William Faulkner: A Life through Novels
by André Bleikasten,
translated by Miriam Watchorn with the collaboration of Roger Little.
Indiana University Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 511 pages, $50.
In his Foreword to William Faulkner: A Life through Novels, Philip Weinstein calls André Bleikasten the “most distinguished interpreter of America’s greatest twentieth-century novelist.” Weinstein’s own impressive work on Faulkner entitles him to make such a sweeping claim. But when he advances a similar claim to superiority for this biography, I have to dissent. Bleikasten’s book, published in French in 2009, is barely a biography at all. Weinstein scarcely mentions other Faulkner biographies, preferring to contrast Joseph Blotner’s standard account of “day-by-day and year-by-year doings” that avoids what Faulkner “means: why we should read him, what we will find there” with Bleikasten’s “capacity to say, again and again, exactly how Faulkner’s work works.” I doubt any critic can do exactly what Weinstein asserts, but, more importantly, Bleikasten fails to show what biography can offer to Faulkner readers or why biography matters.
As Weinstein reports, Bleikasten rejected the idea of writing a Faulkner biography more than once, suggesting “there were already too many biographies of Faulkner out there.” It is a commonplace of critics to complain about the plethora of biographies on the same subject, as if biography has only one story to tell, whereas Faulkner’s work demonstrates, again and again, that biography, as in Absalom, Absalom!, depends crucially on who is telling the tale and when that tale is told. Style, structure, point of view, and, of course, evidence and proximity matter and differ from one biography to another of the same subject. What to select, how to say it, when it is said, yield a William Faulkner markedly different in Blotner, Frederick Karl, Joel Williamson, Jay Parini, Judith Sensibar, or Philip Weinstein—to name just some of the Faulkner biographers. Take any page from these biographies covering the same time in Faulkner’s life, and you will see a different man—recognizable, of course, from one account to another, and yet subtly and importantly at odds with the figure presented in one biography after another.
So why did Bleikasten relent and write yet another biography of Faulkner? He decided he could “synthesize what he had come to know about Faulkner over the years,” and this much Bleikasten does brilliantly while acknowledging and relying on the work of his predecessors. But what synthesis means, on the Bleikasten page, is summary. So, for example, we get a judicious assessment of all that Faulkner said about race, with notations of his inconsistencies, his paternalism, and racism, juxtaposed against the much more profound explorations of color and the color line in his novels. Fair enough. But where are Faulkner’s interactions with blacks and whites? The evidence is there, collected, for example, by Robert Cantwell in the 1930s and available not only in his publications but in his papers at the University of Oregon. The visceral, palpable sense of who Faulkner was, the man we want to read about in a biography, is absent from this fastidious account of those “doings” that Blotner detailed.
Bleikasten wrote his biography before the full force of Judith Sensibar’s work on the women in Faulkner’s life became available to biographers. As in all the other biographies, Faulkner’s wife, Estelle, appears in Bleikasten as a lamentable marriage partner, fey and on the periphery of what matters to the critic eager to get on with the explication of the text, at which the French are best. That Estelle Faulkner wrote fiction, that Faulkner even submitted fiction under both their names and rewrote at least one of her stories, does not interest Bleikasten, even though such facts suggest why at certain points of his life Faulkner found Estelle to be an indispensable partner, no matter how much he complained about her as a burden and an irrelevance. Biography is not supposed to take subjects at their word—at least not without the scrutiny that Faulkner’s own characters aim at one another—but that is essentially what Bleikasten does. And of course he is not the first astute critic to have no feel, which is to say, no understanding of what biography can contribute to an understanding of the mentality that shaped the subject’s work.
Too often biographers get mired in source hunting, trying to show how a character like Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens is modeled after his friend Phil Stone. Critics rightly groan at such one-to-one comparisons, since in so many ways a character like Stevens is not Phil Stone, even if Stone provided a few tics and behaviors and background usable in a novel. Bleikasten spares us that kind of simple-minded alignment of life and work. But what he does not search for and cannot supply are the deep biographical threads that unify the subject’s life and the biography written about him.
One example will have to suffice. Bleikasten provides a standard dismissal of
A critic, then, will applaud this summary judgment: “Weighted down with long and confusing commentaries and similarly interminable descriptions (there is page upon page about uniforms), his prose becomes bloated and winded, the rhetoric so rehashed and jaded that it no longer touches us.” A biographer, reading such a passage, will wonder: why all the uniforms? A Faulkner biographer, ought, at this point, to intervene, noting that Faulkner’s favorite doll was an Irish policeman in uniform with a cap. Faulkner not only bought a carefully tailored RAF uniform with decorations he did not earn, he kept that uniform and wore it proudly when he returned home from Toronto and on special occasions. His stepson Malcolm Franklin first saw Faulkner at a piano recital wearing that uniform and cap and thought Faulkner was a policeman. Faulkner in his fifties was proud that he could still fit into that uniform. That uniform, in pristine condition, is on display right now in the Faulkner exhibition at the University of Virginia. Uniforms triggered Faulkner’s imagination—so much so that his stories about World War I were taken as accounts of his own firsthand experience by veterans who had seen action on the western front. Knowing all this does not make A Fable a better novel, but it does explain why a consummate craftsman like William Faulkner could not see that what had so impressed and engaged him would not thrive on the page.
Biography, in short, does not just show how the subject’s work works or even why it does not. Biography shows how a subject like William Faulkner made literature out of his life, a literature of and from himself. This is what Bleikasten’s subtitle, “A Life Through Novels,” ought to mean but does not. This is a biography that speaks powerfully to critics but that will disappoint those looking to understand why the man wrote as he did.
Carl Rollyson is the author of Uses of the Past in the Novels of William Faulkner. He is now at work on This Alarming Paradox: The Life of William Faulkner, to be published by University of Virginia Press.