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Spring 2004

William Faulkner on Horseback

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Javier Marías

According to somewhat kitsch literary legend, William Faulkner wrote his novel As I Lay Dying in the space of six weeks and in the most precarious of situations, namely, while he was working on the night shift down a mine, with the pages resting on an upturned wheelbarrow and lit only by the dim rays of the lamp fixed on his own dust-caked helmet. This is a clear attempt on the part of said kitsch legend to enlist Faulkner in the ranks of other poor, self-sacrificing, slightly proletarian writers. The bit about the six weeks is the only true part: six weeks one summer when he made the most of the long, long intervals between feeding spadefuls of coal into the boiler he had been put in charge of in an electricity-generating plant. According to Faulkner, no one bothered him there, the continual hum from the enormous old dynamo was "soothing," and the place itself was otherwise "warm and silent."

There is certainly no doubting his ability to lose himself in his writing or reading. His father had got him the position at the power station after he was dismissed from his previous job as post office clerk at the University of Mississippi. Apparently one of the lecturers there, quite reasonably, complained: the only way he could get his mail was by rummaging around in the rubbish bin at the back door, where the unopened bags of post all too often ended up. Faulkner did not like having his reading interrupted, and the sale of stamps fell alarmingly; by way of explanation, Faulkner told his family that he was not prepared to keep getting up to wait on people at the window and having to be beholden to any son-of-a-bitch who had the two cents to buy a stamp.

Perhaps that is where the seeds were first sown of Faulkner's evident aversion to and scorn for letters. When he died, piles of letters, packages, and manuscripts sent by admirers were found, none of which he had opened. In fact, the only letters he did open were letters from publishers, and then only very cautiously: he would make a tiny slit in the envelope and then shake it to see if a check appeared. If it didn't, then the letter would simply join all those other things that can wait forever.

He always had a keen interest in checks, but one should not deduce from this that he was a greedy man or, indeed, stingy. He was, in fact, something of a spendthrift. He got through any money he earned very quickly, then lived on credit for a while until the next check arrived. He would then pay his debts and start spending again, mostly on horses, cigarettes, and whiskey. He did not have many clothes, but those he had were expensive. When he was nineteen, his affected way of dressing earned him the nickname "The Count." If the fashion was for tight trousers, then his would be the tightest in the whole of Oxford, Mississippi, the town where he lived. He left there in 1916 to go to Toronto to train with the RAF. The Americans had rejected him because he didn't have enough qualifications, and the British didn't want him because he was too short, until, that is, he threatened to go and fly for the Germans instead.

On one occasion, a young man went to visit him and found him standing with his pipe, which had gone out, in one hand and, in the other, the bridle of a pony that his daughter Jill was riding. To break the ice, the young man asked if the little girl had been riding long. Faulkner did not reply at once. Then he said, "Three years," adding: "You know, a woman should know only how to do three things." He paused, then concluded: "Tell the truth, ride a horse, and sign a check."

Jill was not the first daughter Faulkner had with his wife, Estelle, who brought with her two children from a previous marriage. The first daughter they had together died only five days after being born. They called her Alabama. Her mother was still weak and in bed; Faulkner's brothers were out of town at the time and never saw the child. Faulkner could see no point in holding a funeral, since in those five days the little girl had only had time to become a memory, not a person. So her father put her in a tiny coffin and carried her to the cemetery on his lap. Alone, he placed her in her grave, without telling anyone.

When he received the Nobel Prize in 1950, Faulkner was at first reluctant to go to Sweden, but in the end he not only went, but traveled Europe and Asia on "a State Department mission." He did not much enjoy the endless functions to which he was invited. At a party given in his honour by Gallimard, his French publishers, it is said that after each succinct reply to questions put by journalists, he apparently took a backward step. Step by step, he eventually found himself with his back to the wall, and only then did the journalists take pity on him or else give him up as a lost cause. He finally sought refuge in the garden. A few people decided to venture out there too, announcing that they were going to talk to Faulkner, only to come straight back in again, proffering excuses in faltering voices: "It's awfully cold out there." Faulkner was a taciturn man who loved silence, and he had only been to the theater five times in his entire life: he had seen Hamlet three times, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Ben Hur, and that was all. He had not read Freud, either, at least so he said on one occasion: "I have never read him. Neither did Shakespeare. I doubt if Melville did either and I'm sure Moby Dick didn't." He read Don Quixote every year.

But then he also said that he never told the truth. After all, he wasn't a woman, although he did have a woman's love of checks and horse-riding. He always said that he had written Sanctuary, his most commercial novel, for money: "I needed it to buy a good horse." He also said that he didn't visit big cities very often because you couldn't go there on horseback. When he was getting older, and against the advice of both his family and his doctors, he continued going out riding and jumping fences, and kept falling off. The last time he went riding he suffered just such a fall. From the house, his wife saw Faulkner's horse standing by the gate, still with its saddle on and with its reins hanging loose. When she didn't see her husband there with the horse, she called Dr. Felix Linder and they went out looking for him. They found him over half a mile away, limping, almost dragging himself along. The horse had thrown him and he hadn't been able to remount, having fallen on his back. The horse had walked on a few paces, then stopped and looked round. When Faulkner managed to get to his feet, the horse came over to him and touched him with its muzzle. Faulkner had tried to grab the reins, but failed. Then the horse had headed off towards the house.

William Faulkner spent some time in bed, badly injured and in great pain. He had still not fully recovered from the fall when he died. He was in the hospital, where he had been admitted for a check-up on his progress. But legend refuses to accept that the fall from his horse was the cause of his death. He was killed by a thrombosis on July 6th, 1962, when he was not quite sixty-five.

When asked to name the best American writers of his day, he would say that they had all failed, but that Thomas Wolfe had been the finest failure and William Faulkner the second finest failure. He often repeated this over the years, but it is as well to remember that Thomas Wolfe had been dead since 1938, that is, during nearly all the years that Faulkner used to give this answer, the years during which he himself remained alive.

(Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa)

Javier Marías is the author of A Heart So White, All Souls, Dark Back of Time, and many other works of fiction and nonfiction; he is also the reigning king of Redonda. His translator, Margaret Jull Costa, has also translated José Saramago, Teolinda Gersao, and other Portuguese and Spanish writers.

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