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Best William Faulkner Books

recommended by Ahmed Honeini

William Faulkner and Mortality: A Fine Dead Sound by Ahmed Honeini

William Faulkner and Mortality: A Fine Dead Sound
by Ahmed Honeini

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Where to start with the novels of the American writer William Faulkner, chronicler of the Old South and winner of the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature? Here, Faulkner scholar Ahmed Honeini of Royal Holloway, University of London, recommends the best books by and about the man who tried to capture "the agony and sweat of the human spirit".

Interview by Francesca Mancino

William Faulkner and Mortality: A Fine Dead Sound by Ahmed Honeini

William Faulkner and Mortality: A Fine Dead Sound
by Ahmed Honeini

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Who was William Faulkner, and why is it important to read his books today?

William Faulkner was an author from Mississippi born in 1897, and he became one of the towering figures of twentieth century literature, alongside figures such as Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. He authored 19 novels, including The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and Light in August, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 (you can read his acceptance speech here).

Faulkner’s novels are, with a few exceptions, set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictionalized version of Lafayette County, Mississippi. With Yoknapatawpha, Faulkner wanted to create what he called his “little postage stamp of native soil” where he could tell the stories of a fictional series of families—the Sartorises, the Compsons, the Snopes, to name only three of many examples—and their struggle to negotiate the Old South’s often agonistic transition to modernity.

The Old South is inextricably connected to Faulkner and his work. Can you touch on the presence of the Old South in his fiction, along with the relationship between historical geography and Faulkner’s own conceptualization of the South?

Faulkner felt a profound ambivalence towards the idea of the Old South, I think. On the one hand, works like “A Rose for Emily” or Absalom, Absalom! are useful for readers looking for explicit critiques of the notion of the Old South and all that the antebellum aristocracy stood for, especially slavery and the subjugation of women. On the other hand, you have a novel like The Unvanquished, which takes place in the last days of the Civil War, and has always struck me as being an overt defense, if ultimately a lamentation, of the Old South and its losses during the War.

“Difficulty is part of his authorial aesthetic—he wants you to work at understanding his novels”

More pointedly, in his 1933 introduction to The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner declares that “the South…is dead, killed by the Civil War. There is a thing known whimsically as the New South to be sure, but it is not the south.” So, there is a tension between Faulkner recognizing what scholars have termed the ‘sins’ of southern history while also, like southern poets and artists such as Allan Tate or Robert Penn Warren, feeling a need to defend the South. That defense of the South and of Mississippi specifically can, of course, be found in the Yoknapatawpha fiction, his aforementioned postage stamp; like Joyce’s Dublin, Faulkner takes a geographical space and historical moment that is profoundly personal to him and makes that space and time universal, putting what he calls “the agony and sweat of the human spirit” into terms we can all understand.

Well said, and that’s a fascinating connection you make between Faulkner and Joyce. Now, your first pick is As I Lay Dying, Faulkner’s fifth novel. For those who haven’t read it, perhaps first tell us, broadly, what it’s about.

I chose As I Lay Dying because the story it tells is so entertaining and intriguing. To put it briefly, the novel depicts the struggles of the Bundrens, a poor farming family who have to go on a trip from the rural South to the cosmopolitan town of Jefferson in order to bury their mother, Addie. The novel is told through a chorus of fifteen narrative voices, including each of the Bundrens, their friends, neighbors, and the people they encounter on their trip.

Faulkner does a splendid job in crafting these distinct narrative voices and perspectives. You have that tension between the older brothers Darl and Jewel Bundren, both of whom love their mother Addie, but communicate that love in profoundly contrasting ways, while also having the voices of a wider southern society being the voice of the reader and making clear just how outrageous the burial journey is. It’s a book that grabs you by the throat and refuses to let you go. By the time you get to the final sentence of the novel, one of the cruelest, most devastating punchlines in all literature, you get the sense that Faulkner achieved what he set out to accomplish with this book—a tour de force.

Let’s take As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s fourth novel, as two, separate tours de force. Though both hold stream-of-consciousness narrations and were published back-to-back, As I Lay Dying is regarded as ‘easier’ to read. Did its accessibility play a role in why you placed it as your first pick?

Almost all readers of Faulkner agree that he is a notoriously difficult writer, but I’ve always felt that he is a purposefully difficult writer, too. Difficulty is part of his authorial aesthetic—he wants you to work at understanding his novels, just like James Joyce wanted you to work at understanding Ulysses or just like T. S. Eliot wanted you to follow up on all the literary allusions and references he makes in The Waste Land. As I Lay Dying mitigates that difficulty because of the novel’s clear narrative through-line: the Bundrens need to get their mother’s coffin from their farm to her burial plot in Jefferson, Mississippi, and this is how they go about doing it. As I Lay Dying affords the reader, especially a first-time reader of Faulkner, more breathing space than a lot of Faulkner’s works do, and that is why I feel it is a perfect place to start with him.

