05 August 2014

A Completely Subjective Ranking of All Twenty William Faulkner Novels

Having read every novel by William Faulkner (whom I believe to be the greatest writer ever, by a rather wide margin), I decided to rank them, not from best to worst (for that would be arrogant and pretentious to assume such powers of judgment) but rather from my least favorite to favorite (i.e. utterly subjectively).  I know that this list may well make some Faulkner aficionados (if, indeed, anyone fitting this description happens to read this post) react vehemently, perhaps violently, but such is the subjective nature of Faulkner’s oeuvre, so to them I say TS, and I don’t mean Eliot.

I have always been frustrated by the snooty, dry, collegiate attitude most “intellectuals” have about Mr. Faulkner’s work, and this post is, in some ways, my attempt to reach those who may not have read much of his writing before they are subjected to this.  Having been introduced to WF in college, I went into reading his writing with the idea that he was dry, incomprehensible, pretentious, with the assurance that he, a debilitated alcoholic, had written perhaps two decent novels.  I soon found that nothing could be further from the truth (and hence my reading all of his books).  Indeed, William Faulkner is perhaps the funniest writer I have ever read, and also the most moving, and the fact that he is often both simultaneously is a testament not only to his greatness, but to how off-base most interpretations of his canon have been.

Anyway, enough pontification.  To the list.

20.  The Unvanquished: This is a collection of stories (most were originally published in the Saturday Evening Post and Scribner’s, magazines not known for their high literary merit) that WF edited into a coherent narrative to publish as a novel, for money.  While there are memorable moments (a group of mesmerized freed slaves who think they are going into the Jordan River while actually in rural Mississippi, for one, is simply haunting, and an hilarious satire of army bureaucracy in which an old woman is given a literal horde of mules to replace her team that was confiscated made me chuckle) but these are too few and far between.  William Faulkner never wrote a bad novel, but he did write forgettable ones, and, unfortunately, this is foremost amongst them.

19. Knight’s Gambit: Another book that is more a collection of short stories than actual narrative.  This one is a collection of mystery stories, all centered on protagonist Gavin Stevens (of Go Down, Moses fame).  While some of the stories are quite effective, most, especially the eponymous novella that ends the book, are too obtuse to work as whodunits and too pulpy to work as high art.

18.  Light in August: I know full well that placing this book so low on the list will put me at odds (to say the least) with most fans of Faulkner, but, as I said, these are not judgments so much as opinions.  This is a great – nay, a virtuosic – piece of writing, filled with masterful language, a plot that moves like the wind, and insights into the nature of humanity and race relations that maintain relevance without ever overwhelming the storytelling or becoming preachy.  However, the main character, Joe Christmas, is just too savage for me to identify with (and yes, I know why he is savage) and the other characters (Lena, Bunch, Hightower) are all a bit too vacant, thus giving me the constant sense of catastrophic events viewed from afar, without much of a personal connection…Had I had a Ratliffe or a Dilsey (see The Hamlet and The Sound and the Fury) to take my hand and lead me into this story, I might place it at the top of the list.  As it stands, I appreciate it, but don’t really want to experience it again.

17.  Mosquitoes: Faulkner’s second novel reads like The Great Gatsby without any depth whatsoever, which was, ironically, its point.  This is a story about a group of one-dimensional elites (and a few one-dimensional destitutes) out for a yachting trip on Lake Pontchartrain, during which nothing of any consequence happens; none of the characters really grow, none experience any particularly life–changing epiphanies.  I must say, however, that I did enjoy it (perhaps because there was no weight of expectation under which to be crushed?), in the same way one might enjoy a soporific, nap-filled afternoon. Too, some of the descriptions of New Orleans are beautiful, precursors to later brilliance.

16.  The Reivers: Faulkner’s last novel is perhaps his funniest, and is built around a really cool motif – the travails of a group of car thieves in 1905, endeavoring to get from Jefferson to Memphis before there were really drivable roads.  And once they get there (spoiler alert: they do), madcap hilarity ensues.  No one in this novel is trustworthy, but pretty much everyone is likeable, and though this novel lacks the gravity of some of Faulkner’s other works, it serves as a nice counterpoint to them while standing quite well on its own.

15.  Soldier’s Pay: The closest Faulkner came to horror was in his first novel, published when he was in his late twenties.  Soldier’s Pay tells the story of a horrifically wounded veteran returning from World War One, and the impact his return has on the people (his friends, his family, his fiancé) whom he’d left behind.  Though some of the writing is terribly green – his descriptions of nature, though poetic, often run quite long and ultimately distract from the story rather than augmenting it – I’ve never read anything quite like it.  The central character, Donald Mahon, is almost literally a void, a walking head-wound, who serves only as a nexus around which the other characters in the novel revolve, initiating, albeit passively, deep inner turmoil and myriad  forcible reactions in everyone with whom he comes in contact.  I’m not sure if I can say I enjoyed this novel, but I found it tremendously effective - as well as tremendously creepy.

