November 2010

Pauls Toutonghi


The Nobel Reprise, Letter 5: William Faulkner

Dear Ben,

The woman standing in line here at the coffee shop just ordered a “sixteen-pound spicy sturgeon.” Or at least that’s what I heard her order, over the drone of the Nick Drake and the traffic on Morrison Street. Thinking about it now, I believe that it was actually a sixteen-ounce spicy soy chai.

Ah, vegans. They say the darnedest things.   

It was great to see you out here last week in Portland, reading from Celebrity Chekhov at Powell's. It’s been hard not to revise celebrities into a number of my other favorite Russian authors, at least in my head. For example, Raskolnikov discusses the nature of guilt and redemption with the reformed porn star, Penny Flame. Or Anna Karenina texts Owen Wilson before committing suicide; he convinces her to walk away from the train station and come to his apartment for a Muscovite samovar (if you know what I mean).

But also I was astonished by your last letter, which made me think about lots of different stuff. It’s funny, you say: “The most beautiful place I've ever been is the mind.” And instinctively I want to agree. But then I think about it a little, and I just have to come out and say it -- my mind has been a consistent prison, for me, over the years. I’m not trying to bitch. That’s just the way it’s been. Probably the last place I want to go, ever, is deeper into my mind.

This is its card catalogue of worries, in no particular order: terrorist attack, cancer, global viral plague, total anonymity, end of writing career, self-extinction, lack of tenure, abolition of tenure (generally), death of family, heart attack, shellfish poisoning, antibiotic-resistant infection, plane crash, car crash, computer crash, complete and utter failure of Seattle professional sports teams to win any sort of championship, ever. And that’s only the beginning.

So: I seek refuge in landscape. Landscape is erasure, to me, erasure of self in the palette of the visible world. There is no more me when I’m looking at something beautiful. There is only the beautiful thing, itself.

Of course, the irony is that you’re never really free of perception. But when I’m looking at, say, the line of the Bitterroot Mountains -- rising blue and almost fragile in the distance -- it sure seems that way.   

* * *

When William Faulkner died, at age 64, he was frail and ravaged from decades of alcohol. He’d gone riding on his horse, drunk, and fallen off of it -- the second time this had happened in the last few months of his life. Who rides a horse while drunk? The answer, apparently, is more people than you might imagine. Here are just a few.

And those are just the folks who got caught!

Anyhow, Faulkner’s convalescence from the fall went badly. Since the age of nineteen, he had (almost incredibly) drunk more than a quart of bourbon a day. Now, immobilized in bed, he went on a prodigious bender, mixing sour mash whiskey and bourbon with pain pills and tranquilizers. His family -- fearing the worst -- convinced him to check himself into Byhalia Sanatorium, where he’d been once before, and had required intravenous fluids and feeding through a tube in his stomach.

Faulkner’s second stay at Byhalia, however, was short. He died of a heart attack soon after arriving.

Why bring up Faulkner’s death and depress you, Ben, when we’re writing about the Nobel Prize -- a prize, after all, that must be awarded to a living person? A prize that’s all about life, and energy, and potential, and human striving? The reason is mostly because of that single line in your letter, the line about the mind. Because I feel like Faulkner, more than most, was trapped in his mind, brutalized by his own destructive patterns of thinking. And so he turned to booze. But what else? He turned to landscape.

There are, throughout Faulkner, the most heartbreaking passages of landscape writing I’ve ever read. They hook you and pull you in. Even I -- with my diminished attention span and howling, babbling twins -- even I was transfixed to a spot, for nearly three hours, rereading “The Bear” for the tenth or fifteenth time:

…He saw the wilderness through a slow drizzle of November rain just above the ice point as it seemed to him later he always saw it or at least always remembered it -- the tall and endless wall of dense November woods under the dissolving afternoon of the year’s death, somber, impenetrable… the surrey moving through the skeleton stalks of cotton and corn in the last of the open country, the last trace of man’s puny gnawing at the immemorial flank, until, dwarfed by perspective into an almost ridiculous diminishment, the surrey itself seemed to have almost ceased to move (this too to be completed later, years later, after he had grown to a man and had seen the sea) as a solitary small boat hangs in lonely immobility, merely tossing up and down in the infinite waste of ocean while the water and then the apparently impenetrable land which it nears without appreciable progress, swings slowly and opens the widening inlet which is the anchorage. He entered it.

