Re-Evaluations – Graham Greene and William Faulkner

A long time ago, I read “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene.  For some reason, I hardly remember why, I disliked it and wrote it off as a spy novel, a thriller, a best seller.  So for the next many years I avoided reading Graham Greene while reading just about every other literary writer in the world.   Then finally about five years ago, after having read some good things about “The End of the Affair” and “A Burnt-Out Case”, I decided to read these novels.  This time I really appreciated Greene’s straightforward style.  There was nothing flashy about his writing, but he had these wonderful plots that kept me completely involved.  But the real turning point was reading “Brighton Rock”, an early Greene novel.  I loved this story about these young punks driving around Brighton, England.  This was the best novel I had read in years.  So for the next few years, I read nearly everything Graham Greene wrote.  Every book by Greene I read captivated me.  Now, unfortunately, I’ve run out of Graham Greene novels to read.

As a child, I was not interested in literature at all.  The only books I really appreciated as a boy were “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.   At college, even though I was majoring in mathematics, I decided to take a course in Contemporary Literature.  One of the books we were assigned was “Absalom, Absalom” by William Faulkner.  This over 400 page novel is notorious for containing some of Faulkner’s most convoluted page-and-a-half long sentences.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not get through this novel.  I had to drop the Contemporary Literature course, because of “Absalom, Absalom”.  The next semester, I again enrolled in Contemporary Literature.  This time “Light in August” was the Faulkner novel on the reading list.   “Light in August” was much more reasonably written without the long run-on sentences, and I actually enjoyed reading it.  I completed the Contemporary Literature course successfully.  After that, William Faulkner was my favorite author.  I read and enjoyed most of Faulkner’s novels in the next few years after that.

A few months ago, after having not read Faulkner for many, many years, I decided to listen on  my drives to and from work to the audio CD of  “Light in August” which I still considered William Faulkner’s finest novel.  This time the novel just completely hit me the wrong way.   This time all of Faulkner’s deep and dark ponderings and reckonings about the possibility that his character Joe Christmas might have “mixed” blood seemed like little more than ill-disguised racism to me.    I suppose one could excuse Faulkner because he wrote these novels in the 1930’s in the deep South.  But already by the 1930s, there were many people who had more progressive racial attitudes.  And I am not about to forgive Faulkner for these Southern attitudes and their deliberate ignorance, after these have done so much damage to the United States during the last ten years.

Have any of you had your opinion of an author drastically change? Please let me know.

Advertisements

12 responses to this post.

  1. “Have any of you had your opinion of an author drastically change?”

    Yes, J R R Tolkein. Loved him when I was in my late teens. Now can’t abide him and his confounded hobbits!

    Like

  2. I never have read Tolkein, though my wife thinks he’s wonderful. The movies were very fine though. I will even go to “The Hobbit” when that becomes a movie, if Peter Jackson makes it.

    Like

  3. Posted by lizzysiddal on October 10, 2009 at 9:57 AM

    The questions you raise are difficult ones …. Are you sure that the thoughts of the character are the thoughts of the author? Is it right to judge a work of art with the aesthetics of the present? An excellent work of art remains excellent, doesn’t it?

    I have no knowledge of Faulkner – I will read him one day. As for Tolkien, I still love Lord of the Rings, even if the prose isn’t the best. Hairy hobbit toes are cute!

    As for the reevaluation of an author, I’m currently going through the same thing – though in reverse – with good old Goethe. More on my blog next week.

    Like

    • Lizzy, Thank You for your comments regarding William Faulkner. You’re right, there must have been some strong reasons in the novels themselves for me to value him so highly when I first read them. One of the quandaries of book reviewing is that there are so many factors that go into one’s opinion of a book, many of them unrelated to the book itself. Much depends on how one is feeling at the time, and feelings are notoriously inconsistent.
      As for Goethe, I did read “The Sorrows of Young Werther” quite a while ago. I didn’t have any strong opinions one way or another at that time. I’m looking forward to reading your entry about Goethe.