14.  Intruder in the Dust.  A black man is accused of killing a white man and is exonerated by a group of black and white teenagers working together with a spinster from an aristocratic family.  Anyone who thinks of Faulkner as a racist: read this novel and then get back to me.  A simple tale, beautifully told, and rarely have the problems of racial inequality in the South been so boldly addressed.

13.  Sanctuary.  If not for this novel, Faulkner might have remained in obscurity, a well-regarded but terminally overlooked regional writer, and you might not be reading this list (or even know who William Faulkner is).  He wrote this as a “pot-boiler” he said, to make money, he said, but despite these seeming denouncements, there is real depth here.  The story centers around college student Temple Drake, a character who manages to be both depraved and vacant, fascinating and dull, and her corruption at the hands of a group of bootleggers led by a real bad dude named Popeye, one of – if not the – most reprehensible characters in all of literature.  This book is still shocking today, with scenes that are literally cringe-inducing.  Sanctuary, Faulkner’s sixth novel, sold well enough to garner him some national recognition, thus bringing attention to his largely out-of-print earlier works (The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying amongst them), and would be an important work for that reason, if for nothing else.  But this is not mere pulp, and was obviously not written simply for money, as some of the writing reaches truly Faulknerian heights (and that, my friends, is saying something). 

12.  Flags in the Dust, which bridged the gap between Mosquitoes and The Sound and the Fury (gasp!) is, as one might expect, the mother of all transitional novels.  Thankfully, it is also a fine (if rather rambling) work in its own right.  This, the first of WF’s Yoknapatawpha County books, sets the scene for almost everything that follows, introduces us to many of his most famous characters (Snopes, Peabody, Gavin Stevens), literally draws the map of his world.  Like Pylon (see number 11) it deals with aviation and living on the fringes of respectable society (two themes Faulkner would return to often as they were central to his persona), and like Soldier’s Pay it deals with trauma in the aftermath of war.  Bayard Sartoris, daredevil aviator, returns from the First World War.  His brother does not.  His survivor’s guilt, his aristocratic family’s decay, and his society’s rapid transformation frame a dark, beautiful tale, the writing in which, for the first time, truly sounds like William Faulkner.    

11.  Pylon: One of Faulkner’s strengths as a writer is impressionism – his ability to not only get one to sympathize or even empathize with his characters, but to literally experience what they are experiencing, despite the subjective and widely varying natures of our myriad consciousnesses – and rarely is this strength more fully realized than in Pylon.  Influenced by T.S. Eliot and written with profits in mind (I know, I don’t get it either) Pylon tells the story of a group of barnstorming flyers, essentially gypsies of the air, who live a dangerous life on the fringes of what is acceptable in society, and the newspaper reporter assigned to cover their exploits.  All of the main characters struggle with alcohol abuse, big time.  And reading this novel, I (who have never been drunk) understood, at least viscerally, what it was to lose control, to fall apart, and to view the world through a cracked, blurry lens of hung-over despair.  I not only felt for these characters, but felt like these characters, if (thankfully) only briefly.  An unrecognized gem.

10.  Requiem for a Nun.  Here’s a case of a sequel besting the original (the original, in this case, being the aforementioned Sanctuary).  This novel focuses even more fully on Temple Drake, even more fascinating in her vacancy than she was in Sanctuary, who, a decade later, is still dealing with the personal damage, perhaps even ruination, wrought by the events of her college days.  The main plot (revolving around the events that lead up to and follow the death of Temple’s child) are written as a play, and constitute quite an effective drama.  These events are juxtaposed with a concise (and gorgeously written) history of Yoknapatawpha County, a combination that may initially seem odd but in actuality gives this work strange, holistic complexity.

9.  The Mansion.  The third book in Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy, and the weakest of the three.  That statement, however, should point not to the failings of this book (there are few) but rather to the strengths of the others.  As no one should read this novel without first reading The Hamlet and The Town (see numbers 5 and 8 respectively), I won’t go into detail here.

