- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005

ONE MATCHLESS TIME: A LIFE OF WILLIAM FAULKNER

By Jay Parini

HarperCollins, $29.95,

492 pages

REVIEWED BY

JAMES E. PERSON JR.

To many readers today, the novels and short stories of William Faulkner (1897-1962) are more reverenced than read. The unwary Faulkner novice setting out for the first time to tackle “The Sound and the Fury” or “Absalom, Absalom!” is likely in for a shock, for in much of his fiction Faulkner’s allusive, modified stream-of-consciousness style can baffle even the most determined reader: What is happening now in the plot? Who is the he Faulkner has been speaking of for the past eight pages? Are there two characters by the same name in this novel?

At the same time, literary historians assure us that Faulkner is unsurpassed in capturing the essence of rural and small-town life in the Deep South from roughly the time of the Civil War through to the outset of the modern age. But he is not a regional writer only, for his works speak of the human condition, the need for faith, tradition, roots, and community when all these elements are broken or vanishing.

Faulkner has been often imitated but never surpassed, and Southern writers know this and stand aside for the great Mississippian’s reputation. On one occasion short story writer Flannery O’Connor famously said, “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”

How then to make Faulkner’s work understandable, to slow down the “Dixie Limited” just enough so that its contours and workings can be seen and appreciated? In “One Matchless Time,” Jay Parini largely succeeds. A renowned poet and biographer of Robert Frost and John Steinbeck, Mr. Parini has taught courses on Faulkner’s fiction for many years at Middlebury College. His new work shares with the reader the benefit of his extensive knowledge of Faulkner. Mr. Parini’s mastery of the great Mississippian’s life is sure, and his explications of all Faulkner’s major fiction is refreshingly insightful.

An added strength is that Mr. Parini’s prose is quite accessible to the lay reader. The author has invested a staggering amount of research into “One Matchless Time” and it shows, with graceful transitions from authorial statements to substantiating references from secondary sources.

Any biography of William Faulkner can only be promising that begins by invoking his famous quotation from “Requiem for a Nun,” “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of this book, the past that Mr. Parini focuses upon is the post-Reconstruction South of Faulkner’s upbringing, with its racial tensions, burgeoning industrialization, crumbling class structure, loss of wilderness, and sense of loss in general.

From this background arose those short stories and novels set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County that appeared during the “one matchless time” of 1928 through 1942: “The Sound and the Fury,” “Absalom, Absalom!,” “Sanctuary,” and “Go Down, Moses,” among several others — not to mention such short stories as the masterful “A Rose for Emily.”

While he is a Faulkner admirer, he is no Faulkner worshipper, for Mr. Parini does not shy from describing Faulkner’s personal weaknesses and less-accomplished work. Throughout the volume he artfully and eloquently intersperses retellings of Faulkner’s life with capsule explications of the fiction that are enlightening. Midway through this study, he offers as astute a summary of Faulkner’s accomplishment as has been written: “Faulkner explores the dark places of the human heart as ruthlessly as, say, Joseph Conrad, an early and abiding influence. There is little about his work that can, in any conventional sense, be regarded as uplifting. He was uplifting only on occasion. But he did describe ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’ — a lovely phrase of his — and he made this conflict palpable.”

The conflict, yes — but also the human capacity to endure and prevail in the face of shattering circumstances. With this said, it is strange that such a remarkably well-researched and accessibly written life of Faulkner should not have received a better editorial combing-out before publication.

It is somewhat jarring for this Virginia-born reviewer to see repeated references to the hunt country around Charlottesville, Va., where Faulkner lived during his later years, as lying in “Albermarle” County instead of Albemarle County. There are other such occurrences, all of them small, but their presence can raise caution flags with the reader.

Mr. Parini puts a mild amount of distance between his own views and earlier critical assessments Faulkner’s fiction — especially the views of literary scholar Cleanth Brooks. Where Mr. Brooks discouraged readers from interpreting poetry and fiction as fragments of the author’s autobiography, Mr. Parini finds direct autobiographical correlations with considerable frequency in Faulkner’s fiction. While there most certainly are interesting parallels between Faulkner’s life and certain episodes in his fiction — particularly in regard to the criminal figures and actions that have such a central place in the novel “Sanctuary” — the writing of biography as “psychography” is chancy endeavor.

These criticisms are not to dismiss Mr. Parini’s biography as a poor job, nor to cast doubt upon his formidable expertise. In fact, but for the minor points outlined above, “One Matchless Time” is a valuable addition to the shelf of works on Faulkner — and may lead other scholars into largely unexplored areas of the author’s work.

While this work is overshadowed by Joseph Blotner’s magisterial “William Faulkner: A Life” (1974), it nonetheless displays marked strengths of its own, providing remarkably fresh and illuminating insights into Faulkner’s major works and their significance. The comprehension of Faulkner’s life and work that permeates this latest biography may well lead readers who have for long held back from reading Faulkner to visit the world of Yoknapatawpha County for the first time. And that alone is a tremendous accomplishment.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” and a forthcoming critical biography of Virginia novelist/screenwriter Earl Hamner.


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