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Where should I start?

William Faulkner and his Literary Kin

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1FemmeNoiresque
Jan 8, 2011, 6:45pm Top

For my 11 in 11 project, I have devoted a category to that most bewitching and fascinating group genre of American letters (for this Australian, anyway!), Southern Gothic.

Which brings me to Faulkner. Short stories aside, where should I start with his novels? If I have a shortlist of say, 4 or 5 must reads for the beginner/layman/reader who knows nothing about him historically, and the order in which people reckon I should read them, I think it would help me organize myself.

Thank you!

2laytonwoman3rd
Edited: Jan 9, 2011, 12:52pm Top

This is a tricky question. I always think Intruder in the Dust is a good introduction to Faulkner's world because it's not a difficult read, it introduces families and places that recur over and over in his work. But it's not particularly "gothic", either. The Hamlet is another excellent starting place (it was the first one I read, and I'm still reading and re-reading him 40 years later). For the essential Southern Gothic experience, you need to read Absalom, Absalom, which has a lot of support for the title of Faulkner's Masterpiece, and The Sound and The Fury, which is the other major contender for that title. I don't think it matters which of the first two you start with, or in what order you read the last two. The thing you need to remember with Faulkner is that you're never finished with him, unless you decide you just can't read him at all. As one of his biographers (Jay Parini) has said: "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." I don't say that to scare you off---I think any one of the four novels I've mentioned can stand alone; they just get so much better when read as part of a whole, and every one of them rewards re-reading.

3geneg
Jan 10, 2011, 1:56pm Top

A nice, short, fairly easy to read standalone novel to introduce you to the Southern weirdness of Faulkner is As I Lay Dying. Your reaction to that should be pretty reliable as to how you will relate to his more intense stuff such as The Sound and the Fury.

If you are just breaking in to the Southern Gothic genre, let me recommend you save Faulkner for a later day and open you experience with a collection of Flannery O'Connor stories, or if you feel really bold, try The Violent Bear it Away, the better of her two novels.

Another recommendation is Tobacco Road. This is a book that will give you insight into the minds, hopes, fears, and outlook of the people Faulkner and O'Connor put out there for you to observe.

But if you want to dip your toes directly into Faulkner, I suggest As I Lay Dying.

4kswolff
Jan 10, 2011, 3:02pm Top

If you haven't read it already in high school or college lit, check out "A Rose for Emily." Wild Palms is another avenue. Two narratives told in parallel, although it isn't set in Y. County.

I read As I Lay Dying and, suffice to say, I got really lost. I plan on rereading it, especially with my Faulkner A to Z handy, since it has nice summaries.

Jorge Luis Borges has a wonderful review of Absalom, Absalom in his Collected Non-fictions

If you enjoy Souther humor, check out A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

5labwriter
Feb 18, 2011, 2:12pm Top

>2 laytonwoman3rd: "Faulkner cannot be read; he can only be reread. . . ."

Wow, I couldn't agree with that statement more. I'm currently reading Absalom, Absalom! for--well, probably the third time in 30 years or so--and I feel like this time I'm really getting it. I think there's something to be said for reading Faulkner along with some sort of handy "aid," even if it's nothing more than an online chronology. There's a useful reading aid that I found online for Absalom! that was put together by English students at the U of Virginia--the link is here. Another useful tool is simply to find a list of Faulkner's characters. As was mentioned, Faulkner was writing about several generations of an intertwined community, so family names recur, but also the same people are used in several novels or stories. You might want to browse Faulkner on the Web as a general orientation/introduction. A good list of his characters can be found there.

Having said that, some people will prefer to just jump into the reading and see where it takes them. There's plenty to be said for that approach as well. However, I've found that many people give up on Faulkner because they get frustrated with him, and some of these reading aids might be useful in that case to get over that initial confusion or frustration.

6MeditationesMartini
Feb 18, 2011, 2:59pm Top

Imma ditto both Gene's recommendation of As I Lay Dying--the crunchier stuff seems to me not to profit from it, and AILD is my favourite Faulkner, our of what I've read--and kswolff's rec of Confederacy of dunces. SO FUNNY.

7beelzebubba
Mar 3, 2011, 6:32am Top

As I Lay Dying is my favorite as well. That book stayed with me for a long time after I read it.

8kswolff
Mar 3, 2011, 10:49am Top

Where to start? I'd recommend If I Forget Thee Jerusalem The storyline is pretty straightforward: two parallel narratives. Despite its conventional trappings, it has the style and intense characters one will encounter in more experimental and labyrinthine works.