In case you’re counting, that’s a 207-word sentence -- followed by a three-word sentence. And it’s beautiful. In my writing classes, I say: vary sentence length, to vary the music of your prose. This, then, is pretty much spot on.    

Vintage did a great thing in 1994 by grouping together four of Faulkner’s hunting stories, under the title, Big Woods. “The Bear,” “The Old People,” “A Bear Hunt,” and “Race at Morning,” all appear here. This slim volume that starts with a hilarious (drunken?) memo that Faulkner sent to his longtime editor, Saxe Commins: “Memo to: Saxe Commins. From: Author. To: Editor. We never always saw eye to eye / but we were always / looking at the same thing.”

They’ve also restored “The Bear” to its original version, a version which is much, much better than the longer, somewhat more incoherent version that Faulkner published later in life.

I first encountered this story not in high school, as most people do, but in college, in one of my best classes at Middlebury -- Literature of the American South with Timothy Spears. Spears was a great teacher, and he made this story come alive (along with so many other books that I read that semester, for the first time – Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories).

But what do I mean by “come alive?” Isn’t that a cliché? Sure, sure. I just mean that when I read and discussed Go Down, Moses -- with “The Old People,” and the longer version of “The Bear” -- I lost my anxiety cloud.

It vanished.

And it wasn’t like any other form of relief that I could find. It wasn’t sex or drinking or drugs or exercise or delicious food or volunteer work. Reading this book was a kind of prayer. It had the peace of a prayer litany, of a rosary, of a misbaha. I read Sam Fathers spreading the “hot smoking blood” of Ike McCaslin’s first killed deer over the boy’s face and I was stunned. I remember looking out over the snow-covered mountains of Vermont -- looking out from my strange little dormitory perch -- and crying.

I guess I take books too seriously?


Okay: Here’s something lighter. In the new issue of A Public Space, Brian Edwards recounts a hilarious joke that has been circulating via text message as of late in Cairo, Egypt. “Clearly,” the punch line goes, “this is the work of a suicide plumber.”

That didn’t really make any sense, in the context of what I’ve been talking about, but it did make sense, I think, in the context of this letter, as a letter -- it just needed a joke, there. Damn you, William Faulkner, with your legacy of verbose drunken passionate seriousness.

Of course, we also have a new Nobel Laureate in Literature, now, in 2010: Mario Vargas Llosa. By the beginning of November, this is hardly breaking news. But the fact that, yet again, I’ve read practically nothing by this year’s Nobel Prize winner -- and I’m an American novelist, for heaven’s sake -- makes me sad.

It makes me think of a passage in Julian Barnes’ non-fiction book, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, where Barnes reflects on the fact that, like every coffin of bones buried in the ground at a cemetery which has, at some point, its last visitor -- every writer will have his or her last reader. And, he points out, that reader will be hostile to, or bored with, your work. Because he or she will not pass your work along to someone else. So, he then tells his last reader to fuck off.
Which I think is hilarious.

But so -- so -- I know we’ve been searching, Ben, for what winning the Nobel Prize means. And so this is something that I think it does mean: Faulkner, Vargas Llosa, Pirandello, Beckett, Kertesz, Le Clezio -- they may never have a last reader. Or, if they do, it will be because of one of those global catastrophes that I’ve wasted too many of my days worrying about. Or it will be far, far in the future, far beyond the point that I can concretely imagine.

I mean, we’re going to have to work a little harder to find books by Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf or Count Maurice Polidore Marie Bernhard Maeterlinck or Bjørnstjerne Martinus Bjørnson -- but we’ll find them. And so will someone else, somewhere, on the other side of this strange computer-based communication mechanism we’ve got going, here in the 21st century. And neither of us will be the last.

So: What does that mean? Well, that’s another question.  

I thought that I’d do a reclamation project of my own, here, in addition to the Nobel letter. My wife’s great-great uncle was John Russell Soley, a nineteenth-century novelist who I thought was totally obscure. But a quick search turned up message boards for naval literature discussing his historical novel, The Sailor Boys of ’61. So he is still reaching out to us, ghostly and disembodied, through the centuries. He has not found his last reader.

Do you know, Ben, of any writer who’s completely unread? Or is this straying too far from the topic at hand? Or can this be folded into consideration of writers who win the world’s most significant literary prize?

The sun has been shining in Portland for a week. Off to play with the babies. They mostly just roll around.