William Faulkner: The Novel as Form

THE famous remark made to Macaulay — ‘Young man, the more I consider the less can I conceive where you picked up that style’ —might with advantage have been saved for Mr. William Faulkner. For if one thing is more outstanding than another about Mr. Faulkner — some readers find it so outstanding, indeed, that they never get beyond it — it is the uncompromising and almost hypnotic zeal with which he insists upon having a style, and, especially of late, the very peculiar style which he insists upon having. Perhaps to that one should add that he insists when he remembers — he can write straightforwardly enough when he wants to; he does so often in the best of his short stories (and they are brilliant), often enough, too, in the novels. But that style is what he really wants to get back to; and get back to it he invariably does.

And what a style it is, to be sure! The exuberant and tropical luxuriance of sound which Jim Europe’s jazz band used to exhale, like a jungle of rank creepers and ferocious blooms taking shape before one’s eyes, — magnificently and endlessly intervolved, glisteningly and ophidianly in motion, coil sliding over coil, and leaf and flower forever magically interchanging, — was scarcely more bewildering, in its sheer inexhaustible fecundity, than Mr. Faulkner’s style. Small wonder if even the most passionate of Mr. Faulkner’s admirers — among whom the present writer honors himself by enlisting — must find, with each new novel, that the first fifty pages are always the hardest, that each time one must learn all over again how to read this strangely fluid and slippery and heavily mannered prose, and that one is even, like a kind of Laocoön, sometimes tempted to give it up.

Wrestle, for example, with two very short (for Mr. Faulkner!) sentences, taken from an early page of Absalom, Absalom! ‘Meanwhile, as though in inverse ratio to the vanishing voice, the invoked ghost of the man whom she could neither forgive nor revenge herself upon began to assume a quality almost of solidity, permanence. Itself circumambient and enclosed by its effluvium of hell, its aura of unregeneration, it mused (mused, thought, seemed to possess sentience as if, though dispossessed of the peace — who was impervious anyhow to fatigue — which she declined to give it, it was still irrevocably outside the scope of her hurt or harm) with that quality peaceful and now harmless and not even very attentive — the ogre-shape which, as Miss Coldfield’s voice went on, resolved out of itself before Quentin’s eyes the two half-ogre children, the three of them forming a shadowy background for the fourth one.’ Well, it may be reasonably questioned whether, on page thirteen of a novel, that little cordite bolus of suppressed reference isn’t a thumping æsthetic mistake. Returned to, when one has finished the book, it may be as simple as daylight; but encountered for the first time, and no matter how often reread, it guards its enigma with the stony impassivity of the Sphinx.

Or take again from the very first page of The Wild Palms — Mr. Faulkner’s latest novel, and certainly one of his finest — this little specimen of ‘exposition’: ‘Because he had been born here, on this coast though not in this house but in the other, the residence in town, and had lived here all his life, including the four years at the State University’s medical school and the two years as an intern in New Orleans where (a thick man even when young, with thick soft woman’s hands, who should never have been a doctor at all, who even after the six more or less metropolitan years looked out from a provincial and insulated amazement at his classmates and fellows: the lean young men swaggering in their drill jackets on which — to him — they wore the myriad anonymous faces of the probationer nurses with a ruthless and assured braggadocio like decorations, like flower trophies) he had sickened for it.’ What is one to say of that — or of a sentence only a little lower on the same page which runs for thirty-three lines? Is this, somehow perverted, the influence of the later Henry James — James the Old Pretender?

In short, Mr. Faulkner’s style, though often brilliant and always interesting, is all too frequently downright bad; and it has inevitably offered an all-too-easy mark for the sharpshooting of such alert critics as Mr. Wyndham Lewis. But if it is easy enough to make fun of Mr. Faulkner’s obsessions for particular words, or his indifference and violence to them, or the parrotlike mechanical mytacism (for it is really like a stammer) with which he will go on endlessly repeating such favorites as ‘myriad, sourceless, impalpable, outrageous, risible, profound,’ there is nevertheless something more to be said for his passion for overelaborate sentence structure.

Overelaborate they certainly are, baroque and involuted in the extreme, these sentences: trailing clauses, one after another, shadowily in apposition, or perhaps not even with so much connection as that; parenthesis after parenthesis, the parenthesis itself often containing one or more parentheses — they remind one of those brightly colored Chinese eggs of one’s childhood, which when opened disclosed egg after egg, each smaller and subtler than the last. It is as if Mr. Faulkner, in a sort of hurried despair, had decided to try to tell us everything, absolutely everything, every last origin or source or quality or qualification, and every possible future or permutation as well, in one terrifically concentrated effort: each sentence to be, as it were, a microcosm. And it must be admitted that the practice is annoying and distracting.

It is annoying, at the end of a sentence, to find that one does not know in the least what was the subject of the verb that dangles in vacuo — it is distracting to have to go back and sort out the meaning, track down the structure from clause to clause, then only to find that after all it doesn’t much matter, and that the obscurity was perhaps neither subtle nor important. And to the extent that one is annoyed and distracted, and does thus go back and work it out, it may be at once added that Mr. Faulkner has defeated his own ends. One has had, of course, to emerge from the stream, and to step away from it, in order properly to see it; and as Mr. Faulkner works precisely by a process of immersion, of hypnotizing his reader into remaining immersed in his stream, this occasional blunder produces irritation and failure.

