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Mr. Blotner, Mr. Feaster, and Mr. Faulkner

Faulkner: A Biography

by Joseph Blotner
Random House, 1,846 of text, 269 of notes (2 volumes) pp., $25.00

Be attentive: Mr. Feaster is emerging from his bath. There he has spent some fifteen minutes soaking, the warm gray water high as his collar. He has been considering what the heat of his tub has done to his sperm, for he has read that such heat kills, penetrating even the soft protective sacking of the scrotum; and he has been pondering, consequently, the possibilities lost, the thousand or moreso lives unrealized, the risks untaken, sparks unstruck, the deaths for which he cannot be held accountable—not by the state, or even by the papacy.

We must be attentive because everything we now observe will pass: the water of his bath will disappear as easily as Mr. Feaster’s breath. It will untub with a sound too common to comment on. The ring which remains is silent. Planes’ at O’Hare aren’t heard either. The multitude is always moaning. They would bloat our bellies like soaked beans if we’d let them—crowd our thoughts—though unlike food and water, consciousness, itself, fills nothing up.

We must be attentive because Mr. Feaster’s not on camera; his moves have not been registered; the angles his elbows have assumed do not remain like played cards; and his thoughts…as for them, they do not fluster the air so much as an arm wave. Feaster cannot complain. Presently he will forget all this. What is most of his life, even to himself, but background noise?

Many millions of men exist for no purpose now, and to no effect whatever. Their presence shall not be missed; their passing neither mourned nor noted. We have more than we need even to support our economies. Perhaps snaps of their bodies—victims of flood, murder, earthquake, war, famine, suicide, disease—will occasionally appear on our screens, in our papers and magazines, where we shall see them clogging roads or rivers; and certainly centuries of nameless mortals have gone before us; the whole earth is simply a grave; yet we do not have to put them behind us as we each must our parents; they have never been a part of us, noticeably loved or harmed us; they have never been human; they have merely been foreigners, poor men, madmen, Persians, Protestants, huns—faceless hordes, census numbers—and it is only their corpses which still cause us any concern, since consciousness, as I’ve already observed, is nothing…no thing; because one gunny sack full of Polish teeth takes up more room in the world than all the agony of their extraction.

History, as it has been generally composed by our historians, has regarded the multitude, as Mr. Feaster does his freckles or his unspent sperm, with an occasional odd curiosity. The closing lines of Middlemarch:

…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

…they are a novelist’s curtain speech, and are rather more optimistic than might be, for the increasing illness of the world, indeed the history of the world for good or ill in a measure heretofore unrecognized, may depend on unhistoric acts; though if, in any way, it does so, we may properly wonder why they are so unhistoric. Is it because, and only because, the lives of which these acts comprise the greater part are hidden? and why do they pass so unremarked?

Ah, but Feaster, if a sudden frost were to fix you as firmly as it’s all been described in Orlando, or the ash of a burning mountain poison yet preserve you for a thousand years, then the future would marvel at these tiles and taps, these vials and soaps, rough rags and soft papers. It would mount in a museum your high school ring, wonder at your watch, your St. Christopher medal; and then your body, from dental crown and crew cut to appendix scar and circumcision, would become, as all enduring human matter does, abstract and general; you would not be a member any longer, but a species, a measure like the meter bar in Paris.

Yet what a price the rest of us would have to pay to get Feaster and his bathing house into history. We should have to hope for, then suffer, a cataclysm. As it is, the steamed mirror only faintly reflects him; his plump feet track the mat; he dampens a body-long rough Italian towel with his furry red chest, and, inconveniently, he sneezes. Exit the soul. God bless.

Joseph Blotner’s massive Egyptian work is not so much a monument to a supremely gifted writer as it is the great man’s grave itself down which the biographer’s piously gathered data drops like sheltering dirt, and if there is a resurrection of any kind it consists of the re-emergence of William Faulkner in the featureless form of Henry Feaster.

Faulkner and Feaster—well, they’re both private men, men who prefer that no notice be taken of them…

About the biography. Don’t tell the bastards anything. It cant matter to them. Tell them I was born of an alligator and a nigger slave at the Geneva Conference two years ago. Or whatever you want to tell them.

