Thursday, December 22, 2011

Faulkner and the purity of exactitude

In my last post, I wrote about my friend Fang Yih, and in that post I had mentioned him as Pynchonian. When he learned of this description of him on my blog, he said I should have marked him as Faulknerian. In fact, he adores both Pynchon and Faulkner (I am yet to start on Pynchon, as I am still reading works of his teacher, Nabokov) and of course, Naipaul, whom both of us admire. Only last night I was reading some passages from Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur to my daughter and I was loving the comedy of the whole thing: it is always a pleasure to read the early Naipaul.

The year is coming to end and I wanted to write something on Faulkner after having read some of his essays and lectures which are available in a beautiful volume titled William Faulkner: Essays, Speeches and Public Letters (edited by James Meriwether, The Modern Library, New York).

The volume opens with Faulkner's essay on Sherwood Anderson, which is in fact an appreciation of one master by another. It is a brilliant sketch and is so evocatively written. You just have to read it to know what I mean by it. I just loved it.

In his later life, Anderson disconnected himself from his family just to focus on his writing--which was sort of an anti-Kafkaesque move.

Faulkner says that Anderson worked so laboriously and tediously and indefatigably at everything he wrote as if he said to himself: This anyway will, shall, must be invulnerable. He writes: "It was as though he wrote not even out of the consuming unsleeping appeaseless thirst for glory for which any normal artist would destroy his aged mother, but for what to him was more important and urgent: not even for mere truth, but for purity, the exactitude of purity."

The exactitude of purity (is it the same is mot jouste?) or the purity of exactitude - I love this expression - it has a sentimental value for me. I first read this phrase in an essay by Carver and he was perhaps referring to this essay by Faulkner which I was lucky enough to have stumbled upon. It was this attempt for exactitude that sometimes made Anderson fumble (often, inviting ridicule). It became his defining style. The writing had to be first rate for him. Nothing else mattered.

One of the great things Faulkner learned from Anderson, besides the exactitude of purity, is that - to be a writer, one has first got to be what he is, what he was born. "You had only to remember what you were," he writes.

"You have to have somewhere to start from: then you begin to learn," Anderson told Faulkner. "It don't matter where it was, just so you remember it and aint ashamed of it."

"... Watch and listen and try to understand; and, even if you can't understand, believe."

That I think turned out to be a great advice for Faulkner as he brought his own country, his patch of land in the vast America, Mississippi, to life on the pages of his fiction. It is another matter that Nabokov dismisses Faulkner's works as corncobian.

Freedom and privacy

Among other things, Faulkner championed freedom and privacy. "Man's hope is in man's freedom," he said once addressing the youth of Japan. These two ideals--freedom for all and privacy for each individual--are still our ideals and seem in greater danger of disappearing today than ever before. He believed that liberty and freedom (which is necessary to exist for a writer to practice his craft) are not given to man as a free gift but as a right and a responsibility to be earned if he deserves it, is worthy of it, and is willing to work for it by means of courage and sacrifice , and to defend it always.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner spoke against the malaise of fear--fear that can kill freedom, fear that can undeniably kill a writer. If a writer wants to write of the heart, not of the glands, he must teach himself "that the basest of all things is to be afraid, and teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and hounor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labours under a curse."


monideepa sahu said...

love the current crop of your posts. And writing IS a huge labour too, isn't it? especially if anyone thinks of presenting and presrving purity of ideas and emotions

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Moni. Glad you are enjoying my new posts.