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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Hallmarks of Good Prose: Economy, Simplicity, and Clarity. What would Faulkner say?

An interchange between William Faulkner and his cousin, Sally Murray Williams:

“Bill, when you write those things, are you drinkin’? “Not always.”

Faulkner, confident of his own genius, determined to write for himself, would say to Sally Murray and everyone else, “I don’t give a damn whether any body reads my books.”

I offer here two samples from The Bear, 123 pages long in The Portable Faulkner. I quote from a passage of 35 lines and three sentences. I’ve chosen the third sentence with 13 lines, which has some punctuation, unlike the first two. (ee cummings shunned capitals but William from Oxford likes to use them in his own way.)

“And he probably knew it was vain but He had created them and knew them capable of all things because He had shaped them out of the primal Absolute which contained all and had watched them since in their individual exaltation and baseness, and they themselves not knowing why or how nor even when: until at last He saw that they were all Grandfather all of them and that even from them the elected and chosen the best the very best He could expect (not hope mind: not hope) would be Bucks and Buddies and not even enough of them and in the third generation not even Bucks and Buddies.” Economy, no, simplicity, no, clarity, no.

But from the same story, this also is William Faulkner.

“Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him. Then it moved. It crossed the glade without haste, walking for an instant into the sun’s full glare and out of it, and stopped again and looked back at him across one shoulder. Then it was gone. It didn’t walk into the woods. It faded, sank back into the wilderness without motion as he had watched a fish, a huge old bass, sink back into the dark depths of its pool and vanish without even any movement of its fins.” Seven sentences. (Of course, Microsoft had no idea what to do with the first passage but highlighted ‘appear’ in the second one.) But it works, even if you haven’t read this story.

But I’m inclined in my old age to think it’s a fine idea to read Faulkner in a soft chair, in low light, with a bottle of bourbon or wine beside you. No hurry, read him aloud, ease into his world, even if you can’t pronounce the world of which he is the sole proprietor… Yoknapatawpha.

Next week: Only the shadow knows what I’ll write. But it will be related to literature, the love of my life.

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