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 Biography Review   

 

 

One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner 
By Jay Parini
Harper-Collins, 2004
Hardcover, $29.95 (492 pages)
ISBN: 0066210720
 
 
 

Jay Parini has the most important quality of a good biographer: skill with the anecdote.  Faulkner’s life is complex enough; his trips back and forth from New York, New Orleans, Hollywood, and Virginia can be a bewildering tangle.  But at the heart of any good biography are the stories, the illuminating moments that reveal more about the writer than any amount of psychological speculation.   

Faulkner’s life was filled with such highly revealing episodes: his limping around Oxford at the end of the first world war in the uniform of an R.A.F. pilot claiming European air combat and a war wound (he never left North America and never flew a plane); his removal as the University of Mississippi postmaster (“Thank God I won’t ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son-of-a-bitch who’s got two cents to buy a stamp”); and his amusement at Hollywood (“Oh, Mr. Faulkner, do you write?” “Yes, Mr. Gable, what do you do?”). Other anecdotes are tragic: Estelle’s attempted suicide on their honeymoon, the deaths of Faulkner’s infant daughter and his beloved younger brother Dean, his lifelong struggle with alcoholism and the myriad embarrassments to which this addiction subjected him.  

Parini tells these stories with greater élan than any previous Faulkner biographer.  With five novels, five books of poetry, three literary biographies, and assorted other book-length works already published, Parini’s skill as a storyteller is unmatched by the mostly academic biographers who have preceded him.  His work reads quickly and easily and is accessible for any serious reader, including the non-academic.  Harper-Collins has marketed the book very heavily outside academic circles; multiple copies of the hardcover have appeared at outlets like Books-A-Million not necessarily known for carrying large quantities of literary criticism.   

Unfortunately, for all his storytelling strength, when Parini moves from biography to criticism, his work has some significant flaws; though Harper-Collins obviously lavished a great deal of money and attention on the production and marketing of the book, it is surprising that closer editorial attention was not paid. 

Where Parini’s descriptions of the novels are generally lean and precise, he makes occasional factual errors that seem surprising given his claim to have been reading and teaching Faulkner for thirty years.  In narrating the plot of Light in August, for example, Parini claims that Bobbie rejects Joe Christmas when he tells her that he has mixed blood.  This is interpretation rather than paraphrase.  In fact, Bobbie is hardly surprised when Joe tells her he has mixed blood.  Bobbie does not break with Joe until Mr. McEachern publicly shames her at a dance, an event occurring some time after Joe has revealed his confused racial origins to her.  Parini also claims that the post-menopausal Joanna Burden regards her earlier lovemaking with Joe as sinful because Joe is black.  This too is presumptuous.  Joanna never says or even implies any such thing.  Given her strict Calvinist upbringing, her torrid sexual relationship with a man not her husband seems cause enough for Joanna’s guilt.  

Interestingly, both these claims also appear in the summary of Light in August printed in A. Nicholas Fargnoli and Michael Golay’s Faulkner reference work William Faulkner: A to Z.  In his Preface, Parini reports that he found himself “repeatedly checking facts” in this scholarly work, which may account for the provenance of these errors.  It does not, however, excuse them.  One expects a thirty-year teacher of Faulkner to be sufficiently familiar with the basic plots of Faulkner’s major novels to be able to report them without confusing facts with conjecture or using plot summaries from secondary sources.   

A more significant flaw in the sections of Parini’s biography dealing with the novels involves his use of secondary critical sources.  When Parini moves from paraphrase to interpretation he often quotes from secondary sources in ways that will make probably little sense to readers outside the academy.  For example, in his discussion of As I Lay Dying, Parini makes the following observation:

 [Darl] evinces the road, a literal and figural image, repeatedly in his sixteen monologues.  In one famous passage, he suggests (by implication) that knowledge is obtainable only by friction and motion, as when he describes the disastrous fording of the river, where men and animals only touch bottom occasionally: “I felt the current take us and I knew we were on the ford by that reason, since it was only by means of that slipping contact that we were in motion at all.”  Thus meaning itself seems to occur only in slips and scrapes, in chance contacts between signifiers and those objects in the world to which they attach themselves. (148) 

Putting aside Parini’s misuse of the word “evinces” where he clearly means “evokes,” that last claim is a stretch.  The quoted passage implies nothing about epistemology, though it may suggest this connection to a deconstructionist reader.  Parini’s use of “thus” to open the last sentence suggests that it is logical to assume that Darl’s description of the river crossing is Faulkner’s attempt to suggest the inadequacy of language.  Darl, of course, is not a Derridean college professor, even if Parini is.  

Such slips are, mercifully, rare.  My cavils regarding his treatments of the novels aside, Parini has written a highly readable, worthwhile Faulkner biography that for sheer readability stands high above works by Joseph Blotner, David Minter, or Joel Williamson.  I recommend it highly as a solid introduction to the man, his works, and the fascinating relationship between those works and his life. 

 

Edwin McAllister
Southern Scribe Reviews

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