William Faulkner’s regal prose still mesmerizes me the way it did when I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, not that long after “Pappy” roamed the grounds of Mr. Jefferson’s University, pronouncing the fraternity St. Anthony’s Hall “the last bastion of Southern decadence” and teaching the odd writing class or two in his demure and inscrutable way.
The fact that I tried to make every undergrad piece I wrote sound like Faulkner didn’t seem at the time to be a problem at all. The only fault I found in my prose style was that I couldn’t seem to out-Faulkner Faulkner.
I mean, c’mon, William Styron had written Lie Down in Darkness, right? Who says you can’t drink the whiskey and wake up from the hangover with your own recognizable style?
Fast-forward nearly forty years. Recently I had some pieces accepted. When I go back and read them, they sound the way I want them to sound. I feel pleased and comfortable.
At last, I’ve discovered my narrative style. God knows, it took long enough.
Therefore, at this time, these books are forbidden fruit on my nightstand:
Go Down, Moses. If I could only have one book while marooned on a desert island, it would be this one. I’m not sure how many times I’ve read the stories “Was” and “The Bear,” but I’m sure I could read them countless times more, and still discover something new and brilliant in each reading.
Absalom, Absalom!. Every novel I begin somehow evolves into a tale told by multiple narrators with conflicting points of view. That’s a magnificent technique. Just look at Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termite. But I know I need to get one solid novel under my belt told from a single point of view—my concerto, if you will, before I try my symphony.
The Sound and the Fury. Well, there’s the multiple-point-of-view thing, of course. But the big problem is the female character, Candace Compson. To me she’s more seductive than Cleopatra, Emma Bovery, or Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. I have to stay away from Caddy until some of my own female characters diminish her charms.
Maybe some day I’ll be strong enough to read William Faulkner again, even my favorite stories and novels, and not allow his elegant rhythms to entwine themselves like wisteria into my own humble prose.
Just not yet.