8.  The Town.  The second book in Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy.  See numbers 9, and 5.

7.  Go Down, Moses.  This beautiful, beautiful work, like The Unvanquished and Knight’s Gambit is a collection of stories edited into a comprehensive whole, but is far more successful in its execution.  These stories, all of them, both stand on their own and seamlessly add to the narrative (loose though it may be), and there are some real doozies amongst them.  The central piece is the highly-regarded (and rightly so) “The Bear,” which, despite an infuriatingly-complex middle section, is a towering achievement, a piece that stands amongst the best short works ever written.  But “The Bear” does not tower alone.  “Pantaloon in Black,” a pseudo ghost story, tells the story of a black mill worker who, devastated by the death of his wife, falls into a pattern of wild abandonment and self-destruction that callous white observers take as verification of frivolity and brutishness in the black race but is, in actuality, anything but.  (Truly, “Pantaloon” is rivaled only by Faulkner’s “Dry September” as the most searing condemnation of racism from a white author I’ve ever read.)  And “The Old People,” a sort of precursor to “The Bear,” is a story of hunting and spirituality, so effective that even I, a long time vegetarian, understood the communion between hunter and hunted, man and the land.  This is considered Faulkner’s most spiritual book, and perhaps his most emotional, and his genuine love of humanity, nature, and the vanishing wilderness is in evidence (in his breathtaking imagery) throughout.
6.  If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (The Wild Palms) is, in essence, two loosely-related novellas, both dealing with the mysteries and intricacies of man/ woman relationships.  “The Wild Palms” tells the story of an illicit, passionate love affair that results in a long night-flight around the country (to really cool places like Utah and Louisiana).  The genuine, doomed passion Harry and Charlotte share drives this narrative, and is juxtaposed nicely with the relationship (or lack thereof) between a convict and a pregnant woman in “Old Man,” the novel’s other tale.  Far from a romance, “Old Man” is the story of a prisoner sent to work the levees during the 1937 Mississippi River flood who, unwittingly and involuntarily, is subsequently charged with transporting a pregnant woman, via rowboat, to safety.  Swept far off course by the power of the flood, the two meander for weeks in the backcountry, having myriad adventures but growing no closer.  There is humanity here, however, and love, albeit nonromantic and aloof.  Jerusalem is Faulkner at his storytelling best, and the gorgeous writing matches this narrative blow for blow.  (My favorite line in all of his works comes from “Old Man.”  The convict, who has been hearing the colossal sound of the flood throughout his day of travel to work the levee, asks an old black man what the noise, the “profound, deep whisper” he has been hearing is.  The old black man replies, “Dat’s him.  Dat’s de Ole Man.”)

5. The Hamlet.  Character-driven writing at its very best, The Hamlet and, indeed, the entire Snopes trilogy (See numbers 8 and 9), is a magnificent insight into human nature, into “The human heart in conflict with itself,” which Faulkner said is the basis for all good drama.  While ostensibly telling the story of the slow takeover of Jefferson by the tenacious, pitiless Snopes clan (whom one reviewer equated to an obstinate moss rather than a family), it, in truth, tells the story of Jefferson, of Yoknapatawpha County, of the US, of the world, of humanity in general.  The gamut of human emotions is run here, from the absolutely hilarious “Spotted Horses” in which a group of yokels is duped into buying – and then trying to harness – a herd of dangerous, wild ponies, to the heartbreaking portrait of an abused, forgotten housewife who quietly keeps her family together despite her husband’s violence and fury and insanity.  Ratliffe (or Ratcliffe, depending on Faulkner’s mood), a sewing-machine salesman and the trilogy’s main protagonist and foil to antagonist Flem Snopes, is, unequivocally, my favorite Faulkner character.  But every character in this 1200 page epic “stands on his [or her] legs and casts a shadow.”  All are beautifully characterized, explored thoroughly, and shown to be worthy of our admiration (or at least respect).  (I even found myself momentarily pitying the merciless Flem.)  Few works have made me laugh – or cry - this much.

4.  Absalom, Absalom.  This book is both highly regarded and notorious, and both for good reasons: never have I read a more difficult book (and I’ve read James Joyce and Henry Miller), never have I read a more virtuosic piece of writing.  The story here (if you can follow it) is a terrific one.  An examination of the decline of the South after the Civil War, Absalom, Absalom! is the story of Thomas Sutpen who wants to forge an empire in Mississippi, but who is ultimately destroyed by his own sons (and one mad bastard of an oversight).  But it’s the writing that’s the star here.  Holding the Guinness Book of World Records record for the longest grammatically-correct sentence in the English language (some 1,200 words), this entire work gives the impression that Faulkner was out to show his genius and mastery of his craft.  Absalom, Absalom is simply a monolith, a massive – if sometimes infuriating – triumph, an extremely difficult but extremely gratifying (and important) work.

