The English Club, tape 2

DATE: 7 March 1957

OCCASION: The English Club

TAPE: T-107

LENGTH: 28:24

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William Faulkner: Well, when you go to the trouble to invent a—a private domain of your own, then you're the master of time, too. [audience laughter] I have the right, I think, to shift these things around wherever it sounds best, [audience laughter] and I can move them about in time and, if necessary, change their names. This would be 1906 or '07 this happened. That is, the more you write, the more you've got to compromise with such facts as time and place, and so I've got to—to agree with Mr.Gwynn and establish this somewhere in time, so it's about 1907. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, have you ever such an auction taking place?

William Faulkner: Yes'm. I bought one of these horses once. [audience laughter] They appeared in our country. Every summer somebody would come in with another batch of them. They were western range-bred ponies, pintos. Had never had a bridle on them. Had never seen shell corn before. And they'd brought—be brought into our town and auctioned off for prices from three or four dollars up to six or seven, and I bought this one for four dollars and seventy-five cents. I was—[audience laughter] oh, I reckon ten years old. My father at that time ran a livery stable, and there was a—a big man. He was six feet and a half tall. He weighed two hundred pounds, but mentally he was about ten years old, too. And I wanted one of those horses. My father said, "Well, if you and Buster can buy one for what money you've saved, you can have it." And so we went to the auction, and we bought one for four dollars and seventy-five cents. We got it home. We were going to gentle it. We had a two-wheel cart made out of the front axle of a buggy with shafts on it, and we fooled with that [creature]. It was—was a wild animal. It was a wild beast. [audience laughter] It wasn't a domestic animal at all, and finally Buster said that it was about ready, so we had the cart in a shed. Estelle probably remembers this. We put a croaker sack over the horse's head and backed it into the cart with two niggers to—to fasten it in, to buckle traces and toggles and things, and me and Buster got in the seat, and Buster said, "All right boys, let him go." [audience laughter] And they snatched the—the sack off the horse's head, and it went across the lot. There was a big gate. The lane had turned at a sharp angle. It hung the inside wheel on the gatepost as it turned. We were down on one hub then. Then about that time, Buster caught me by the back of the neck and threw me, just like that, and then he jumped off. [audience laughter] And the cart was scattered up that lane, and we found the horse a—a mile away run into a dead-end street. All he had left on him was just the hames, the harness was gone. [audience laughter] [But] that was a [pleasant] experience. But we kept that horse and gentled him to where I finally rode him. But I loved that horse because that was my own horse. I bought that with my own money. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: [...] Mr. Faulkner, how do you feel about your next novel, or do you always feel that your next one is the best?

William Faulkner: Well, the—the one that I'm going to write this year is going to be the best. The one that I finished last year, that's finished. That's behind me. There's nothing more I can do to that, but I'm going to do one this year that's still better, which is probably a happy attitude to have toward writing. [audience laughter] That is, it's—it's fun to do. It's like some people find playing golf fun to do or collecting stamps. If you ever get the perfect stamp, there's nothing else to collect. If you ever write a book that suits you exactly, there's nothing else to do, and so you hope that you really won't write one as good as you think it's going to be, and, of course, you won't.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Do you feel that the gap between the people and the law that exists in "Spotted Horses" has closed any since then?

William Faulkner: The gap between the people and—

Unidentified participant: And the law.

William Faulkner: And the law?

Unidentified participant: Uh huh.

William Faulkner: Will you explain a little more of what that means?

Unidentified participant: The law is so inappropriate, and—and—and we feel that it's—in the end, it's so ridiculous, really. It's—it's so far from the people and the way they live, and it doesn't seem to apply to them. I just wondered if you felt that it were more appropriate now.

Frederick Gwynn: You mean that Mrs. Armstid doesn't get her money back in court?

Unidentified participant: Yes.

William Faulkner: Oh, well, that's one of the natural occupational hazards of breathing, is conflict with the law, with police. I think that all people have to face that and accept it and do the best they can with it. That's—if she had got her money back, it'd been bad on me because my story would've blown up. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, have you seen any of the productions of Requiem for a Nun?

William Faulkner: No, I haven't. I have read the—the version that—that Camus did in French, but then he turned it into an existentialist play, [audience laughter] but I've never seen it on the stage. I would like to.

