06 June 2005

An interesting proposition

Jesse Kornbluth at HeadButler thinks Oprah could've done better by Faulkner:
Late last week, Oprah's Book Club chose three novels by William Faulkner for the summer months: "As I Lay Dying," "The Sound and the Fury" and "Light in August."

These are great novels. I know. I haven't just read them, I've studied them. All of them --- at Harvard, my English tutorial one term was nothing but Faulkner. With a bourbon in one hand and a pencil in another, I spent the weeknights of several months plowing through a dozen Faulkner novels and a ream of Faulkner criticism. And while I am the better person for the experience --- and a lifelong admirer of Faulkner's achievement --- what I mostly remember is what a tough slog it was. What work it was. How certain I was that I'd never want to read most of these novels --- these great American classics --- ever again.

When Oprah speaks, America listens, so the three-volume set of the novels Oprah picked -- 1,152 pages of Faulkner, a bargain on Amazon.com at $17.97 --- has leapt to #2 on the Amazon bestseller list. That means houses across the country which only have "The Da Vinci Code" and "Tuesdays with Morrie" on their bookshelves will now greet books by a novelist who would have been lionized by the symbolist writers of 19th century France. That's thrilling.

But I have no illusions about this summer reading project --- I'll be stunned if 10% of Oprah's devotees reach page 100 of any of these novels.

The tragedy in Oprah's summer reading list? There are three books by Faulkner much better suited to her purposes. She just picked the wrong Faulkner.

The right Faulkner for Oprah fans? Three novels that Faulkner conceived as a trilogy: "The Hamlet," "The Town" and "The Mansion." Compared to other Faulkner novels, these 1,088 pages ($17.61 at Amazon.com) read like pulp fiction --- the plot is lurid, the motivations of the characters couldn't be more contemporary, and the style breaks no new ground. [...]

"The Hamlet" is the story of Flem Snopes, all grown up and just about as unethical as his father, and of Flem's effect on the small, unsuspecting village of Frenchman's Bend. Flem's impotent --- but only below the belt. He doesn't plan to die a lowly worker. So when he discovers that Will Varner's daughter Eula is pregnant without a husband, he steps forward and offers to help Will out. That makes Flem the son-in-law of one of the town's leading landowners --- and neatly positioned to start taking over the hamlet. (This book was adapted into a film called "The Long Hot Summer," starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles, Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury.)

Eula is a sensual woman, with a body that turns any man's thoughts to just one thing. In "The Town," Flem seems not to notice. He's too busy getting promoted --- first to chief of the power plant, then to vice president of the bank. Can the presidency of the bank be denied him? And, along the way, can he get his revenge on the man who's been having an eighteen-year affair with Eula?

In the final volume, justice finally comes Flem's way. But not before Frenchman's Bend has been transformed --- eaten alive, really --- by the kind of man never before seen in these parts. That is because Flem represents the unethical, unrestrained capitalism that only could flourish in the South after the Civil War had stripped it of its codes of honor. Flem has only one goal and one emotion --- power, and the love of it. In our time, we know this kind of man well. And, as often as not, we live in "communities" where people used to be like family to their neighbors and now barely recognize them to wave.

Rapacious capitalism. The loss of our sense of "home." Men who use women to advance their master plans. These are themes that the women in Oprah's nationwide book club could really get into.

Or they could do --- could try to do, anyway --- the reading Oprah's assigned them.

Good luck, ladies. "As I Lay Dying" has multiple narrators who favor the stream-of-conscious style. The first section of "The Sound and the Fury" is narrated by an idiot who slips in and out of the present with only italics to guide you. "Light in August" is a comparatively straightforward "traditional" novel, but it's 528 pages.

It's too bad. William Faulkner is probably the greatest literary novelist our country ever produced. The way into his writing is through books that are pleasurable --- great stories, unforgettable characters. For me, those books are "The Hamlet," "The Mansion" and "The Town." Maybe after Oprah's fans have struck out with the brainbusters, they'll give these books a chance.
Hm. He may be on to something. I haven't read these three, although I have a lot of love for ones she picked. Although they are complicated, innovative, rich novels, I didn't find them incomprehensible. And I would reread them again in a heartbeat.

But then again, I was a lit major. What do I know?

UPDATE: Kornbluth experienced some backlash for the above and gave additional thoughts yesterday.


Anne said...

I think Kornbluth has a common disease of smart people: overestimating the difference between his intelligence and that of others. He may well have good ideas for revising Oprah's selections--I suspect he does; I certainly have had my share of experiences failing to read Faulkner. But, I am a Woolf scholar and I have great respect for and awareness of her difficulty. At the same time, I have met many, many people with little formal education who have read and loved Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse and The Waves. The books moved them deeply. I suspect that Faulkner may be able to do the same thing. It's worth a try. And the experience of reading something, finding it hard, and casting it aside isn't, after all, a damaging one. It's an interesting one. (Charles Darwin, apparently, kept a reading notebook which included lists of what he failed to finish reading.)

amcorrea said...

I agree, Anne. I'm sure there will be many who are turned off by the difficulty of the books, but there's bound to be some determined to follow through. (And you're right--even for those that don't--it's good experience.)

Another thing is that I don't just read books for "great stories, unforgettable characters." We can get stories through all kinds of outlets these days. What makes books special? Language.

To me, The Sound and the Fury is almost like a mystery in that you're piecing together the views and memories of various characters to figure out what's going on. The tension that runs through As I Lay Dying is partly a result of this too. These books are fascinating and, ultimately, rewarding reading experiences because there is a method to Faulkner's "madness." Once you begin to follow the individual trains of thought, the process of discovery is revelatory.

Oh yeah, and the stories are deeply moving as well.

P.S. I love those Woolf novels too--especially The Waves.