Also, because of the fifteen narrative voices, if you’re struggling to understand characters such as Darl, Vardaman, or even Addie, you can pick up key narrative information and subtext from, for instance, Cash, Cora, or Anse.

What was your first experience like when approaching Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness writing style, and do you have any advice to readers who may be daunted by it?

The first Faulkner novel I read was The Sound and the Fury, which in many ways is the best and worst introduction to his work that I could have had! The novel tells the story of the fall of the Compsons, a family of old aristocratic Southern stock, who struggle to face the demands of modernity (which, as I mentioned earlier, is a core component of Faulkner’s fiction). The novel is told across four sections from the unique perspectives of three brothers (Benjy, Quentin, and Jason Compson) and a fourth omniscient narrative voice. The Benjy and Quentin sections embody so many of the qualities that make Faulkner such a difficult writer. But, when I began the novel, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I kept seeing this name, Caddy, on virtually every page but couldn’t understand who this person was. Why were they so important? Why should I be working so hard to understand what happened to them? Then, when I got to Jason’s section, whose voice is like a crude and cruel jackhammer that makes everything I read in the previous two sections completely clear, that was a revelation to me – the novel is about their sister Caddy, even though we never hear her voice. So, in the space of my first reading, I went from profound confusion to (relative!) clarity.

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As for advice to first-time readers of Faulkner, and particularly The Sound and the Fury: Faulkner was aware of how difficult his works could be, saying to Jean Stein in his Paris Review interview with her that one should read each of his novels four times to understand them. Faulkner was, obviously, being playful and humorous here, but there is an element of truth in his advice – works like The Sound and the Fury demand a second reading, especially so you can see how Faulkner pulls off the story of the fall of the Compsons. Imagine Faulkner as a magician: the first time you see him perform, you have no idea how he managed to pull one over on you. When you revisit his work, and you can see how he lures you in, your admiration for him does not diminish. In fact, for many of his readers, the second and subsequent readings of his works are much more rewarding, because you’re not preoccupied with uncovering or deciphering the meaning behind his work – you know what he is up to, so you can savor the profundity of his content and the gorgeousness of his prose, instead of being preoccupied with the technique.

Your second selection, Sanctuary, couldn’t differ more from As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. It was Faulkner’s only bestselling book during his lifetime, yet wasn’t it referred to as a ‘potboiler’ because of its risqué subject matter?

Yes, and, I must admit, I hated Sanctuary for a long time and only recently changed my mind. Sanctuary tells an extremely disturbing story: a young woman, Temple Drake, is held captive by a gang of bootleggers in an abandoned house known as ‘the Old Frenchman place’. The novel outlines Temple’s often futile attempts to escape the gang and find the elusive sanctuary Faulkner conjures up in the title. The reason why I’ve long been so ambivalent towards Sanctuary is because Faulkner was deliberately cruel in his depiction of Temple and, in my opinion, was too insistent upon shocking his reader; the novel has an infamous moment (which I won’t describe here) that led to Faulkner being nicknamed “the corncob man.”

“Imagine Faulkner as a magician”

I thought Sanctuary lacked the delicacy of more mature works like The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom! and I was baffled as to why he decided to write such a monstrous work. Recently, though, I’ve taken a different view. First, my opinion of Temple has completely changed. I was blinded by the cruelty she was subjected to in my first reading, but I overlooked the fact that she tries repeatedly to overcome and resist the abuse she suffers at the gang’s hands. Then, I was struck by how Temple seems to predict characters like Dolores Haze in Nabokov’s Lolita, a character who, like Temple, has been much maligned and misunderstood by her critics as being a willing participant in the abuse she suffers. In Sanctuary, Faulkner paved the way for authors like Nabokov to show us that, actually, characters like Temple and Dolores are resistant, they are not femme fatales that lead innocent men to their doom; they are actually icons in the fight against misogyny and patriarchal oppression.

Lastly, I was astounded by the ways in which Sanctuary predates and predicts so many of the core tropes that were developed in the horror film genre: the spooky old house, the mysterious, predatory murderer, the resilient final girl. Yes, Sanctuary might outwardly appear pulp-ish and a potboiler, but there is so much more going on in the novel apart from that.

There were Hollywood adaptations of Sanctuary, such as The Case of Temple Drake. Faulkner even dabbled in the Hollywood scene as a screenwriter, working on Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Can you discuss his time in Hollywood?

