Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Woolf's Waves and Faulkner's stories - more books I read in May - I love tremendous and sonorous words

More books I read in May.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves (1931).  A difficult book.  It pushes Woolf’s ideas about the representation of consciousness to a new, extreme position.  I wonder if it is a dead end.  It is a live novel.

Six friends describe or think about or experience their lives.  Childhood, school, and so on at roughly decade intervals, interspersed with a prose poem about light effects on the ocean.  The text, aside from the prose poem, is all in quotation marks, as if it is speech, except for “said Neville,” “said Rhoda,” like that, which I have to put in quotation marks here, which is confusing.  But the text is obviously not speech, but thought, and not direct thought, as in Mrs Dalloway (1925), definitely not stream-of-consciousness, but more like a summary of thought, or a retrospective description of thought.  All of it somehow “said.”

The first section, the childhood piece, is the most confusing, because I have no information besides names and gender (three boys, three girls), and, realistically, it is not clear how the childhood personality transfers to the teenager or adult.  Characters sometimes seem to blur into each other, too.  Later, I could tag Louis as the poetic sensibility, Susan as the motherly one, Bernard as the novelistic sensibility, and so on.  The six characters take turns for a while, which is a little mechanical (I think, okay, who is left, who has not “spoken” yet?), until the last section, which is a fifth of the book:

“Now to sum up,” said Bernard.  “Now to explain to you the meaning of my life…  This, for the moment, seems to be my life.  If it were possible, I would hand it to you entire.  I would break it off as one breaks off a bunch of grapes.  I would say, ‘Take it.  This is my life.’  (238)

Bernard the “novelist,” has taken over.  He has never written a novel (has he?), but it is possible that this text, or some refraction of this text, is his novel, the story of this group of friends.  Perhaps the whole thing is meant to be his.  “’I love tremendous and sonorous words’” he says, or thinks, or writes, much earlier in the book (32).  He sure does.

I assume, when I re-read The Waves someday, I will abandon everything I just wrote.


William Faulkner, These 13 (1931).  His first book of short stories; his worst title?  Faulkner occasionally rearranged his work, so this book has vanished, dissolved into Collected Stories (1951), but I wanted to think about the stories in their earlier context.

Four stories are about World War I, mostly pilots.  They are now  housed in “The Wasteland” in Collected Stories, almost by themselves.  Three stories are about Americans in Europe after the war, and are in “Beyond.”  The Italian stories in particular sounded more like Hemingway than I would have guessed possible for Faulkner, but perhaps I am being addled by the shared subject matter.

None of these are Faulkner at his best, but he did keep them.  They are not essential Faulkner, unless the question if “how did Faulkner become Faulkner”.

The other six are essential, good or bad.  They express the essence of Faulkner’s art circa 1930.  “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner’s first published story (!), the perfect distillation of “Southern Gothic”; “Dry September,” a clear-eyed lynching story; “Hair,” Southern Goofic, but the shared protagonist with “Dry September” shows how Faulkner’s Balzac-in-Mississippi concept works; and “That Evening Sun,” about racial incomprehension, and ditto on the Balzac thing except the characters are from The Sound and the Fury.

That’s only four.  “Red Leaves” and “A Justice” are about Chickasaw slave-owners and the history of Yoknapatawpha County before it was Yoknapatawpha.  Faulkner is mythologizing.  I only have a vague sense of what he is doing in these two stories.  A problem for later.


  1. i liked "Waves" a lot... while reading it i kept having flashes of images from physics but i didn't think that was at all germane until i accidentally ran across a thesis by some grad student analyzing the book from a quantum physics standpoint... it's been some time since i read that; i just recall that it made a lot of sense at the time...

    1. I've taught some marvelous English-Physics double majors (yes, it's a thing!), and they do tend to love The Waves.

  2. Physics, no, that's not crazy, with these six characters bouncing around and mixing.

    Woolf should have written a companion novel titled The Particles.

    That must be a common joke among Woolfites.

  3. I'm reading The Waves at the moment as well. I found the childhood sections easier. I'm getting bogged down in the later sections, where the thoughts of the characters seem curiously to have less meaning to me. I think there are unexplorable possibilities with Woolf's style in this.

    All Faulkner's short stories are lesser Faulkner, aren't they? Though they do fill in gaps in the mythology.

  4. Interesting. The childhood section is much easier for me re-reading. My tags work. Bernard the novelist wants to tell stories, Jinny the uh physically expressive one is kissing, etc.

    Maybe all Faulkner short stories are lesser for people who think the short story form is lesser. They're less important relative to the four big novels, I suppose.

    1. I'm fascinated by The Waves. I teach it pretty regularly, and students are both shocked and awed. It still feels quite strange. Something we talk about a lot is how to understand the relationship of the last section to everything else. As some scholars point out, using some language of Bahktin's, there's such a tension between the polyvocal and the monolingual. Does Bernard summarize the story or does he hijack it?

    2. Right, right. He could be hijacking even if it is all his invention. Author, let your characters breathe. They were breathing. Butt out.

      He is not really "summing up," even if that is how he begins the section.

      The relation between the real author, taking Woolf as real, and the fictional author, is also full of ideas and traps.

      A difficult book, in the good way.

    3. Agreed, he's not really summing up. Throughout the 30s, Woolf worried more and more about dictators. For obvious reasons. I'd say that the question about who controls the storytelling isn't just academic--it's a mirror for the era's politics.

