big Sleep or the adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Maybe his films are one way in.

One might start with the short stories in his Collected Stories. Faulkner's short stories give me his great sense of narrative without the immersion in language, mental illness, or family dynamics that some of his novels demand. I’ve read his later Uncollected Stories, too, and I remember thinking that the short stories there, which I loved, weren't quite up to par with those in the earlier collection.

Sartoris is an early novel and his first about the fictional Southern dynasties that made Faulkner famous; I enjoyed it years ago. I don’t recall it being as experimental (and therefore as challenging) as his more famous work. I remember it spanning three generations, though. (I also remember becoming aware of this smoking motif that let me know which generation the book was on at any given point -- pipes for the oldest, cigars for the middle, and cigarettes for the youngest. Tricks like that helped me with Benjy's time-hopping section in The Sound and the Fury.

The Unvanquished and Intruder in the Dust are easy to follow. The latter is one of my favorites, a murder mystery and social commentary involving one of my favorite characters, Lucas Beauchamp, a self-possessed black man who rubs whites the wrong way. He also appears in my all-time favorite Faulkner novel, Go Down, Moses.

I read The Reivers when I was in high school. I remember laughing a lot, like when a bunch of grown men have a grand time farting around a campfire (if memory serves), and I remember liking the overly dramatic language.

(Um, Beth, I also started rereading The Sound and the Fury last week! My own first read in thirty years . . .

Since our blogs have probably reached a Faulkner saturation, maybe I'll just give you my impressions here. I finished Benjy's section today. I "read" it on an excellent unabridged audio download. At first, I was bothered that I couldn't always tell when the dialog and action shifted back or forward in time because the audio has no signal commensurate with the italics in the print version. But after a while I noticed the slightest suggestion in the performer's voice of the change, and it proved pretty accurate. Faulkner also gives clues: for instance, the character's ages, the names of the black servants, and the gender of "Quentin." (One would have to read along with us to understand what I mean by that last clue.)

While paying attention to those "change signals" that Faulkner trains me to listen for, I notice I'm more aware of what doesn't change -- Mother's self-pity and her complete and habitual miscomprehension of others' motives, Dilsey's steadfastness, the blacks' subservience, and Jason's brattishness. I also noticed the insight I felt I had into Benjy through the symbolic, sometimes sexual, and often poignant associations that seemed to send him from the present to the past and back again.

Benjy's section has surprising emotional force. By the end of it, as the time changes become more frequent, the lines somehow become more powerful as they become more random and seemingly confused. It's like Benjy's mind is on overload. Listening to it reminded me of listening to the second movement of Beethoven's Ninth: powerful repetitions with playful variations.)

Peter, we're still in sync, it seems -- I read the Benjy section of "The Sound and the Fury" last night too, before seeing this from you. You're right - it's very powerful and a remarkable piece of insight as well as writing, but I can't imagine recommending that anyone start reading Faulkner with this book! And yet that's what often happens. "Absalom, Absalom!" or some of the short stories might be a better introduction. Beginning with "Light in August" would be like starting Dostoevsky with "Crime and Punishment" - a book I think it resembles, actually. But that's a subject for another talk!

wonderful format to explore Faulkner through both the exchange and impressively learned comments,Faulkner's a writer i knew virtually nothing about.I hope there will be more exchanges in the future

I read Faulkner way back in school when I was going through the early stages of my life-long (so far, anyway!) cultural love affair with North American literature and music. I think that I moved on too rapidly to the fireworks of Kerouac and Mailer. All the lights going on here between you both has had me reaching for those more substantive old paperbacks again.

Thanks, John and Dick! Well, we were blowing the dust off of our copies after decades, too . . .

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.