Joseph Blotner: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Joseph Blotner: Eula Varner seems to be the sort of character who would in some way seems almost larger than life, seems to be invested with a—a meaning that's almost symbolic. When you conceived this character, did she seem to represent, let us say, some of the best aspects of the—the Varners?

William Faulkner: Oh, you're quite right. She was larger than life, that she was—was an anachronism. She had no place there, that that little—little hamlet couldn't have held her, and when she moved on to Jefferson, that couldn't hold her either, but then that'll be in the next book, the one that'll be out next month. [audience laughter] You're quite right. She was larger than life. She was too big for this world.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: To what extent are your plots and characters preconceived, or in other words, to what extent do you outline what is going to happen to your characters before you begin to write?

William Faulkner: I don't at all. I get a character and—and get him or her started, get him or her involved with somebody else, and then they take charge of it. I just gallop along behind to put it down, [audience laughter] but they are writing the book by that time.

Unidentified participant: You—you have said previously that—that The Sound and the Fury came from an impression of a little girl up in a tree, and I wondered how you built it from that, and whether you just, as you said, let it—let the story develop itself.

William Faulkner: Well, impression is—is the wrong word. It's more an image. A very moving image to me was of the children. Of course, we didn't know at that time that one was an idiot, but there were three boys—one was a girl, and the girl was the only one that was brave enough to climb that tree to look in the forbidden window to see what was going on, and that's what the book [...], and [it] took the rest of the 400 pages to explain why she was brave enough to climb the tree to look in the window. It was an image, a—a picture to me, a—a very moving one, which was symbolized by the muddy bottom of her drawers as her brothers looked up into the apple tree that she had climbed to look in the window, and the symbolism of the muddy bottom of the drawers became the—the lost Caddy, which had caused one brother to commit suicide, and the other brother had—had misused her money that she'd sent back to the—to the child, the daughter. It was a—I thought—a short story, something that could be done in [about] two pages, a thousand words. I found out it couldn't. I finished it the first time, and it wasn't right, so I wrote it again, and that was Quentin. That wasn't right. I wrote it again. That was Jason. That wasn't right. Then I tried to let Faulkner do it. That still was wrong.

Joseph Blotner: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Joseph Blotner: One thing that we sometimes seem to see with acquisitive people like the Snopeses is that after they have made the gains which they want very much to make, respectability seems to set in and start to work on them, too. Do you see any signs of that happening in that clan?

William Faulkner: No, only that the rapacious people, if they're not careful, they are seduced away and decide that what they've got to have is respectability which destroys one, almost anybody. That is, nobody seems to be brave enough anymore to be a—an out-and-out blackguard or rascal, that sooner or later he's got to be respectable, [audience laughter] and that finishes it.

Unidentified participant: Why aren't there blackguards [then]?

William Faulkner: They ain't brave and strong and tough like they used to be. [audience laughter] And that's—

Unidentified participant: [And] why not?

William Faulkner: It's the—the curse of the times, maybe. It may be there's a three or four color printing of advertisements have—have been too seductive, or a picture of a fine big car in two colors with a handsome young woman by it, so that you almost think the woman comes with the new car [audience laughter] when you make the starter payments. Money is—there's so much pressure to conform, to—to be respectable.

Unidentified participant: More than in the Victorian?

William Faulkner: I think so, yes. In the Victorian, they tried to—to force you to be respectable to save your soul. Now, they compel you to be respectable to be rich.

Unidentified participant: Were these people blackguards to save their souls? I'm not quite sure I understand the connection.

William Faulkner: Well, I think that possibly the old Adam in man suggests to him to be a blackguard if he can get away with it, and when there's a great deal of pressure to be respectable, if there is—is a great enough reward for the respectability, he will choose that in preference to the pleasure of being a scoundrel and a blackguard, that people don't have enough verve and zest anymore, which is not the fault of man so much as the fault of the times that we live in to where he—there's too much pressure against being an individualist, and—and a—a good first-rate scoundrel is an individualist. He don't really belong to a gang. Once he's got to join a gang, he becomes a second-rate scoundrel, but a first-rate scoundrel is like a first-rate artist. He's an individualist, and the pressure's all against being an individualist. You've got to belong to a group. It don't matter much what group, but you've got to belong to it, or there's no place for you in the—the culture or the economy. Maybe to belong to a gang you might escape the Atom bomb. [This]

Unidentified participant: Are you saying that he has to be a—a scoundrel to be an individualist?