…who live between the cracks of great events and cultivate their solitude as others do glads or redolent begonias, yet they differ in one rather critical respect: Feaster’s life is like Feaster, unhistoric, the rest of the world would have to recede and leave him before we should pay any heed to his comically waterworn presence, while the singular events which Faulkner lived through so quietly, the way a palm stings between claps, were of his own devising, and we cannot consequently say that he did not wish the world to know him. He insisted it was to know him, however, on his own terms, in his myths: as the pilot with the limp, the reserved and mysterious poet who drank to discourage the pain he said came from a silver plate in his head, the bedraggled and barefoot bohemian, the courtly gent, or eventually and more honestly as the distinguished author of his books, thus never in the weakness and secrecy of bed or binge, or anywhere he did not seem as solid and imposing as his grandfather’s cemetery statue, its stone head.

…lifted a little in that gesture of haughty pride which repeated itself generation after generation with a fateful fidelity, his back to the world and his carven eyes gazing out across the valley where his railroad ran, and the blue changeless hills beyond, and beyond that, the ramparts of infinity itself.

Still, Feaster remains in motion. His arms meet on his belly as indifferently as tweezers. Is this a hug, this ambiguous gesture, or does Feaster feel a chill as the bathroom fan sucks the moisture from his freckles? Those freckles—alas—he’s scarcely seen them. They live beneath the hairy leafage of his breast unnoticed as aborigines. We can’t be too attentive. Feaster is saying bye-bye to his bath. Shall we allow his head to have a sad wag? Down the drain, so to speak, he muses. Glug-a-lug. Yes. Inconceivable—the prodigality of Nature. Incalculable—the costs of History.

And anyone who ever saw Faulkner in the street, sat beside him in the classroom, sometimes had a conversation or a drink, is dutifully reported here, is cited, is described: little Myrtle Ramey, for example, who had a delicate throat, and who remembers how well Billy Faulkner folded paper into cubes—she couldn’t—or Ralph S. Muckenfuss

…a stocky, bright-looking, blue-eyed boy, whose hair was parted precisely in the middle…

with whom Billy jumped to victory in a three-legged race, and who observed that Faulkner drew a lot of pictures during class: “one of a cowboy being bucked over a corral fence by his horse.” Thus Faulkner becomes a figure in the autobiographies of a thousand Feasters. Their histories overlap, darken, finally obliterate his. To find Faulkner a Feaster among Feasters is a bitter irony because his fiction constitutes, in part, as Proust’s does, a vast rescue operation:

All that I really desired was…[to] try by main strength to recreate between the covers of a book the world as I was already preparing to lose and regret, feeling, with the morbidity of the young, that I was not only on the verge of decrepitude, but that growing old was to be an experience peculiar to myself alone out of all the teeming world, and desiring, if not the capture of that world and the feeling of it as you’d preserve a kernel or a leaf to indicate the lost forest, at least to keep the evocative skeleton of the desiccated leaf.

Nothing was too mean for his imagination because he did not believe there was any insignificance on earth. A dirt road was worthy of the most elevated consciousness. An old woman or an old mule: he found in them the forms and forces of History itself. To build a house, found a family, lay rails across a state: these were acts an Alexander might have been engaged in. The Civil War was War, high water along the river was The Flood, the death of a dog was Sorrow. He managed to give even the mute heart speech, and invest a humble, private, oft-times red-necked life with those epic rhythms and rich sounds which were formerly the hired pomp and commissioned music of emperors and kings.

A terrible turn-around. Nevertheless passages of his prose bubble up in Blotner to frighten and amaze us, as if there were a still-breathing figure beneath this wash of uncircumstantiality and tireless cliché.the sonorous opening chords of Absalom, Absalom!, for instance, with their impressive adjectival orchestration, the careful fastening of consciousness to its object, and Faulkner’s characteristically increasing rhetorical beat, a precise local observation blown through a metaphor like a herald announcing…what? always…the palpable appearance of Time.

From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that—a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

It is as if remembered things themselves had memories, as if matter were memory. The muscles that hoed the garden remember the moves they made. To see into—for Faulkner—is to think back.

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