Faulkner Befouled : WILLIAM FAULKNER American Writer <i> by Frederick R. Karl (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $37.50; 1,131 pp., illustrated; 1-55584-088-4) </i>
He was known in Oxford, Miss. as “Count No Count,” the town bum. He was a scruffy young man in a ragged jacket who drank most of the night and hung around the golf course most of the day. He did some house painting, some gambling, some wheeling and dealing, but most of his income came from handouts from friends and his mother. He was a slight man--only 5 feet, 5 inches tall--with a bad back. He walked with a limp, and sometimes carried a cane. He was subject to hiccup fits that lasted for days, talked in an unintelligible mumble, drove around in an old car he’d painted white, and had disastrous luck with women. One ex-girl-friend described him as “a fuzzy little animal”; everyone in town, she said, knew he was nothing but a “screwball.”
This screwball was William Faulkner in 1920, or rather, it was one side of William Faulkner in 1920, for Faulkner was never exactly who he appeared to be to any one person at any one time. He was always playing a role. Toward the end of their long and disastrous marriage, his wife Estelle decided that there were “two Bills. He is so definitely dual . . . Perhaps artists must needs be.”
Frederick R. Karl, in this new and rather nasty biography, contends there were more than merely “two Bills”; simple duality was a piece of cake for someone as complex as Faulkner. “America’s greatest novelist of the twentieth century,” was also, Karl argues, one of America’s greatest con men. He was a parasite, a poseur, and a prevaricator; he “desperately wanted to be a great writer, but he wanted just as desperately to be an epic hero.” To this end he invented a glamorous history for himself as a war hero, threw himself into “male activities” such as hunting, flying, and horsemanship, played at town tramp as, later, he would play at Lord of the Manor.
“All writers hide,” Karl assures us, “but Faulkner hid more. All writers play roles, but Faulkner played a great variety of them.”
Some of the “roles” Faulkner played were thrust upon him; some he assumed. He came from an alcoholic and violent family; his great-grandfather was murdered, and both his grandfather and father were wounded by gunmen. As the oldest of four boys, Faulkner had an idyllic childhood, free to wander in the woods on his Shetland pony until age 8, when he started school. (He never did think much of formal education, and dropped out in the 10th grade.) He went to Canada and joined the RAF in 1918, but World War I was almost over and he soon returned to Oxford, where he was given a job at the post office. He was a Boy Scout leader for a short time (he was eventually fired for drinking) and began to attend a few classes at the university.
He met other writers, among them Sherwood Anderson, who encouraged and influenced him. His first novel, “Soldier’s Pay,” was published in 1925, followed by “Mosquitos,” “Sartoris,” “The Sound and the Fury,” “Sanctuary,” “As I Lay Dying,” and “Light in August.” During this time Faulkner was also writing short stories for magazines in New York and screenplays for Howard Hawks in Hollywood. He married his childhood sweetheart in 1929 and spent the last half of his life (he died in 1962 at age 65) in a flurry of accomplishment and honors; he received the National Book Award twice, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and acted as good will ambassador to Japan and Greece. It was not all glory; there were personal problems and money problems and drinking problems and problems of the heart. Whether all these problems were calculated crises that Faulkner handled through “roles” and “poses” remains, however, one of the major problems of Karl’s book.
There are others. Karl’s biography, which runs, 1,131 pages and weighs almost 2 1/2 pounds, is burdened with bad writing, pop psychology, glib literary criticism, unsubstantiated “scholarship” and a humorless moral outrage that rarely flags. His attitude toward his subject soon becomes the real subject of “William Faulkner: American Writer,” and his attitude is, in a word, negative. Karl doesn’t like Faulkner, in any of his roles. He doesn’t like his looks (we are told repeatedly that Faulkner was small, slight, effeminate and characterless with “a large beaklike nose” that, Karl marvels, remained “a distinctive feature . . . until his death”). Faulkner’s writing is described as “an obsessional need to put words on paper” and we are warned that during his whole life, “Faulkner pecked away at his typewriter, “spewing short stories as if programmed,” like “an engine chugging along.” Faulkner’s ability to support an enormous extended family is seen “a form of control,” his purchase of a house and land is seen as a need for “identification,” his patience and endurance are a response to “self-pity.” Telling us that Faulkner showered before making love and sneezed into a handkerchief, Karl concludes the writer had an “uneasiness about his . . . bodily functions, perhaps a corollary of the early years when he was rejected by women and began to form a poor image of himself as a man.” We are told Faulkner was a lousy pilot, a rotten horseman, and in serious need of psychiatric care, “especially in his relationship with his mother. That area,” Karl broods, “was ripe for picking, although in precisely what ways we can only speculate.”
About the only area where Karl is willing to let Faulkner off the hook is, oddly, in the area of his drinking. He seems to forgive the drinking as “part of some grand mystery” that enabled Faulkner to continue his work: It “may have been suicidal for the man, but it was joy and delight for the writer.”
Karl’s earnest, sullen, heavy-footed approach has worked well for him in the past--his biography of Joseph Conrad is, to some anyway, a classic. But Faulkner is too slippery for him. The only bright bits in the book come from Faulkner’s own direct quotes, and the only truly interesting thread through the narrative is Faulkner’s quiet growth as a writer. Underneath all the bluff about male bonding and anal control, a picture emerges of a solitary man rising at 4 in the morning to face a typewriter, day after day, and this man is no “screwball,” no “bum,” no “Freudian case,” nor even a Nobel Prize winner; this man is just William Faulkner, and he is infinitely, triumphantly, mysterious.