Faulkner resented having to work in Hollywood, but with a family to support, he didn’t have much choice in the matter. The fact is that he made much more money as a screenwriter than as a novelist; nearly all of his books, prior to the publication of The Portable Faulkner, did not sell well and so he had to compromise by working as a screenwriter. Most of his contributions went uncredited, such as Mildred Pierce, but recent work by scholars such as Peter Lurie, Stefan Solomon, Sarah Gleeson-White, and Ben Robbins has been instrumental in uncovering the influence of Hollywood on his life and work. Plus, The Big Sleep is one of my favorite films, so when Faulkner was credited for his screenwriting work, he left a big impression!

Let’s continue with The Portable Faulkner edited by Malcolm Cowley, which is your next choice. This selection is noted for reviving Faulkner’s work, which descended in popularity after Sanctuary. What selections are found in this text, and can you explain their significance?

The Portable Faulkner is composed mainly of extracts from Absalom, Absalom!, The Unvanquished, The Hamlet, The Sound and the Fury, The Wild Palms, Sanctuary, and Light in August – so, most of Faulkner’s major works prior to 1946 (the year the Portable was published) are represented here. There are also a handful of short stories, including “The Bear,” “A Rose for Emily,” and “Wash,” and, most significantly, the “Appendix Compson: 1699-1945” along with Malcolm Cowley’s extended introduction to Faulkner’s legend, in his terms.

Cowley’s introduction essentially outlined what so many literary critics at the time had missed—that Faulkner was a major talent, a writer of genius whose Yoknapatawpha fiction was as major an intervention in modern literature as Joyce’s Dublin or Hardy’s Wessex. The “Appendix Compson” was, in theory, intended to explain The Sound and the Fury and settle the aforementioned concerns with the novel’s difficulty and impenetrability once and for all. While critics have debated whether Faulkner achieved what he set out to do with the “Appendix,” the fact remains that its inclusion in The Portable Faulkner afforded readers a first glimpse into Faulkner’s methods as an author.

To get more than a first glimpse into Faulkner’s life and writing style, your next recommendation is Joseph Blotner’s Faulkner: A Biography. Of all the Faulkner biographies published, what is it about Blotner’s that appeals to you?

Frankly, Blotner’s biography is the original and, in my view, the best. There have been astounding contributions to biographical studies of Faulkner, including those by Frederick R. Karl, Robert W. Hamblin, and Carl Rollyson, to name only a few. However, Blotner’s account set a benchmark, a gold standard, for all the biographers who followed in his wake.

Though Cowley and Faulkner never met in person, Blotner and Faulkner did. Can you speak to how this played into the writing of Faulkner: A Biography, if at all?

The case can be made that, because of Blotner and Faulkner’s relationship, Blotner was not the best or most objective choice of a biographer for Faulkner. After all, on his deathbed, Faulkner describes Blotner as his “spiritual son.” Yet, despite their closeness, Blotner tells many uncomfortable truths about Faulkner in his biography. For me, the moment that most stands out is his account of Faulkner’s reaction to the suicide of Ernest Hemingway in 1961. Blotner reveals that Faulkner explicitly condemned Hemingway’s suicide, declaring that “‘It’s bad when a man does something like that. It’s like saying death is better than living with my wife.’…The next time Red Hanbury saw Faulkner the reaction had crystallized further. ‘I don’t like a man that takes the short way home,’ he said.” Faulkner’s reaction has always astounded and troubled me, but, if not for Blotner, his unflattering response may have been lost to history. So, Blotner’s work is an indispensable tool when trying to come to grips with Faulkner’s complexities and flaws—both as a man and as an author.

Your final pick is André Bleikasten’s The Ink of Melancholy: Faulkner’s Novels from The Sound and the Fury to Light in August. This study continues to rise in popularity in Faulkner studies. What differentiates it from other critics commonly connected to Faulkner’s work, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Cleanth Brooks, and Michael Millgate?

For me, the richness of Bleikasten’s prose and the depth and insight of his analysis is what sets him apart from Sartre, Brooks, and Millgate. To quote Arnold Bennett on Faulkner, Bleikasten “writes like an angel.” The lucidity of his critical methodology makes The Ink of Melancholy not only a masterpiece of Faulkner scholarship, but a self-contained artwork in its own right.

“Faulkner resented having to work in Hollywood”

I want to offer you Bleikasten’s exquisitely phrased, poignant summation of Darl’s laughter in As I Lay Dying: “Darl cannot know what he is laughing about because he is laughing at nothing in particular. And hence at everything. At the nothingness of it all. His is pure laughter, boundless, devastating, tragic laughter.” It’s gorgeous.