William Faulkner: No, sir. I say a scoundrel, to be a good one, must be an individualist. That only an individualist can be a first-rate scoundrel. Only an individualist can be a first-rate artist. He can't belong to a group or a school and be a first-rate writer.

Frederick Gwynn: You could have some grudging admiration for Flem Snopes who pretty well sticks to his character.

William Faulkner: Well, until he was bitten by the bug to be respectable. Then he let me down. [audience laughter] I had an admiration for him until then.

Frederick Gwynn: Any there good Snopeses? That boy of Eck's seems like a nice little fellow. Is he—is he going to get depraved, too?

William Faulkner: No, no. He was—he turned into a—in his—his way, a pretty good boy. He wanted no more of Snopes. He tried to remove himself from the—the aura and orbit of [the] Snopes.

Joseph Blotner: Somebody once wrote, Mr. Faulkner, I—maybe this is apocryphal, that a—a couple of Snopeses who haven't yet been described, but who—who might [were to be described], were named Dollar Watch Snopes and Montgomery Ward Snopes. [audience laughter] Is there any truth to that?

William Faulkner: Yes, there's a Montgomery Wards Snopes. He went to France in 1917 to keep from being drafted. He joined the YMCA, [audience laughter] and he came back with a batch of—of French pornographic postcards and opened what he called a studio. [audience laughter] He—he had a—a Basque hat and a windsor tie by that time. He was an artist. His studio had a back door to it, and if people joined the club, they could look at the postcards [audience laughter] until the government caught him. That was Montgomery Ward.

Unidentified participant: Did he ever make it back to America?

William Faulkner: Oh, yes. This was back in Jefferson where he opened his studio. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you said before that it was your belief that man would prevail. Well, in the light of this book The Hamlet and several others that we've discussed recently, what type of man do you think will prevail? What kind? A scoundrel?

William Faulkner: No, no. The scoundrel in time is seduced away by the desire to be respectable, so he's finished. There's a—what quality in man that prevails, it's—it's difficult to be specific about, but somehow man does prevail. There's always someone that will—will never stop trying to cope with Snopes, that will never stop trying to get rid of Snopes.

Unidentified participant: [...] [A sort of the lunatic fringe or something?]

William Faulkner: What?

Unidentified participant: [A remnant]?

William Faulkner: No, the—the impulse to eradicate Snopes is—is, in my opinion, so strong that it—it selects its champions when the crisis comes. When the battle comes, it always produces a Roland. It doesn't mean that they will get rid of Snopes or the impulse which produces Snopes, but always there's something in man that—that don't like Snopes and objects to Snopes and, if necessary, will step in to keep Snopes from doing some irreparable harm. There's whatever it is that—that keeps us still trying to paint the pictures, to make the music, to write the books. There's a great deal of pressure not to do that because certainly the artist has no place in—in nature, and almost no place at all in our American culture and economy, but yet people still try to write books, still try to paint pictures. They still go to a lot of trouble to—to produce the music, and a few people will always go to hear the music, which still has nothing to do with—with the number of people that will produce the Cadillac cars or the economy which will give everybody a chance to buy a Cadillac car on the installment plan or the deep freezers. That is, all that's advertised. It has to be advertised, in order to keep you [buying it,] but the books, the music, that's not advertised, yet still there're people that will pay for it and buy the pictures. It's a slow process, but yet it apparently goes on, that we will even outlast the atom and hydrogen bombs. I don't know right now how we will do it, but my bet is we will.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: There's another version of this story, isn't there? It seems to me I remember one with a sewing machine agent telling it.

William Faulkner: I'm sure there is. I have written a dozen versions of it. I would—I would have to see them all to unravel them myself, [audience laughter] but I'm sure there's any number of versions of it, which is simply the—the craftsman's job to try it and try it and try it, to have infinite patience, to try and try and try until it comes as good as you can possibly make it. When you have reached that point, it still ain't good enough, so you write another one, and you try and try that one, to bring it to the nearest perfection that you are capable of, which still won't be the best one, so you write another one. When you reach this point where you don't do that anymore, you cut the throat.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Along this respectability/scoundrel line, how do you explain Colonel Sutpen, who sweeps into Jefferson and grimly sets himself up, and [along the line] decides he'll have respectability? Marches into town with the willpower that's possibly equaled only by his mother—his eventual mother-in-law. Does he really lose his individuality or is respectability just another notch on his rifle, so to speak?

