A clumsy question and Faulkner’s powerful answer

“But as—about reading, any experience the writer has ever suffered is going to influence what he does” – William Faulkner

Photo by Ralph Thompson.

60 years old William Faulkner had some clues on the importance of his works and what would be his legacy when he accepted to be the first writer in residence at the University of Virginia. He wrote while he was there but he also had a lot to say. For his interviews and seminars he even accepted to read again some of his works, something uncommon for him who believed authors had no need to revisit their own books.

The two stays in 1957 and 1958 generated a lot of content, both from the author and the academics. In the website dedicated for this period it’s possible to hear Faulkner talking art, literature and even his hesitations towards cinema.

In one of these lectures Faulkner reads excerpts from “The sound and the fury”, his favorite. Of course, such a statement wouldn’t go unnoticed and a participant asked him the reasons for this:

Unidentified participant: What is the reason that this book from which you read is your favorite [novel]?

William Faulkner: I think that—that no writer is ever quite satisfied with—with the book. That's why he writes another one. That he is trying to put on paper something that is going to be a little better than anybody else has put on paper up to date, and this is my favorite one because I worked the hardest on it, not to accomplish what I hoped to do with it, but I anguished and—and raged over it more than over any other to try to make something out of it, that it was impossible for—for me to do. It's the same feeling that the parent may have toward the—the incorrigible or the abnormal child, maybe.

Photo by Dean Cadle.

Echoing the position of Anne Marie-Willis about how the world can influence ourselves, William Faulkner points the importance of the most indirect activities for the artist development:

Unidentified participant: Your books have been compared to Bach's fugues. Do you objectively plan out that they're going to have that [...] effect or does it just come naturally?

William Faulkner: Well, it's—it's not quite planned because probably I am not capable of that, but I think that there's too much work goes into—to any book to call it a natural process. But as—about reading, any experience the writer has ever suffered is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he's read, but the music he's heard, the pictures he's seen, and it wasn't that I went to Bach to—to get myself out of a—a—a jam in the work, but probably what I had heard of Bach—at the moment when I needed to use counterpoint, there it was.

For Jorge Luís Borges the accident that risked his literature would also be denying the meaning of his life if his fears proved real. This passion followed by a profound sense of meaningfulness is also present in Faulkner’s words while answering to a clumsy question:

Unidentified participant: Do you think—what I'm trying[...] . [audience laughter] [...]. Do you—do you think before you write or do you write— [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Well, I'm glad you stopped there. Thank you. [audience laughter] Did—I think I know what you mean by the stimulus. It's—you're alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He's flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. [audience laughter] The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them, not individually but—but as a race. He endures. He's outlasted dinosaurs. He's outlasted atom bombs. He'll outlast communism. Simply because there's some part in him that keeps him from ever knowing that he's whipped, I suppose. That as frail as he is, he—he lives up to his codes of behavior. He shows compassion when there's no reason why he should. He's braver than he should be. He's more honest. The writer is—is so interested, he sees this as so amazing and—and you might say so beautiful. Anyway, it—it's so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man—frail, foolish man—has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way. Anyway, some gallant way. That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It's—it's the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there's always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You're never bored. You never reach satiation

Complement your reading with this text by one of the greatest female brazilian writers, Lygia Fagundes Telles, on the role of the writer.