Nevertheless, despite the blunders, and despite the bad habits and the willful bad writing (and willful it obviously is), the style as a whole is extraordinarily effective; the reader does remain immersed, wants to remain immersed, and it is interesting to look into the reasons for this. And at once, if one considers these queer sentences not simply by themselves, as monsters of grammar or awkwardness, but in their relation to the book as a whole, one sees a functional reason and necessity for their being as they are. They parallel in a curious and perhaps inevitable way, and not without æsthetic justification, the whole elaborate method of deliberately withheld meaning, of progressive and partial and delayed disclosure, which so often gives the characteristic shape to the novels themselves. It is a persistent offering of obstacles, a calculated system of screens and obtrusions, of confusions and ambiguous interpolations and delays, with one express purpose; and that purpose is simply to keep the form — and the idea — fluid and unfinished, still in motion, as it were, and unknown, until the dropping into place of the very last syllable.

What Mr. Faulkner is after, in a sense, is a continuum. He wants a medium without stops or pauses, a medium which is always of the moment, and of which the passage from moment to moment is as fluid and undetectable as in the life itself which he is purporting to give. It is all inside and underneath, or as seen from within and below; the reader must therefore be steadily drawn in; he must be powerfully and unremittingly hypnotized inward and downward to that image-stream; and this suggests, perhaps, a reason not only for the length and elaborateness of the sentence structure, but for the repetitiveness as well. The repetitiveness, and the steady iterative emphasis — like a kind of chanting or invocation — on certain relatively abstract words (‘ sonorous, latin, vaguely eloquent’), has the effect at last of producing, for Mr. Faulkner, a special language, a conglomerate of his own, which he uses with an astonishing virtuosity, and which, although in detailed analysis it may look shoddy, is actually for his purpose a life stream of almost miraculous adaptability. At the one extreme it is abstract, cerebral, time-and-space-obsessed, tortured and twisted, but nevertheless always with a living pulse in it; and at the other it can be as overwhelming in its simple vividness, its richness in the actual, as the flood scenes in The Wild Palms.

Obviously, such a style, especially when allied with such a method, and such a concern for method, must make difficulties for the reader; and it must be admitted that Mr. Faulkner does little or nothing as a rule to make his highly complex ‘situation’ easily available or perceptible. The reader must simply make up his mind to go to work, and in a sense to coöperate; his reward being that there is a situation to be given shape, a meaning to be extracted, and that half the fun is precisely in watching the queer, difficult, and often so laborious, evolution of Mr. Faulkner’s idea. And not so much idea, either, as form. For, like the great predecessor whom at least in this regard he so oddly resembles, Mr. Faulkner could say with Henry James that it is practically impossible to make any real distinction between theme and form. What immoderately delights him, alike in Sanctuary, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Pylon, Absalom, Absalom! and now again in The Wild Palms, and what sets him above — shall we say it firmly — all his American contemporaries, is his continuous preoccupation with the novel as form, his passionate concern with it, and a degree of success with it which would clearly have commanded the interest and respect of Henry James himself. The novel as revelation, the novel as slice-of-life, the novel as mere story, do not interest him: these he would say, like James again, ‘are the circumstances of the interest,’ but not the interest itself. The interest itself will be the use to which these circumstances are put, the degree to which they can be organized.

From this point of view, he is not in the least to be considered as a mere ‘Southern’ writer: the ‘Southernness’ of his scenes and characters is of little concern to him, just as little as the question whether they are pleasant or unpleasant, true or untrue. Verisimilitude — or, at any rate, degree of verisimilitude — he will cheerfully abandon, where necessary, if the compensating advantages of plan or tone are a sufficient inducement. The famous scene in Sanctuary of Miss Reba and Uncle Bud, in which a ‘madam’ and her cronies hold a wake for a dead gangster, while the small boy gets drunk, is quite false, taken out of its context; it is not endowed with the same kind of actuality which permeates the greater part of the book at all. Mr. Faulkner was cunning enough to see that a two-dimensional cartoon-like statement, at this juncture, would supply him with the effect of a chorus, and without in the least being perceived as a change in the temperature of truthfulness.

That particular kind of dilution, or adulteration, of verisimilitude was both practised and praised by James: as when he blandly admitted of In the Cage that his central character was ‘too ardent a focus of divination’ to be quite credible. It was defensible simply because it made possible the coherence of the whole, and was itself absorbed back into the luminous texture. It was for him a device for organization, just as the careful cherishing of ‘viewpoint’ was a device, whether simply or in counterpoint. Of Mr. Faulkner’s devices, of this sort, aimed at the achievement of complex ‘form,’ the two most constant are the manipulation of viewpoint and the use of the flash-back, or sudden shift of time-scene, forward or backward.

