the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time: Reading Faulkner

I’m reading Faulkner’s novels in chronological order with a friend. We’ve read Vonnegut and Hemingway, so Faulkner seemed the obvious choice after Hem. After spending so much time with Hemingway, then beginning Faulkner, one of the most obvious takeaways we’ve had is wondering why these guys get compared so much. Other than attempting to be great writers publishing at the same time, there isn’t a lot to compare. Their goals and techniques seem so different that they are almost not even worth comparing.

It’s strange that I’ve actually been asked on several occasions: Hemingway or Faulkner? I would say that anyone who asks that question hasn’t read much of either author. It’s a false dichotomy. I remember in college someone even saying, “I’m a writer from Mississippi, so I can’t like Faulkner.” This was said seriously without a speck of smirk or smile.

Here’s what I’ve read so far:

Soldier’s Pay (1926)
Surprisingly good first novel about a soldier returning home from the war with various physical and mental damage. A lot of what we expect from Faulkner is already here: elegant prose (that here sometimes gets away from the first-time novelist), stream of consciousness (very light touches here), and family drama.

Something apparent here is also that Faulkner’s women are much more interesting and developed than Hemingway’s early women characters.

New Orleans Sketches (written and published in newspaper 1925; collected in 1958)
A friend of mine who had already made a chronological run on Faulkner suggested we read this collection of early work written at the same time as Soldier’s Pay. Good call. Every story involves Faulkner attempting to write from the perspective or mind of a different character living in New Orleans. None of these stuck in my mind like say “Barn Burning,” but one does get to see a young Faulkner invested in what will become the shorthand for his style later on.

Mosquitoes (1927)
A novel satirizing various aspects of the artist’s life. It’s obvious what he’s going for in this novel, especially if you’ve spent time with artists, as an artist, or with the people who hang around and say they want to be artists.

Maybe not as painful as Hemingway’s Torrents of Spring, still, I couldn’t finish this one. Too close to home at times.

Sartoris (1929)
The first novel to take place in Yoknapatawpha County and to feature the Snopes and Sartoris families. Young Bayard comes home from World War I damaged and addicted to speed (driving fast) in various forms. This is likely due to him seeing his brother, a pilot in the war, get shot down. The family history goes back to the Civil War and we see some interesting analogues among the soldiers of these wars. Like Faulkner and Tennessee Williams seem so often invested in, we get the chronicle of a decaying family.

The speed/crashing motif could probably extend to the family or the cultural milieu. On my initial reading I would also say that this book isn’t as clearly realized as Soldier’s Pay. There are more moments when the prose just gets away from Faulkner and the descriptions don’t hold up or are just too much. It’s a slow cooker at first, but gets better as the book proceeds.

The Sound and the Fury (1929)
This was my second time reading the novel so I decided to read the chapters in chronological order rather than the published arrangement. I know I’m not supposed to like him necessarily, but I enjoyed Jason Compson this time around. He’s cruel and funny, which are characteristics I often enjoy in Faulkner’s works.

As I Lay Dying (1930)
I’ve always read this as a sardonic mock epic and it makes me cackle with joy. My students seem horrified when I break out into laughter, but I can’t help it. I love this book. Fifteen narrators. Stream of consciousness. Deathbed requests. New teeth.

Next for me is Sanctuary (1931) which was actually the first Faulkner novel I read close to two decades ago.

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