      Like

  4. Dear Sir,

    I had exactly the opposite take on “Light in August” reading it recently–I reflected on how profoundly it attacked the ingrained racism of its time in the person of Joe Christmas who is what he is because of the evil of racism. It may be the difference between hearing it and reading it, because I often find that nuance vanishes when one tries to encompass a very complex work through hearing it.

    On the other hand, you may well be right about it and I have just misunderstood.

    I think taking Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August together probably helped that. But I would point out that Light in August was an Oprah book–not using that as a recommendation, but I should think she would tend to shy away from the books that would make the points you react to.

    Thank you for sharing this. In fact, I’ve had my mind changed about Melville, Hawthorne, James, and several others who I thought the hugest bores on the planet. Only recently have I come to know and love them in their complexity.

    Steven

    Like

    • Steven,
      Thank you for your comments regarding “Lignt in August”. Perhaps Faulkner’s dark thoughts near the end of the novel were against the community racism that Joe Christmas faced rather than against Joe Christmas’s own “mixed blood” circumstances. I may have missed that. It says a lot that Oprah would pick this book for her reading club. Also I looked back in my notes and saw that I had re-read “Light in August” about a year before I listened to the audio CD, and at that time I gave the book my highest rating.
      I really like and admire Melville and Hawthorne, but I still think Henry James is mostly a huge bore. Do you have a novel by James that would cause me to change my mind?

      Like

  5. Dear Sir,

    James is a taste perhaps acquired with time and seasoning. I love everything I have read–but it takes a real desire to see what others have seen in him. Perhaps the best introduction to James is something from the earlier period, something simpler, and less complex that the latest. Perhaps something like _Washington Square_ or _Daisy Miller_ is a good introduction to Henry James. Perhaps some of the longer short stories _Altar of the Dead_ might be a place to begin. It took me a while to work my way up to _The Golden Bowl_, my first full-length Jamesian work. And it took me months to read that book, enjoying every word and nuance. But it may be that one simply doesn’t acquire the taste. From _Golden Bowl_ I went on to the much lighter _Spoils of Poynton_ and from there to the aggravating and irritating experience of _The Portrait of a Lady._

    But to start–perhaps Daisy Miller. There is an internet compilation of the 1877 and 1909 variorum of this little book that provides a window both into the text and into James earlier and later methods.

    But as I said, James comes in his own time–it is not a taste forcibly acquired.

    shalom,

    Steven

    Like

    • I have read and enjoyed some early Henry James – “Washington Square” and “The Spoils of Poynton” come to mind. Some of his early work such as “The Turn of the Screw” and “Daisy Miller” I did find a little too precious when I originally read them.. I enjoyed his early work enough that I wanted to read one of his last four novels, especially because like you, there are some reviewers that really admire these works. Yet I have not been able to get involved enough in these to complete them. Perhaps I should read “Daisy Miller” again. It has been at least twenty years since I’ve read it, and I could very well approach it differently this time, especially with the help of the compilation you attached. I’m going to add “Daisy Miller” to my to-be-read list.

      Like

  6. Dear Sir,

    Most sorry, I intended to include the link to the variorum:

    http://www2.newpaltz.edu/~hathawar/daisyvariorum.pdf

    shalom,

    Steven

    Like

  7. Dear Sir,

    Sorry, I misunderstood. And I do understand completely the difficulty of approaching the Late James. However, it is my opinion that these are best read as they were initially issued–in small segments over an extended period. It changes one’s view of the work. I’ve been reading The Amabassadors now in about 3-5 page segments for the last several months. There’s no rush–it’s not going anywhere–so I can take my time. James himself, in his introduction to _The Ambassadors_ suggested this approach.

    I don’t know if it will help. But it does help overcome the sheer strain of keeping track of where the sentences are going. It took me something like six months of sustained reading to get through _The Golden Bowl_–of course, I was reading other things at the same time.

    Any way, please pardon my mistake. I’ve not read enough here to realize that the problem was specifically the later James.

    shalom,

    Steven

    Like

  8. great post as usual .. thanks .. you just gave me a few more ideas to play with

    Like

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: