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Book Reviews/Recensions

André Bleikasten, William Faulkner: A Life Through Novels

Yuko Yamamoto
p. 143-145
Bibliographical reference

André Bleikasten, William Faulkner: A Life Through Novels, Indiana University Press, 2017, 552 p., ISBN 978–0253022844.

Full text

1“Pour les jeunes en France, Faulkner c’est un dieu.” These were allegedly the words of Jean–Paul Sartre, conveyed to William Faulkner by the critic and editor Malcolm Cowley in 1945, at a time when all Faulkner’s works, except Sanctuary (1931), were out of print in the United States (The Faulkner–Cowley File. Viking, 1966, 24). That Faulkner was first praised in France is by now a well–known fact. Since Maurice Edgar Coindreau presented Faulkner’s two earliest short stories, “Septembre ardent” and “Une Rose pour Emily,” to the French–speaking world for the first time in 1932 (Coindreau, “William Faulkner in France,” Yale French Studies, no. 10, 1952, 87), Faulkner studies in France have grown into a thriving community. Three of the most distinguished Faulkner scholars, André Bleikasten, Michel Gresset, and François Pitavy, whom Philip Weinstein calls fondly “the French troika” in his Foreword to this book (xii), served as both a foundation and a stimulus for the new generations of Faulknerians in Europe. Bleikastein’s expertise in Faulkner reached a much wider audience through his three books available in English, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1973), The Most Splendid Failure: Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1976), and The Ink of Melancholy: Faulkner’s Novels from The Sound and the Fury to Light in August (1991). Posthumously in 2017, he once again consolidated his immense influence through the publication of this English translation of his celebrated swan–song biography of Faulkner, William Faulkner: Une vie en romans (éditions Aden, 2007), which has received a succession of literary awards in France, including the prestigious Prix de la Biographie Littéraire from the Académie française.

2Paradoxically for a writer who wished to keep his life private and be remembered solely by his works, Faulkner’s life has become an inexhaustible gold mine for critics and biographers, just as Faulkner famously called his native land “a gold mine of other peoples” that he “would never live long enough to exhaust.” A dozen biographies have already appeared since the publication of Joseph Blotner’s massive two–volume biography of Faulkner in 1974. However, A Life Through Novels is no ordinary biography, as Bleikasten himself surmised in an interview conducted in 2006: “I […] trust that it will be different from the others. The commentary on the work will in any event take up as much room as the historical facts” (xviii). What distinguishes this book from most other biographies is Bleikasten’s decision, as the subtitle indicates, to present Faulkner’s “life through [his] novels.” He did this in accordance with his firm belief that, in the case of Faulkner, “the life lived goes hand in hand with the life written,” for whom “life was indistinguishable from the act of writing” (xxiv). Bleikasten’s biography is a magnum opus where Faulkner’s works are seen, each in its ordered place, within the context of their author’s life.

3This book is a William Faulkner retrospective curated by André Bleikasten. What emerges from the exhibition is an unfolding story of Faulkner’s entire literary life. A Life Through Novels consists of nine chapters, preceded by a Foreword by Weinstein, a Testimony and Acknowledgments by Aimée Bleikasten, and an Introduction. Following the artist’s development from his early poetry and prose to the last novel, Bleikasten assesses how Faulkner lives up to Faulkner. With Flags in the Dust, “Faulkner is about to become Faulkner” (134); with The Sound and the Fury, “Faulkner becomes Faulkner for evermore” (137). Knight’s Gambit is “Faulkner, just not great Faulkner” (350); “A Fable is the least like a Faulkner book(422). The quintessentially Faulknerian texts evolve “from The Sound and the Fury to Absalom, Absalom!, and from The Hamlet to Go Down, Moses” (347). While these critical appraisals may sound banal to readers familiar with recent scholarship on Faulkner, the book will benefit both general and specialist readers: novel by novel, Bleikasten offers insight into possible sources and genesis, revisions and publication history, plot summaries and literary analysis, elucidation of intertextuality and critical appraisals, and the overall reception of Faulkner in the U.S., Britain, and France. From small incidents in the author’s life to grave happenings in the broader social and cultural context of his times, condensed yet exhaustive descriptions are all an elegant prelude to Faulkner’s œuvre, things that Bleikasten considers vital to understanding Faulkner’s polyphonic novels. Through all these pieces of relevant and valuable information, Bleikasten unfolds the complex, entire history of Faulkner’s becoming a great novelist.

