Faulkner's Life

New biography resolves some puzzles and contradictions. BOOKS

WILLIAM FAULKNER: AMERICAN WRITER by Frederick R. Karl, New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson,

1,131 pp., illustrated, $37.50

SOMETHING about William Faulkner seems to inspire prolixity. Perhaps it's the example of Faulkner's own style: ornate, meandering, compulsively repetitive; diction that, far from relying on le mot juste, spins out a series of synonyms for the reader to fine-tune; sentences that wind on for pages; narratives that circle back on the same never-quite-articulated events. As Frederick Karl - a professor at New York University, author of critical studies of modern fiction and biographer of Joseph Conrad - explains in his searching, yet sympathetic study of Faulkner's life and work, ``Faulkner does not merely relate, he repeats.''

The sheer length of Karl's biography - somewhere in the neighborhood of Tolstoy's ``War and Peace'' - would doubtless provoke a critical outcry of dismay, admiration, or both, were it not for the pre-existence of Joseph Blotner's nearly twice as long, two-volume life, which was indeed taken to task by some critics for swamping the reader in an infinitude of factual detail. But professor Blotner performed a great service - if not to the average reader, then certainly to Faulknerians like professor Karl (who acknowledges his debt).

Where Blotner took on the primary labor of unearthing and assembling the data, Karl has fashioned the material into a coherent, analytical, and sustained account of Faulkner's life and work. And considering how much he tackles and the complexity of the subject, it is no wonder that his book should be a long one. Not only does Karl spend a great deal of time examining Faulkner's literary oeuvre (making this a full-scale work of literary criticism as well as a biography), but he also scrutinizes, explains, and theorizes about the puzzles and seeming contradictions of Faulkner's life.

Karl gives us Faulkner the ``imposter,'' a man who at various stages of his life claimed to have seen action in France in World War I (he did not); to have attended Yale (he had a job in New Haven); to be British (he was, of course, a native son of Mississippi). Karl neatly (perhaps too neatly) links Faulkner's tendency to embroider his personal history with his literary technique of telling and retelling a story, glossing over the inconsistencies between one version and the next.

Although Faulkner's imagination was nourished by the South, his imagined Yoknapatawpha County is hardly a piece of nostalgic romanticization, but a raw, violent, muddy land with a frontier-style history of feuds, fraud, murder, incest, and miscegnation. Karl offers a thoughtful and deeply interesting discussion of how Faulkner retained - and resisted - the values of his native region. He also probes Faulkner's position on racial issues: ``dangerously'' moderate by hard-line Dixie standards, but disappointingly paternalistic by the standard of racial equality.

Considering the multitude of topics it covers: literary influences, family history, Faulkner's relations with editors, his work in the film industry, his troubled marriage, his affairs with younger women, his drinking, his silences, his obsession with ``masculine'' pursuits like hunting, horsemanship, and airplanes, this biography does a remarkably good job of providing the reader with a sense of perspective amid the welter of details. Wisely, Karl chooses to begin, not with an account of Faulkner's ancestors or his boyhood (these come slightly later), but with a look at the 33-year-old Faulkner in the pivotal year of 1929, when he was just starting out what already promised to be a difficult married life with the woman who had once rejected him to marry another man.

With the publication of his first great success, ``The Sound and the Fury,'' just behind him, Faulkner was simultaneously embarking on two very different, yet equally daunting endeavors: his new novel, ``As I Lay Dying,'' and a 12-hour nightshift job shoveling coal and tending furnaces at the University of Mississippi power plant. As Karl portrays him, William Faulkner was a man who thrived on difficult situations and who often sought them out deliberately.

And surely, the fascination of what's difficult (as Yeats called it) has much to do with the status of Faulkner's reputation. The complex, off-putting surfaces of his works challenge readers - and provide grist for the mills of academic interpreters. (Sometimes Professor Karl's renditions of his plots read rather better than the novels themselves.)

Faulkner's plots are murky, sensationalistic, and weakly executed. Vital information is withheld in the manner of a mystery novel but without the skillful maintenance of suspense. There are few memorable characters: Who could tell Temple Drake from Caddy Compson, if both showed up at the same barbecue?

Faulkner's ardent admirers, from Professor Karl to Hugh Kenner, readily concede his faults and make them out to be Modernist virtues. Certainly, his courage in exploring dark themes and experimental literary techniques assures his place in literary history. But when one considers the intricate orderliness of Mann's novels, the brilliance of Joyce's word-play, and the strength of characters like Leopold Bloom and Adrian Leverkuhn, and compares all this with Faulkner's chaotic narratives, frequent overwriting, and fragmentary human presences, one suspects that it is chiefly an excess of American cultural chauvinism that inspires Faulknerians to place their idol in the company of Mann and Joyce.

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