Friday, April 27, 2012

Reading Faulkner

Reading Faulkner

A year ago, Fred and I read Moby Dick for the first time. We enjoyed our class of mostly fifty- and sixty-somethings, who brought life experience and perspective to a complex work unfairly loathed by generations forced to read it too soon.

Now we're reading a Faulkner novel, Go Down Moses, in four class sessions, and gaining a similar impression. Though not a long book, it spans generations. Tonight as we read a portion of "The Bear" aloud to each other, I remarked that the writer has Hemingway's macho love of hunting and male bonding, spun out in sentences that have more in common with Henry James's style.
I always thought Henry James couldn't have conveyed much without the comma, which he relies on as he accretes meaning phrase by phrase, until he lands, having circled his meaning completely, at the point - and you know exactly where you are and what he's telling you.

Faulkner is James without the commas. He's harder to read - you really have to pay attention, and multiple readings of a chapter are useful - but he does arrive where he's going, and if you stick with him, you'll get there too. Like any storyteller in the oral tradition, he digresses. He's not going to tell you about the hunting camp without telling you who's there, how many years they've been coming, who cooks, which game they're eating, and especially how the wilderness looms about them, watching with a sort of hungry indifference - in a single sentence. Archetypal creatures live here: the buck with fourteen points, invisible to the men who would shoot him but passing the boy and old Sam Fathers, who admire but would not kill him though they too are hunters. Sam Fathers, whose lineage runs as deep in time as this land's, raises a palm in greeting as the stag appears near them then vanishes again.

So we come to the bear, old and cunning, a terror to the hunting dogs which bay so heartily after deer and coons but hang back when they pick up his scent. The boy wants to see the bear, to witness his wild dominant existence, and one day he decides he must convince the bear to let himself be seen. By being unarmed. So he leaves behind first his rifle, at the camp, then after some hours going deeper into the forest, abandons also his compass and watch. By making himself defenseless, he pledges to the bear that he will bring back nothing but the sight of his own eyes. He will not only not shoot, he will not blaze a trail for those who would. He will not himself know where he is or has been as he wanders in the bear's realm. And through this homage, he is given a glimpse of the creature. Here's how Faulkner builds suspense:

"When he realised he was lost, he did as Sam had coached and drilled him: made a cast to cross his backtrack. He had not been going very fast for the last two or three hours, and he had gone even less fast since he left the compass and watch on the bush. So he went slower still now, since the tree could not be very far; in fact, he found it before he really expected to and turned and went to it. But there was no bush beneath it, no compass nor watch, so he did next as Sam had coached and drilled him: made this next circle in the opposite direction and much larger, so that the pattern of the two of them would bisect his track somewhere, but crossing no trace nor mark anywhere of his feet or any feet, and now he was going faster though still not panicked, his heart beating a little more rapidly but strong and steady enough, and this time it was not even the tree because there was a down log beside it which he had never seen before and beyond the log a little swamp, a seepage of moisture somewhere between earth and water, and he did what Sam had coached and drilled him as the next and the last, seeing as he sat down on the log the crooked print, the warped indentation in the wet ground which while he looked at it continued to fill with water until it was level full and the water began to overflow and the sides of the print began to dissolve away. Even as he looked up he saw the next one, and, moving, the one beyond it; moving, not hurrying, running, but merely keeping pace with them as they appeared before him as though they were being shaped out of thin air just one constant pace short of where he would lose them forever and be lost forever himself, tireless, eager, without doubt or dread, panting a little above the strong rapid little hammer of his heart, emerging suddenly into a little glade and the wilderness coalesced. It rushed, soundless, and solidified - the tree, the bush, the compass and the watch glinting where a ray of sunlight touched them. Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon's hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him." [from "The Bear" in Go Down, Moses, Vintage Books c 1942, pp 197-8]

I was going to quote a shorter section but I couldn't start in the middle of a sentence. You see, what he's written makes sense. It has music and poetry, it has earth and blood. Faulkner's storytelling has a compelling life. You might wish his language was less convoluted but what would you have then? Hemingway.