The Book That Changed My Life

Paul West

Paul West is the author of over seventeen novels, including Life With Swan and The Tent of Orange Mist. He has received many prestigious awards, including a Lannan Literary Award for fiction.

Samuel Beckett, Watt
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

Thanks to Faulkner, to the very thought of him, between forty and fifty I began to feel unassailable I spite of everything. I wasn't, of course, but I felt that way, enough to get on with my writing and to mop up like high-calorie gravy such praise as came my way. If you fix one eye on Faulkner and the other on Melville, and you remember some of what Keats said about negative capability, you can just about manage to commit the delectable autonomy known as writing for its own sake - for the glory, the rebirth, the illusion of doing what nobody has ever done before. There's nothing more unassailable than that, even as things fall apart around you and you see the fruitflies ascending to power without composing so much as a paragraph. Vary the image a bit, amassing the bestiary of the foul, and you can add Zola's toad of disgust, which he said you have the swallow every morning before getting on with the work. Swallow it, note the hegemony of the fruitflies, and indeed the demise of yet another nobel unicorn gone to roost in Paris or now plying trade on Wall Street, and you then become clear enough to write for the next few hours as if the world were waiting for your sun to rise and would do nothing serious without you. That's the feeling, the pumped-up, inspired elation that lofts you---me-from novel to novel.

My admission includes the fact that , apart from admiring his expertise at caricatural opera, I never took much interest in Yoknapatawpha, the fantastic name apart only slightly below Brobdingnag. They might have been pinball salesmen in Ethiopia for all I cared. What bowled me over was WR's noise, that humming and thrumming you heard in the distance even as you opened just about any novel of his except the first two. It was a deliberate obfuscation of meaning yet done with meanings, using meaning to obliterate some other meaning, and the message, if such, was something choral and echoic with in its intimate hinterland just about everything else of his you'd read. He wasn't creative-writing, he was doing solo recitative, singing to himself all the while, wso that while you have Gavin Stevens in focus, one work of gab to eight hundred of deviant penumbral gesture, some of the sign-language a thousand years old animal to animal, there comes out of the distance this electric whirr like an old Chickasaw cooling fan gone wring, making more noise than a door buzzer, and it the real diapason of sounds appropriate to being construed by them in a situ as have ears to see. On he goes, a-droning and a-gyrating, urging us to get the rhythm of all this, this the life-pulse of the banjo full of blood.

Faulkner is here to tell us he is a writer of voice, not the tone, much less than Henry James occupied with hyperfine finitudes of decipherable intonation, but more his own barker, not so much a voice-over as a chorus-over of his own endlessly speculative, insinuant noise multiplied by itself many times. He is proud of his wares, reluctant ever to let them go until voluptuously plumbed, and even then, when they have been emptied out over a long haul of seismic paragraphs, unwilling to leave them alone because they have become as sea-shells, culverts of his own clamor all over again, It is one of the most effective vocal tricks in literature, akin to but utterly different from Beckett's antic cavort and the one prevailing voice yapping about voices. Faulkner drains the tune out of all his people and refurbishes it for solo rant. Djuna Barnes in Nightwood and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Autumn of the Patriarch tried something similar, she assigning the incessant voice to one character who blooms vocally larger than the book, he melding the voices of a community into a presumptuous vox populi, bot of them intent on how a voice can overpower not ony listeners but also the mere sound of the world going about its business that Beckett called "aerial surf." The highly individuated characters in Waugh, say, and James and Nabokov never do this, so we might conclude that Faulkner makes an anthropological point in spike of his societal underpinnings. Faulkner works head-on with elan vital, intent on the ontological significance of the constant human shout amid which a narrator's characters vie for a hearing.

Astronomers speak continually not only of those who were truly great but also of blackbody radiation, the buzz left over from the big bang, still going on like a permanent cosmic hangover, more a hiss, perhaps, or even a sharp-edged sigh: an afterbirth with some disappointment in it. You can by DCs of it or tune it in on a radio or a TV. Faulkner, I have felt, provides a similar obbligato in his prose, forever asking us to heed the fizz of things not immediately being written about. It is as if th vital presence of phenomena in the preceding sentence or paragraph leaks over into what follows it. So there is almost a simultaneity in the background, emphasizing that things, people, voices, matter not only in their own right but also for where they have come from. Inseparability of the context is a Faulkner fetish, but who is to gainsay him? Ground is his main figure because his view of humans is processive, which is to say he views them as subject to a process such as what's now called punctuated evolution going on in and through them even as they ry to think about something else. He is an ace at this. It's why his novels feel so spacious-he needs the huge counterpoint for that stifling deep Southern ethos, smaller-seeming for being monotonous. He deals in the endless proliferation of connected characteristics, and this amounts to a vision of createdness reported by a crushingly observant man.

Paul West