4For Bleikasten, in contrast to many students of literature, Faulkner’s life is not a key to unlock the mystery of his works; instead, Faulkner’s work is that which holds the rusted key to open its author’s life: “the work itself does shed an oblique light on the life underneath the fiction and on the man underneath the writer” (xxvi). But this is no easy task, as one of the characters in Mosquitoes says: “A book is the writer’s secret life, the dark twin of a man: you can’t reconcile them.” However, with A Life Through Novels, mediating between the life lived and the life written, Bleikasten, with a discerning connoisseur’s eye, bequeaths to us his expert interpretation of Faulkner’s life and works. Bleikasten’s approach yields the best outcomes. The strength and fascination of this biography lie precisely in what the author had been renowned for all through his professional career. Section by section, without any recourse to esoteric theories of which he was well informed, Bleikasten demonstrates the true worth of his lifelong devotion to Faulkner by deftly providing his lucid, erudite explication of background information and his dazzling, illuminating analyses that will interest enthusiasts and experts alike. Also, his biography not only gives each work its proper place in the author’s career but also situates the author in the broader context of the entire Western canon. His biography contributes, more than any other, to the contextualization of Faulkner from a European perspective.

5The book is not without defects, however. Although it should be noted that Bleikasten was less concerned with Faulkner as a person than with Faulkner as an artist, some may find fault with the book’s factual inaccuracies and inclusion of misinformed speculation. The most unfortunate, regrettable errors and conjecture center on Bleikasten’s representation of Faulkner’s wife, Estelle: “Estelle confided in Joseph Blotner that she had had an abortion, with Faulkner’s help” (200); “Estelle had already slit her wrists in Shanghai” (202); “Estelle’s pregnancy had been difficult, and it is likely that her alcohol abuse had something to do with the infant’s death” (208); and “She was frequently hysterical” (209). By thus portraying Estelle as a suicidal alcoholic, Bleikasten aligns himself with the long tradition of wife–bashing by Faulkner biographers. In 1987, Faulkner’s daughter, Jill, in an interview with Judith Sensibar, objected to the collective image of her mother that had been discursively constructed and come to be shared by many: “I think a lot of people got the impression that she was a little high–strung and tense. I don’t really think she was” (Faulkner and Love, Yale UP, 2009, 16). Because he has heavily relied on previous biographies, Bleikasten has compounded, rather than corrected, a number of the large and small errors that his predecessors had made.

6The first and the second items above that Bleikasten states as fact are far from verified. He drew his first information from Jay Parini’s biography (HarperCollins, 2004, 138), which Parini had drawn in turn from Joel Williamson’s (Oxford UP, 1993, 221). Cross–checked especially against Blotner, Robert W. Hamblin settled this issue by confirming that it was not Estelle but an unattributable informant who had told Blotner this rumor (“Biographical Fact or Fiction?” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 3, 2007, 579–588). The second statement above, also presented as fact, probably relies on Blotner’s revised one–volume biography (UP of Mississipi,1984), which records a hazy memory of a nameless girl: “The daughter of one of her friends would recall seeing Estelle shortly after an arrival back in Mississippi, with bandages on both wrists” (189). The biased speculation regarding Estelle that appears in the third and fourth statements suggests that Bleikasten has been caught up in the image of Estelle rendered by Williamson: “seemingly wrist–cutting, self–drowning, window–jumping Estelle” (250). To understand the marriage between Faulkner and Estelle, Bleikasten has chosen to refer to the published records; in so doing, he has unwittingly relied on inherently biased sources, such as Faulkner’s letters, his friends’ reports, and his mistresses’ memoirs. After all, Bleikasten was a literary critic, not a historian. His talent lay elsewhere.

7In most respects, the book’s strong points amply compensate for its occasional weakness. A Life through Novels, the best possible handbook on Faulkner, is undoubtedly a valuable addition to the existing biographies. Eventually, what Bleikasten writes of Absalom, Absalom! (the book he hails as “a key landmark in Faulkner’s oeuvre,” 267) also applies to A Life through Novels, its author, and its readers:

8Absalom, Absalom! is the story of the search for a story, or more accurately the telling […] of the unfinishable narration […] of an “incredible” history […] Faulkner retraces the steps of a historian but does it backward, going back to the time when the history was not yet written, not yet fixed in the letter of a text that is authoritative. […] It is the reader who, in reading it, will give it shape and, if possible, meaning. It is the reader who will take over from the writer, rewriting the book by reading it. It is the reader who will follow the quest of the story, knowing that it cannot be ended. (265)

9Searching for a way of telling the “incredible” life of Faulkner, the life that today has become a gold mine for other people, Bleikasten, more than anyone else, has excelled in executing a convincing and compelling portrait of Faulkner’s life and works with lucidity, erudition, and balanced exposition. Reading and re–reading this book, we humbly follow the steps of Bleikasten, taking over his great legacy. The quest and inspiration of Life through Novels never end.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Yuko Yamamoto, “André Bleikasten, William Faulkner: A Life Through NovelsRecherches anglaises et nord-américaines, 53 | 2020, 143-145.

Electronic reference

Yuko Yamamoto, “André Bleikasten, William Faulkner: A Life Through NovelsRecherches anglaises et nord-américaines [Online], 53 | 2020, Online since 01 February 2024, connection on 21 June 2024. URL: http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/ranam/776; DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/ranam.776

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About the author

Yuko Yamamoto

Chiba University, Japan

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Copyright

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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