By Jay Parini
HarperCollins, 433 pp., $29.95
ith One Matchless Time, Jay Parini becomes the sixth biographer to chronicle and analyze the life and work of William Faulkner. Faulkner's original biographer, Joseph Blotner, benefited from a personal knowledge of the author and his family. He also interviewed scores of individuals who have since died. The challenge then for Parini was to find something new to disclose about Faulkner's life, develop a compelling theory of the author's psyche, or demonstrate a more meaningful reading of his work.
Answering the inevitable question -- why a new biography of William Faulkner? -- Parini cites his treatment of Faulkner's romantic relationship (from 1949 to 1953) with Memphis novelist Joan Williams. It's an interesting though misguided answer to the question. While there are letters from Faulkner to Williams scattered throughout Parini's book -- the first of which Parini reproduces twice -- there are no references to Williams' letters to Faulkner. Williams, who died last spring, was one of the few remaining individuals who knew Faulkner intimately, yet two, one-sentence quotations are her only direct representations in the book. Once again, this relationship, so rich in material when both parties are explored, is simply recycled by Parini primarily through existing biographies. Williams' voice, indeed her perceptions, go unexamined.
The underdeveloped relationship is further hampered by factual inaccuracies. Faulkner's birthday, for example, appears once as August 25th rather than September 25th. Williams, an only child, is said to have first met Faulkner with her sister's husband. And Williams and Faulkner's first "clandestine meeting," Parini writes, was on Faulkner's boat during an outing on December 31, 1949. Williams repeatedly corrected this. The outing actually occurred during the summer of 1950 and included Williams' friend from Bard College, Brandon Grove, and Faulkner's wife, Estelle.
But Parini is not the first to take license with Williams' life. In William Faulkner: American Writer, Frederick R. Karl describes Faulkner as presenting Williams with the handwritten manuscript of The Sound and the Fury "under the eyes of Estelle" in 1950. Williams remembers Faulkner giving her the manuscript in private, and their letters make it clear it occurred after their affair was consummated in 1952. The gift was indeed a token of Faulkner's affection. Still, he remained dissatisfied, writing Williams that though she has slept with him she has not really surrendered, has not given herself completely, has not fully let herself go. How did Williams feel about this pressuring, even bullying? In Parini's book, the question goes unanswered.
True, Parini writes of Williams' personal ambitions as a writer and mentions her novel The Wintering, which mirrors her affair with Faulkner. She eventually would publish five novels and a short-story collection. However, when the National Institute of Arts and Letters awarded Faulkner the Gold Medal for Fiction in 1962, Parini neglects to mention that Williams received an award from the institute that same day for her first novel, The Morning and the Evening, recognition that did not go unnoticed by Faulkner. During her last conversation with Faulkner, on the front porch of his home just 10 days before his death in 1962, he asked Williams if there was any money in the institute's envelope she received. "No," she said. "They gave me that later."
One especially surprising note in One Matchless Time is the idea of Faulkner as intensely loyal. This is a tough sell for those who have read of Faulkner's dismissal of his Hollywood friend Alfred Bezzerides and his cooling friendship with Phil Stone, who not only personally financed Faulkner's first book, The Marble Faun, but also championed the burgeoning writer. Loyalty was indeed lacking when in 1961 Williams' agent asked Faulkner for a book-jacket blurb for her first novel. After years of encouraging her as a writer, Faulkner presented Williams with an unusable quotation: "This is a compassionate and hopeful first novel," Faulkner wrote, "hopeful in the sense that I dont [sic] believe Miss Williams will be satisfied until she has done a better one." Then he went on a tirade against those who were "combing the bushes for plugs for your book."
Faced with the abundance of biographical and scholarly material, the appearance late last year of One Matchless Time again begs the question: Why a new biography of William Faulkner? Rather than revealing fresh facts, Parini's Faulkner is a (usually) upstanding character committed to regaining the former stature of his paternal line and a man who is fervently attached to his Oxford home, Rowan Oak. In short, Faulkner as a man readers should like. A great artist no doubt, but the essential self-centeredness of Faulkner and his aloofness make the "likable" Faulkner mythological, much like his Yoknapatawpha County. n
Lisa C. Hickman has written frequently on the life and work of Joan Williams.
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