Remoteness beautifies literature because it reveals its core of universality, but it can also engulf it in misunderstandings. Anyone who sees the story or the world of a novel very closely runs the risk of undervaluing it because they pay attention above all to its connection with reality, like someone who knows the model in a portrait and judges the painting by its resemblance. Any city, invented or real, that we know only through novels takes on a mythological glow for us, and even its name becomes poetic, although it is quite common for those who use it daily. The first time I saw the name of Memphis in the typeface of white letters on a green background of the American highways, what I saw was not a direction indicator, but the word spell that contained for me a wealth of music and literature, and also of heroism and political militancy. In that name resounded lives of bluesmen and Faulkner characters, plus the tragic shadow of Martin Luther King.
It is the poetry of names, and of places where one has never been. Just shortly after reading that indicator, the taxi driver who was taking us from the airport gave us a signal, and we saw an immense river at the same time that we heard the name in a deep voice with a southern accent: “The mighty Mississippi river!”. There was an exclamation in the tone of the voice, in the simple enunciation of the syllables of the name. It is the exoticism of the distance one of the reasons that attracts us so much towards Faulkner’s novels. The names of the places take on a definite solemnity that also have the names of the characters, and even the titles of the books. The world that we find in each of those novels that are linked together like the mythological legends in Greek tragedies is timeless and archaic; all the loose threads that Faulkner was weaving over many years are brought together in a single narrative that has something of a cosmogony. Some of its major titles allude to the Old Testament: Go Down, Moses or Absalom, Absalom!
It is good that the novel is measured with the myth in this time in which it seems that the food of the imagination has to be exclusively the fast food of the audiovisual. Faulkner was a modernist who had grown up by reading Conrad, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, but he was also a man deeply rooted in his village and in his region, with an ear attentive to the peculiar narrative cadences of a very oral society, and with a sense of justice or decency that always prompted him not to close his eyes to the radical brutality of the society in which he had grown up, and towards which he felt a mixture of fierce belonging and rejection without relief. For a European reader, for Spanish fans who approached Faulkner through his influence on Latin American teachers, his stories were more powerful because of the exoticism of their settings and because of the heroic or abysmal stature of characters that could only exist in literature. . Borges had translated The Wild Palms. Onetti claimed with a kind of shameless frankness that all her work was a plagiarism of Faulkner.
You had to read it more slowly to realize that above the mythological or biblical archetypes there was a burden of political denunciation, of refutation of the lies of official history. In Faulkner’s territory, the invented and real topography of Yoknapatawpha, there had certainly been a genesis and an original sin: in the genesis was the expulsion and extermination of indigenous populations, and the destruction of the natural environment to turn the land into cotton plantations; The original sin was the unapologetic crime of slavery, which was not erased after the defeat of the South in the war, but gave rise to another more lasting and no less cruel crime, which was that of segregation, and which comes to our very days.
Faulkner is something more than timeless: he is relevant because in the daily present of the United States, the abscess of racism continues to explode in front of everyone, strengthened by social injustice, legitimized by a denial of reality and history, which had changed. less than everyone thought.
It was watching in the newspapers about the rise of white supremacism and relentless police brutality that Michael Gorra, an excellent historian of literature, came back to Faulkner. He wanted to study in detail the presence in his novels of slavery, of the civil war, of the so-called Reconstruction: the way in which Faulkner exercised his critical gaze in solitude just at the time when the most prestigious historians were allied with novelists and openly reactionary filmmakers to invent a flattering and deceitful image of the so-called lost cause: the south would not have risen up in defense of a barbarous system of exploitation and purchase and sale of human beings, but of the right to sovereignty of the States against the despotism of the federal government, and of a ceremonial and agrarian civilization, almost pastoral, incompatible with the industrial capitalism of the north.
The lie was so powerful that it still lasts. The absence of historical review has legitimized an underground persistence of racism that was accentuated during the Obama presidency and exploded out of control thanks to the incendiary demagoguery of Donald Trump. That is why the newly published book of Michael Cap, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, being a clairvoyant inquiry into literature, it also possesses the urgency of a political essay. A novelist is usually much sharper in the stories he tells than in his personal opinions. Faulkner always had the courage to speak publicly what he thought, but was only truly free from the prejudices of his time, his land and his class when he exercised the freedom of his imagination. They called him a traitor and received death threats. He answered an interview drunkenly and said terrible things about the South and about the Negroes of which the next day he was horrified, and always ashamed. In his novels, blacks, poor people, women possess a full humanity that would take a long time to be recognized by law, and that even today is very often denied them in practice.
‘The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War’
Author: Michael Cap.
Editorial: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020
Language: English. 448 pages.