William Faulkner: He wanted more than that. He wanted revenge as he saw it, but also he wanted to establish the fact that man is—is immortal. That—that man, if—if he is man, cannot be inferior to another man through artificial standards or circumstances. What he was trying to do—when he was a boy, he had gone to the front door of a big house, and somebody, a servant, said, "Go around to the back door." He said, "I'm going to be the one that lives in the big house. I'm going to establish a dynasty. I don't care how." And he violated all the rules of—of decency and honor and pity and compassion, and the fates took revenge on him. That's what that story was. But he was trying to—to say in his blundering way that—that, "Why should a man be better than me because he's richer than me, that if I had had the chance I—I might be just as good as he thinks he is, so I'll make myself as good as he thinks he is by getting the same outward trappings which he had"—which was a big house and servants in it. He didn't say, "I'm—I'm going to be—be braver or more compassionate or more honest than he." He just said, "I'm going to be as rich as he was, as big as he was on the outside."

Unidentified participant: He never really attained this respectability?

William Faulkner: No, he was—the—the Greeks destroyed him, the old Greek concept of tragedy. He wanted a son which symbolized this—this ideal, and he got too many sons. His sons destroyed one another and then him. He was left with—the only son he had left was a Negro.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: You've said that you regarded respectability as one of the prime enemies of individualism. Do you regard love as an enemy of individualism?

William Faulkner: No, [not at all]. What's love got to do with respectability? [audience laughter] No, sir, I—I do not. Respectability is—is an artificial standard, which—which comes from up here. That is, respectability is—is not your concept or my concept. It's what we think is Jones's concept of respectability.

Unidentified participant: I don't mean to defend respectability in love or out. What I mean [audience laughter] to do is—be quiet, please. [audience laughter] What I mean to ask is—is this. Isn't there a basic dichotomy between the kind of individualism which you are praising and the attitude of love?

William Faulkner: If you will substitute decency for respectability, I would agree with you. I don't quite follow you between respectability and love, but decency and love. That's an interesting point. Has anybody else got a thought on that?

Joseph Blotner: Well, that's what Harry Wilbourne and the girl in Wild Palms discovered, didn't they? That they couldn't get love and respectability together, they couldn't live in the twentieth century patterns the way they wanted to.

William Faulkner: Yes, that's right, but then by Smith's conception of respectability, they couldn't have had that anyway because one was already married. So there was a choice about will we take what we can or will we have a little or nothing, and a little, I think, is always better than nothing.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, do you regard Pylon a serious novel and what were you driving at in that novel?

William Faulkner: To me, they were a—a fantastic and—and bizarre phenomenon on the—the—the face of a—of a contemporary scene, of our culture at a particular time. I wrote that book because I'd gotten in trouble with—with Absalom, Absalom!, and I had to get away from it for a while, so I thought a good way to get away from it was to write another book, so I wrote Pylon. They were ephemera and a phenomena on the face of a—of a contemporary scene. That is, there was really no place for them in—in—in the culture, in the economy, yet they were there at that time, and everyone knew that they wouldn't last very long, which it didn't. That time of those frantic little aeroplanes which dashed around the country, and people wanting just enough money to—to live, to get to the next place to race again, something frenetic and, in a way, almost immoral about it, that they were outside—outside the range of—of God, not only respectability, of love, but of—but of God, too, that they had escaped the—the compulsion of—of accepting a past and a future, that they were—they had no past. They were as—as ephemeral as—as the butterfly that—that's born this morning with no stomach and will—will be gone tomorrow, which seemed to me interesting enough to make a story about. But that was just to get away from a book that wasn't going too well until I could get back at it.

Moderator: I think that perhaps we've used up enough of Mr. Faulkner's energy unless, sir, you feel the wish to carry on a bit more.

William Faulkner: Surely. If anyone can suggest something we can discuss, by all means. You might—when should this stop? What do you—

Moderator: Well, it has no set closing hour, but—but [audience laughter] we don't want to tire you.

William Faulkner: Well, I've told you—this is a dreadful habit to get into where you can stand up in front of people and talk, and nobody can say shut up and sit down. [audience laughter and applause]

[end of recording]