Where not to start? Absalom, Absalom!

9laytonwoman3rd
Edited: Apr 11, 2012, 12:35pm Top

For those wondering how to approach Faulkner, This is a very helpful article. It doesn't suggest what to read but it does have some good suggestions as to how to read Faulkner.

10lriley
Apr 11, 2012, 4:05pm Top

I think there are a number of writers who owe some thanks to Faulkner. The French nobelist Claude Simon--the Portugese writer Antonio Lobo Antunes would be another. And then there is Cormac McCarthy.

11kswolff
Apr 11, 2012, 5:35pm Top

I would also suggest Marcel Proust -- long sentences, history of "place," twisted family histories, class, race, etc. -- and James Joyce, who mastered stream-of-consciousness and was highly experimental in his writing.

12lriley
Apr 11, 2012, 5:51pm Top

Proust might be more of the influence on Fauilkner though. William actually started--as I'm sure most of his fans know--as a poet--not as a novelist. He reworked some of his poetry into his first novels.

13geneg
Apr 12, 2012, 12:17pm Top

11,12 Somehow, I don't know exactly how, just call me skeptical, but somehow I just don't believe William Faulkner had much influence on either Proust or James Joyce.

14kswolff
Apr 12, 2012, 12:58pm Top

13: Well, duh, Proust and Joyce influenced Faulkner, not the other way round.

15lriley
Apr 12, 2012, 4:25pm Top

Proust come before Faulkner--so if you wanted to say anyone influenced the other--it would be Proust influenced Faulkner. Which may or may not be true. I think I remember reading that Faulkner was a fan of the French symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme--though maybe I remember wrongly. William started out as a poet and worked at that for quite some time--and lifted some of his own poetry later to use in his novels.

Faulkner had a profound influence on European literature in the first half of the 20th century--much moreso than Hemingway. And in actuality Faulkner's writing style is much closer to Dos Passos who also was very experimental in his time.

16kswolff
Apr 13, 2012, 1:49pm Top

Mallarme is an interesting case, because he was one of the first modern poets to separate form from meaning in his poetry. A lot of it is free-associative and a jumble of images. One could see this as an inspiration for using Benjy Compson as a narrator, since, as an "idiot", his use of language and meaning would be radically different from us "normals."

17lriley
Edited: Apr 13, 2012, 6:40pm Top

16--writers tend to be obsessed people--and they borrow from others. Faulkner was a heavy drinker--if not an alcoholic. He'd retreat to his writing room every night with a quart of whiskey. He worked in Hollywood for a time too. And by obsessive they are often self destructive. It's something that comes with the territory. Mallarme had some elements of this and so did Proust. Mallarme's son died very young. He never got over it. A tomb for Anatole. Proust locked himself away in his bedroom for the last several years of his life. So Faulkner's drinking problem can be seen as mild compared to others who may have influenced him.

18geneg
Apr 14, 2012, 3:32pm Top

Stephane Mallarme in his own fashion wrote the opening scene to "Forrest Gump": the feather and Gump on a park bench all stem from a belief or at least an idea of Mallarme's that when the Gods choose someone for greatness they drop a feather and whomever it lands on will receive the gift of greatness. How they handle it is an entirely different thing. At least this is what a prof told me.

19richardderus
Feb 1, 2014, 3:14pm Top

I didn't even know this group existed! Or I've forgotten it....

20laytonwoman3rd
Feb 1, 2014, 6:00pm Top

Welcome, Richard! Stir things up in here, willya?

21pgturner
Mar 19, 2014, 7:56pm Top

Here...looks like not many posts for a while, huh?

22laytonwoman3rd
Mar 19, 2014, 9:09pm Top

Here, a quote from Mallarme, since he has been almost as much the subject of this thread as Uncle Billy: "In reading, a lonely quiet concert is given to our minds; all our mental faculties will be present in this symphonic exaltation."

23DBN
Apr 10, 2014, 11:00pm Top

Thanks again, laytonwoman3rd - this helps a lot.

24laytonwoman3rd
Apr 13, 2014, 9:49pm Top

>23 DBN: Good, I'm glad!

26kswolff
Oct 4, 2015, 10:08am Top

South Toward Home by Margaret Eby:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/books/review/south-toward-home-by-margaret-eby...

Perhaps a tad too worshipful of its subject matter, but this looks like a great introduction to the superstars of Southern Literature -- Faulkner, Harper Lee, John Kennedy Toole, Harry Crews, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and others.

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