Monday, November 08, 2004

New Biography of Faulkner--RLB

Christopher Benfey reviews Jay Parini's new biography of Faulkner in The New Republic. The biography is called One Matchless Time: The Life and Work of William Faulkner.

The review -- like most good Reviews of Literary Biographies (RLBs) -- is worth reading partly because of how much it has to say about its twice-deferred subject, William Faulkner. Though I usually rush to read these in the newspaper, and in magazines like The New Yorker, they are in some small sense counter-productive. I read the review, think "Oh, now I know 4 things about Faulkner I didn't know before," and am, strangely, less inclined to actually buy the book.

I do end up buying the biographies anyway, but later, and sometimes used. They are in the category of "invaluable reference," not so much "must get right away."

Tidbits about Faulkner from the Benfey review:
1. He worked in a post-office for three years, before being fired (so the story goes) for reading other people's magazines. And for being an all-around slacker.
2. He sort of pretended to have fought in the First World War for a few years. He volunteered, but was turned down for being too short.
3. He may have fathered a mulatto child, and certainly had, once he had achieved some success, a plantation in Mississippi with black servants who were not paid in money.
4. He wrote nearly all of his great works between 1928 and 1942:

And then, like some act of God along the Mississippi, the floodgates of genius burst. Between 1928 and 1942--the period Faulkner called "one matchless time"--he wrote a stunning succession of masterpieces, almost one a year: The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), and Light in August (1932). Then came a fallow interlude of a couple of years, during which he bought an airplane and finally learned to fly, wasted some time working for good pay in Hollywood on mediocre film scripts, and wasted more time on an affair with the secretary of his sometime boss Howard Hawks. (Parini pardons the affair, the first of several, on the grounds that Estelle, who had lost one daughter in infancy and gave birth to another, Jill, in 1933, refused to have sex with her husband thereafter.) Faulkner then resumed the scarcely credible run of invention with Pylon (1935), his underrated novel about barnstorming pilots aloft and in love; Absalom, Absalom! (1936); The Wild Palms (1939); The Hamlet (1940); and Go Down, Moses (1942), in addition to assorted short stories, essays, and oddities in between.

Read the whole review.

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