FaulknerOn one occasion, a young man went to visit him and found him standing with his pipe, which had gone out, in one hand and, in the other, the bridle of the pony that his daughter Jill was riding. To break the ice, the young man asked if the little girl had been riding long. Faulkner did not reply at once. Then he said: "Three years," adding: "You know, a woman should know only how to do three things." He paused, then concluded: "Tell the truth, ride a horse, and sign a cheque."
Jill was not the first daughter Faulkner had with his wife, Estelle, who brought with her two children from a previous marriage. The first daughter they had together died only five days after being born. They called her Alabama. Her mother was still weak and in bed, and Faulkner's brothers were out of town at the time and never saw the child. Faulkner could see no point in holding a funeral, since in those five days the little girl had only had time to become a memory, not a person. So her father put her in a tiny coffin and carried her to the cemetery on his lap. Alone, he placed her in her grave, without telling anyone.
When he received the Nobel Prize in 1950, Faulkner was, at first, reluctant to go to Sweden. However, in the end, he not only went, he travelled throughout Europe and Asia on "a State Department mission." He did not much enjoy the endless functions to which he was invited. At a party given in his honour by Gallimard, his French publishers, it is said that after each succinct reply to questions put by journalists, he would take a step backward. Step by step, he eventually found himself with his back to the wall, and only then did the journalists take pity on him or else give him up as a lost cause. He finally sought refuge in the garden. A few people decided to venture out there too, announcing that they were going to talk to Faulkner, only to come straight back in again, proffering excuses in faltering voices: "It's awfully cold out there." Faulkner was a taciturn man who loved silence, and went to the theatre only five times in his entire life: he had seen Hamlet three times, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Ben Hur, and that was all. He had not read Freud either, at least so he said on one occasion: "I have never read him. Neither did Shakespeare. I doubt if Melville did either and I'm sure Moby Dick didn't." He read Don Quixote every year.
But then he also said that he never told the truth. After all, he wasn't a woman, although he did have a woman's love of cheques and horseback-riding. He always said that he had written Sanctuary, his most commercial novel, for money: "I needed it to buy a good horse." He also said that he didn't visit big cities very often because you couldn't go there on horseback. When he was getting older, against the advice of both his family and his doctors, he continued going out riding and jumping fences, and kept falling off. The last time he went riding he suffered just such a fall. From the house, his wife saw Faulkner's horse standing by the gate, with its saddle still on and the reins hanging loose. When she didn't see her husband there with the horse, she called Dr. Felix Linder and they went out looking for him. They found him over half a mile away, limping, almost dragging himself along. The horse had thrown him and he hadn't been able to remount, having fallen on his back. The horse had walked on a few paces, then stopped and looked round. When Faulkner managed to get to his feet, the horse came over to him and touched him with its muzzle. Faulkner had tried to grab the reins, but failed. Then the horse had headed off towards the house.
William Faulkner spent some time in bed, badly injured and in great pain. He had still not fully recovered from the fall when he died. He was in the hospital, where he had been admitted for a check-up on his progress. But legend refuses to accept that the fall from his horse was the cause of his death. He was killed by a thrombosis on July 6, 1962, when he was not quite sixty-five.
When asked to name the best American writers of his day, he would say that they had all failed, but that Thomas Wolfe had been the finest failure and William Faulkner the second finest failure. He often repeated this over the years, but it is worth remembering that Thomas Wolfe had been dead since 1938, that is, during nearly all the years that Faulkner used to give this answer and was himself alive.--- From Written Lives
Margaret Jull Costa,
©2006 New Directions