    4. The novelist as Mussolini. I had not thought of that. I remind myself that some related ideas are in A Room of One's Own, two years earlier.

    5. And even more so in Three Guineas.

  5. The stories collected in Go Down, Moses are certainly not lesser Faulkner!

  6. I can understand the sense in which Go Down, Moses does not count (if it turns into a novel), but I think it counts.

    Faulkner's second, and last, book of short stories was more mangled than These 13, with pieces going into The Unvanquished and The Hamlet as well as into the appropriate slots in Collected Stories.

  7. I have 2 Faulkner short-story collections. One's called Knight's Gambit, which I've never read, and one is called Collected Stories (which is 900 pages long). I've only read the first 200 pages of Collected Stories, which I presume are the earliest - and I sense Faulkner is for the most part just writing vague ideas for money.

    I wouldn't count Go Down Moses are short stories, but perhaps that's just marketing.

    I'm assuming by 4 great novels you mean the Snopes trilogy and Pylon.

  8. Sorry, last comment was me again. It defaulted to my work persona.

  9. I'm assuming by 4 great novels you mean the Snopes trilogy and Pylon.

    Good lord, what a strange assumption! Pylon?! What about The Sound and the Fury and Light in August, two of the greatest novels of the 20th century?

  10. Also, sheesh, of course he wrote great short stories; anyone who doesn't think so simply doesn't like short stories.

  11. Those aren't the four novels I meant, no. As usual, I meant the usual.

    I want to emphasize that the first 200 pages of Collected are not the earliest written. Collected Stories is all jumbled, chronologically, although carefully ordered, conceptually.

    But the first 200 pages include "A Rose for Emily," Faulkner's first published story. Vague! "A Rose for Emily"!

  12. As I understand it, the stories in Go Down, Moses were not planned as a single work, and first appeared over several years in a variety of magazines.

    I have a Modern Library edition of Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner, with original publication dates ranging from 1931-1939. Thirteen stories, and they are uneven but mostly okay, though none of them is as good as any of his novels. "A Rose for Emily" is the third story in this collection.

    I first read "A Rose for Emily" as a teenager, the second time in a college intro to fiction course. I've read it a few more times over the years. It has some interesting use of language, but I have never thought much of it as a story.

    Because of this post's pernicious influence, I'm currently re-reading Absalom, Absalom!

  13. "none of them is as good as any of his novels" - wait, hang on there. You've read A Fable? Soldier's Pay?

    I'll hammer in the peg, if you want to discuss it: "A Rose for Emily" is a great story, with many features of high interest, and a number of Faulkner's stories are as good as a number of his novels. To the extent that "as good as" is meaningful here. Faulkner wrote many artful, complex, influential, much-studied short stories. That is what I Mean by "as good as."

  14. Hang on a darned minute! When you restate my argument, I cannot recognize it. I think my comment was clearly limited to the contents of the Modern Library edition I mentioned. Those contents are:

    Barn Burning
    Two Soldiers
    A Rose for Emily
    Dry September
    That Evening Sun
    Red Leaves
    There Was A Queen
    Mountain Victory
    Race at Morning

    None of which strike me as being "great". I recommend Faulkner's novels often enough, but I would not urge "A Rose for Emily" on anyone. The "features of high interest" (the commentary about the townsfolk is pretty good) are smothered to death by features of Southern Gothic Goofiness. C'mon, man. A bad Victorian ghost story ending. The whole thing is a setup for that iron gray hair on the pillow. I'm happy that Faulkner moved away from the O. Henry influence.

  15. "Barn Burning" is also a great story. Not sure what your criteria are for stories.

  16. Stuff moves me or it don't. It leaves an impression or it don't. The only thing in that collection that I remember is "Emily," and that's primarily because of the sense of disappointment I've had at every reading.

    If I had time, I'd read "Barn Burning" again, but I don't have time. I really don't have time to be reading and commenting on blogs these days. I have enormous piles of work just now. Thanks, global pandemic.

  17. That collection includes a number of Faulkner's best stories; many of those specific stories are as good as or better than some of his novels. Faulkner wrote some terrible novels.

    Which novels are included in the phrase "than any of his novels"? That was the bit that made my eyes pop. I did not restate it!

    I find the best parts of "Rose for Emily" - its narrative strategy and its, God help me, symbolism - to be easily separable from its over-familiar corniness.

  18. "as any of the novels I have read", then. I haven't read a terrible Faulkner novel. The closest I've come to that is Sanctuary, which is pretty good, though I'd not call it great. I'd rather read Sanctuary again than read "Emily" again.

    Somehow my objections seem more forceful than I intend them to be. Faulkner, yeah, he's okay. I don't mind Faulkner. I'm reading him now. I like some of his stuff a lot.

  19. A Fable is some kind of phenomenon of badness. If for some reason you ever want to see such a thing. It won the Pulitzer.

  20. I was going to say actually that the only story of those I've read that I thought was good was Barn Burning - but of course, that's from his Snopes period, so it's bound to be good. (Fittingly, it won the O'Henry Award).

    This evening I read the first story in Knight's Gambit called Smoke, which seems to have been strongly influenced by Agatha Christie.

  21. Right, those are Faulkner's detective stories, with his long-running stand-in as the detective.