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Classic Excess

On the Centennial of William Faulkner's Birth, Fans Celebrate His Long Elaborate Intricately Twined Prose and Its Secrets of the South

September 24, 1997|ELEANOR RANDOLPH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Miss. — Somewhere under the half-drunk whiskey bottles that fans perpetually leave on his grave, William "Bro Will" Faulkner must be smiling mischievously.

Here we are in the bumper-sticker age, the era of micro-mini-attention spans and sound bites and instant information overload.

And yet on Thursday, for the centennial of Faulkner's birth, thousands of loyal fans are gathering in Paris, Moscow, Beijing, New Orleans and here in northern Mississippi to pay homage to a man whose opaque prose won the Nobel Prize for literature almost half a century ago.

Writers, scholars and readers around the world will be honoring a man whose works are known for their tantalizing lack of clarity and wicked celebration of grammatical excess. The opening sentence of Faulkner's 1936 masterpiece "Absalom, Absalom!" for example, has 123 words. The same sentence features one noun that carries six--count them, six--adjectives, as in the "long still hot weary dead September afternoon."

"Faulkner believed the best way to get to the essence was to tell it all," historian Shelby Foote said recently about his friend and fellow Southerner.

While others admire Hemingway and E.B. White for their bone-clean prose, Faulkner apparently believed--like one of his minor characters--that "you can't tell the truth about a man unless you get it complicated up."

Thus, to those modern readers who avoid Faulkner because he is too complicated, Foote added, "That's also a very good reason for not reading Shakespeare."

For a Faulknerian or an educated Southerner, the comparison is not such a stretch. At a recent gathering of Faulkner scholars and readers in Oxford, Faulkner was variously described as the best Southern novelist, "probably" the best American novelist of the 20th century, one of America's best novelists or one of the world's great writers in the English language.

At a Faulkner festival in France, an impressive array of American writers is scheduled to pay respects today and talk about how Faulkner affected their lives and their writing. Among them are Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, William Styron, Barry Hannah and Alice Walker.

A four-day Faulknerathon in steamy New Orleans this weekend will star Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Odetta (who played a role in the film version of "Sanctuary"), Faulkner companion Joan Williams, author and filmmaker Ron Shelton, Foote and more than 90 writers who credit some part of their craft to the Mississippi master.

"In some ways, Faulkner is just a very large cult figure," says Hannah, a short-story writer who also teaches at Ole Miss in Oxford.

Adds W. Kenneth Holditch, professor emeritus of English at the University of New Orleans and a lifelong expert on Faulkner: "I think it's amazing that he has survived the ravages of idiotic criticism. I'm not talking about good, honest criticism. I'm talking about these crazy theories that deconstruct it and pull it apart. . . . But he's survived that, and Hemingway has not."

Indeed, 25 years after his death, Faulkner is Random House's No. 1 academic author--in part because he wrote so many novels and short stories that have remained classics. Titles like "As I Lay Dying" (1930), "The Sound and the Fury" (1929), "Light in August" (1932) and others have sold more than 7.6 million paperbacks since the 1950s. Even his six books in hardback sell a steady 30,000 a year.

Still, that is not a blockbuster sales level, Random House sales director Bridget Marmion acknowledges. What would it take to bring Faulkner up to the level of a hit classic--say like a Jane Austin? "When Merchant-Ivory does the movie," Marmion says, "or a really good biography comes out or something scandalous comes out."

Something else scandalous? About William Faulkner?

*

In the lush hill country around Oxford where Faulkner lived and wrote, there would not seem to be any Faulkner scandals left. Even now, the mists have lifted on many of the town's terrible old secrets, the whispers about reckless passions and human weakness that Bro Will turned into classic literature. Still, for most tourists, Oxford is so heavy with Faulkner ghosts that Cynthia Shearer, curator of Faulkner's antebellum home, Rowan Oak, tries to explain to visitors that the residents of Oxford are not too different from ordinary Southerners or even from ordinary Americans.

"I don't want people to come here and think we're all characters in one of his novels," she said with a laugh one airless July afternoon as she took outsiders on a literary tour of the town.

But people do come to Oxford as though they are returning to a place they have known for years. Faulkner made things personal, as though he opened a back door and let you inside to see things that most people hide from the neighbors. Some people whisper the whole time they walk through Faulkner's house or circle the town square.

"The Russians, lordy," Shearer said. "The Russians come here and they just cry and cry and cry."

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