Like Bleikasten, you bring a fresh approach to Faulkner studies in your own critical work, William Faulkner and Mortality: A Fine Dead Sound, published in July 2021. It’s said that you are adding an alternative voice to a conversation 21st century scholars have long neglected.

I certainly hope so, and thank you for mentioning my work! The alternative perspective my book offers is in its argument that, although Faulkner aimed for—and, in my opinion, achieved—immortality through his writing, “saying No to death”, there are numerous characters in his novels and short stories—Quentin Compson, Addie Bundren, and Emily Grierson to name only a few—who are fixated on saying Yes to death. William Faulkner and Mortality is the first book to look at the importance of death in Faulkner’s work from this perspective, and I must say I had a marvelous time writing the book.

You refer to this as Faulkner’s “aesthetic of mortality.” Can you elaborate on death as an aesthetic, along with its prevalence in Faulkner’s corpus?

Two of Faulkner’s most significant literary influences were William Shakespeare and John Keats. They, like Faulkner, promulgated a desire to achieve immortality through their work; Shakespeare’s sonnets and Keats’s odes make clear humanity’s need to “make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time” (Sonnet 16, l. 2). Yet, so many of Faulkner’s characters attempt to respond to and negotiate the traumas within their lives and the ambivalences which death creates, before ultimately saying Yes to death—the aesthetic of mortality I refer to in my introduction.

“Saying Yes to death” enables these characters to tell their stories, and they are also relieved from the pain and suffering they experience living in these dehumanising social positions. The book’s overarching argument is a challenge to scholars like Robert W. Hamblin, who in the past has argued that “Faulkner’s heroes are more often than not those individuals who, like the artist, say No to death, who choose life even when that choice entails a considerable amount of anxiety, guilt, or pain.”

Given that Faulkner was writing not too long after the Civil War, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to wonder if this aesthetic is at all related to it. With many of his novels taking place in Yoknapatawpha, do we see Faulkner struggle with race or the aftermath of the Civil War in his own writing?

Yes, we certainly do, and I believe that Faulkner wrote his novels, in part, as a way of trying to negotiate those struggles. So, to return to the idea of the Old South’s strained transition to modernity, part of the reason why a family like the Compsons in The Sound and the Fury find themselves in decline is because they remain insistent upon hanging on to the memory of the pre-Civil War, slaveholding South. They seem to exist in a kind of waking dream, a nebulous zone of nostalgia that denies societal changes, racial progress, and emancipation. There’s this brilliantly loaded moment when Dilsey, the Compsons’ long-suffering African American servant, rings a dinner bell that seems to invoke the ghosts of the dead, Southern past. So Faulkner, in a sense, is trying to wrestle with those ghosts of his region’s past as he writes his novels.

How do you recommend approaching Faulkner today in his portrayals of race? Is turning to critical race theory (CRT) a place to start, and, if so, can you briefly elaborate?

I believe we should turn to it. CRT is unfairly maligned and misapprehended in mainstream thought but, fundamentally, all CRT does is champion and amplify the voices of the marginalized who have often been literally or metaphorically silenced (such as through structural inequalities, violence, under- or misrepresentation in the media, etc). As I’ve outlined above, Faulkner’s novels often deal with the South having to come to terms with societal changes regarding race. CRT allows us to see Faulkner’s works as being reparative and oftentimes philosophical ruminations on race throughout the twentieth century.

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Ultimately, CRT allows Faulkner critics to generate anti-racist, anti-oppressive scholarship that emphasizes the inclusion of scholars reflecting the full diversity of Faulkner studies, especially in terms of race and ethnicity. The intersection between CRT and Faulkner is fundamentally important and the best step forward for our subfield and the future of our discipline.

Interview by Francesca Mancino

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Ahmed Honeini

Ahmed Honeini

Ahmed Honeini teaches in the Department of English at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of William Faulkner and Mortality: A Fine Dead Sound (Routledge, 2021). He has published with the Mississippi Quarterly and United States Studies Online and he is currently editing a special issue of the Faulkner Journal on transgressive fiction and postmodernism. He is also the founding director of the Faulkner Studies in the UK Research Network (@Faulkner_UK on Twitter).

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Ahmed Honeini

Ahmed Honeini

Ahmed Honeini teaches in the Department of English at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of William Faulkner and Mortality: A Fine Dead Sound (Routledge, 2021). He has published with the Mississippi Quarterly and United States Studies Online and he is currently editing a special issue of the Faulkner Journal on transgressive fiction and postmodernism. He is also the founding director of the Faulkner Studies in the UK Research Network (@Faulkner_UK on Twitter).