In Sanctuary, where the alternation of viewpoint is a little lawless, the complexity is given, perhaps a shade disingenuously, by violent shifts in time; a deliberate disarrangement of an otherwise straightforward story. Technically, there is no doubt that the novel, despite its fame, rattles a little; and Mr. Faulkner himself takes pains to disclaim it. But, even done with the left hand, it betrays a genius for form, quite apart from its wonderful virtuosity in other respects. Light in August, published a year after Sanctuary, repeats the same technique, that of a dislocation of time, and more elaborately; the time-shifts alternate with shifts in the viewpoint; and if the book is a failure it is perhaps because Mr. Faulkner’s tendency to what is almost a hypertrophy of form is not here, as well as in the other novels, matched with the characters and the theme. Neither the person nor the story of Joe Christmas is seen fiercely enough — by its creator — to carry off that immense machinery of narrative; it would have needed another Popeye, or another Jiggs and Shumann, another Temple Drake, and for once Mr. Faulkner’s inexhaustible inventiveness seems to have been at fault. Consequently what we see is an extraordinary power for form functioning relatively in vacuo, and existing only to sustain itself.

In the best of the novels, however, — and it is difficult to choose between The Sound and the Fury and The Wild Palms, with Absalom, Absalom! a very close third, — this tendency to hypertrophy of form has been sufficiently curbed; and it is interesting, too, to notice that in all these three (and in that remarkable tour de force, As I Lay Dying, as well), while there is still a considerable reliance on time-shift, the effect of richness and complexity is chiefly obtained by a very skillful fugue-like alternation of viewpoint. Fugue-like in The Wild Palms — and fugue-like especially, of course, in As I Lay Dying, where the shift is kaleidoscopically rapid, and where, despite an astonishing violence to plausibility (in the reflections, and language of reflection, of the characters) an effect of the utmost reality and immediateness is nevertheless produced. Fugue-like, again, in Absalom, Absalom! where indeed one may say the form is really circular— there is no beginning and no ending, properly speaking, and therefore no logical point of entrance: we must just submit, and follow the circling of the author’s interest, which turns a light inward towards the centre, but every moment from a new angle, a new point of view. The story unfolds, therefore, now in one color of light, now in another, with references backward and forward: those that refer forward being necessarily, for the moment, blind. What is complete in Mr. Faulkner’s pattern, a priori, must nevertheless remain incomplete for us until the very last stone is in place; what is ‘real,’ therefore, at one stage of the unfolding, or from one point of view, turns out to be ‘unreal’ from another; and we find that one among other things with which we are engaged is the fascinating sport of trying to separate truth from legend, watching the growth of legend from truth, and finally reaching the conclusion that the distinction is itself false.

Something of the same sort is true also of The Sound and the Fury — and this, with its massive four-part symphonic structure, is perhaps the most beautifully wrought of the whole series, and an indubitable masterpiece of what James loved to call the ‘fictive art.’ The joinery is flawless in its intricacy; it is a novelist’s novel — a whole textbook on the craft of fiction in itself, comparable in its way to What Maisie Knew or The Golden Bowl.

But if it is important, for the moment, to emphasize Mr. Faulkner’s genius for form, and his continued exploration of its possibilities, as against the usual concern with the violence and dreadfulness of his themes — though we might pause to remind carpers on this score of the fact that the best of Henry James is precisely that group of last novels which so completely concerned themselves with moral depravity — it is also well to keep in mind his genius for invention, whether of character or episode. The inventiveness is of the richest possible sort — a headlong and tumultuous abundance, an exuberant generosity and vitality, which makes most other contemporary fiction look very pale and chaste indeed. It is an unforgettable gallery of portraits, whether character or caricature, and all of them endowed with a violent and immediate vitality.

‘He is at once’ — to quote once more from James — ‘one of the most corrupt of writers and one of the most naif, the most mechanical and pedantic, and the fullest of bonhomie and natural impulse. He is one of the finest of artists and one of the coarsest. Viewed in one way, his novels are ponderous, shapeless, overloaded; his touch is graceless, violent, barbarous. Viewed in another, his tales have more color, more composition, more grasp of the reader’s attention than any others. [His] style would demand a chapter apart. It is the least simple style, probably, that was ever written; it bristles, it cracks, it swells and swaggers; but it is a perfect expression of the man’s genius. Like his genius, it contains a certain quantity of everything, from immaculate gold to flagrant dross. He was a very bad writer, and yet unquestionably he was a very great writer. We may say briefly, that in so far as his method was an instinct it was successful, and that in so far as it was a theory it was a failure. But both in instinct and in theory he had the aid of an immense force of conviction. His imagination warmed to its work so intensely that there was nothing his volition could not impose upon it. Hallucination settled upon him, and he believed anything that was necessary in the circumstances.’

That passage, from Henry James’s essay on Balzac, is almost word for word, with scarcely a reservation, applicable to Mr. Faulkner. All that is lacking is Balzac’s greater range of understanding and tenderness, his greater freedom from special preoccupations. For this, one would hazard the guess that Mr. Faulkner has the gifts — and time is still before him.