3.  A Fable.  Anyone who has a problem with my placing Light in August at number 18 will, most likely, have a problem with my placing this book at number three, even though it won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize the year it came out, even though Faulkner considers it his masterpiece.  Yes, it’s now considered minor Faulkner and has been largely ignored since its publication.  But I love, love, love this book.  Faulkner, at the end of his life, listed Ernest Hemingway last on his list of all contemporary American writers, not because he was bad (by any stretch) but because he never deviated from his style, never tried anything new, never challenged himself.  This work, in light of that quote, could be seen as William challenging himself, trying something new, deviating, if not exactly from his style than at least from his execution of that style.  Set in France during the First World War, A Fable is, well, a fable, a parable of the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, and quite different from anything else WF ever wrote.   The main character (ahem…Jesus) is an enigmatic corporal who, almost single-handedly, brings the entire war to a halt and, in the process, exposes the war for what it actually is: greed disguised as nationalism and politics.  A Fable has much in common with the aforementioned Absalom, Absalom! in that it focuses more on the human condition and the various aspects of human nature than on character-driven narrative. The characters here, as in Absalom, Absalom! are allegorical representations of diverse facets of humanity, playing out, in their myriad interactions, the eternal struggles we have faced for millennia (the endeavoring for peace in uncertain times, the concepts of forgiveness, and bravery, and heroism, and love, the striving to find meaning and redemption in the world). The lack of traditional characterization in no way undermines A Fable's emotional impact, for we can see, as a result, expressions of ourselves - and our world and history - within these characters.  This is a potent anti-war novel that never devolves into preachiness or politics, and thus stands along with All Quiet on the Western Front as the greatest war novel I’ve read.  Simultaneously dense and easy to read, straightforward and beautiful, this is the most unfairly overlooked book in the Faulkner library, and, one might well make the case, all of literature.

2.  The Sound and the Fury.  William Faulkner’s first three books were all fine works, successful (if modestly) in their own ways.  But nothing in them pointed the way to this work.  In fact, nothing in world literature, not even the stream-of-consciousness in Joyce’s work, pointed the way to this.  I can only conjecture that, sometime in late 1928, just after finishing Flags in the Dust, Faulkner was possessed by a being from a far superior species, who then proceeded to write both this work and the subsequent As I Lay Dying.  All joking aside, this book is just amazing, from the masterful narrative of the speechless, profoundly mentally-disabled Benjy, to the powerful, plangent, suicidal meditations of Quentin (who, though lugubrious, is amongst the finest characters WF ever crafted), to the hilarious, sardonic musings of the abominable Jason, to the quiet, unheralded stoicism, grace, and steadiness of Dilsey, the black servant who serves as the truest matriarch of an aristocratic white family gone south (figuratively, of course).  And then there’s Caddie.  Caddie appears in this novel only as a ghost, but what an unbelievably beautiful ghost, and a ghost who is the central character to the whole shebang.  Faulkner has said that he tried four times to capture her essence in this novel and failed.  Don’t you believe it for a second.  This dazzling novel shows that William Faulkner (or the entity then possessing him) could do pretty much whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, like no one before or after him ever could.

1.  As I Lay Dying.  My life as a writer, and as a reader, can be neatly divided into two parts: pre As I Lay Dying and post As I Lay Dying.  Reading this book, I felt as though parts of my brain I’d never even fathomed were opening up, widely.  This is not the greatest plot Faulkner has ever contrived (I’ve heard it summed up, neatly, as: the matriarch of a family dies and her family sets off on a trip to bury her – and these people have problems), nor is it his most virtuosic writing (I would give that nod to Absalom Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury), nor is it peopled with Faulkner’s best characters (most are shadows and those who have real depth – Darl, Jewel, Vardaman – are often unapproachable), nor is it terribly impressionistic, nor does it say deep, profound things about human nature, or race relations, or the human heart in conflict with itself.  What makes this novel my favorite by Faulkner – or anyone – is simply that it is the most fully realized piece of art I’ve ever experienced.  Here, ladies and gentlemen, is pure, unadulterated inspiration, the most wonderfully lucid waking fever dream, a work that made me want to try mad, impossible things with my own writing, and that showed me, unquestionably, that such mad, impossible things were, well, possible, if improbable.  Writing on an upturned wheelbarrow in the middle of the night in the dead of winter in the University of Mississippi’s boiler room, Mr. Faulkner realized his full potential, and, in the process, set the bar sky high for all other writers, nay, all other artists.  Never again would he reach such giddy heights, but never again would anyone else.  Consider the following: “Before us the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled monstrously into fading swirls travelling along the surface for an instant, silent, impermanent and profoundly significant…” WF is describing a river swollen after an almost supernatural thunderstorm, but could be describing the reading, and the writing, of this novel.  Not only Faulkner’s masterpiece, but a masterpiece of all time.

There.  I’m done.  Hope you enjoyed it.  Fight me if you didn’t, and make your own review!

Daniel Brugioni
Hyde Park, Chicago, IL
July 28 – August 5, 2014


At 10:52 AM, Anonymous John said...

I was an English teacher, like you, except that my career is now fifteen years in the past. I haven't read all of Faulkner, only The Sound..., Absalom..., The Unvanquished, and The Bear. Now I'm picking up pieces I missed--reading Silas Lapham--and Faulkner has come to mind. I admire you're frankly subjective approach: each of us responds to art in his or her own way, and none of us can be truly objective. Your passion for these books is evident and makes me want to read them, or at least some of them. So you've done a service, and you'll get no fight from me.


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