“Now I realise for the first time,” wrote William Faulkner to a woman friend, looking back from the vantage point of his mid-fifties, “what an amazing gift I had: uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions, yet to have made the things I made. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know why God or gods or whoever it was, selected me to be the vessel.”
The disbelief Faulkner lays claim to is a little disingenuous. For the kind of writer he wanted to be, he had all the education, even all the book-learning, he needed. As for company, he stood to gain more from garrulous oldsters with gnarled hands and long memories than from effete littérateurs. Nevertheless, a measure of astonishment is in order. Who would have guessed that a boy of no great intellectual distinction from small-town Mississippi would become not only a famous writer, celebrated at home and abroad, but the kind of writer he in fact became: the most radical innovator in the annals of American fiction, a writer to whom the avant-garde of Europe and Latin America would go to school?
Of formal education Faulkner certainly had a minimum. He dropped out of high school in his junior year (his parents seem not to have made a fuss), and though he briefly attended the University of Mississippi, that was only by grace of a dispensation for returned servicemen (of Faulkner’s war service, more below). His college record was undistinguished: a semester of English (grade: D), two semesters of French and Spanish. For this explorer of the mind of the post-bellum South, no courses in history; for the novelist who would weave Bergsonian time into the syntax of memory, no studies in philosophy or psychology.
What the rather dreamy Billy Faulkner gave himself in place of schooling was a narrow but intense reading of fin-de-siècle English poetry, notably Swinburne and Housman, and of three novelists who had given birth to fictional worlds lively and coherent enough to supplant the real one: Balzac, Dickens, and Conrad. Add to this a familiarity with the cadences of the Old Testament, Shakespeare, and Moby-Dick, and, a few years later, a quick study of what his older contemporaries T.S. Eliot and James Joyce were up to, and he was ready armed. As for materials, what he heard around him in Oxford, Mississippi, turned out to be more than enough: the epic, told and retold endlessly, of the South, a story of cruelty and injustice and hope and disappointment and victimization and resistance.
Billy Faulkner had barely quit school when the First World War broke out. Captivated by the idea of becoming a pilot and flying sorties against the Hun, he applied in 1918 to be taken into the Royal Air Force. Desperate for fresh manpower, the RAF sent him to Canada on a training course. Before he could make his first solo flight, however, the war ended.
He returned …