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university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 4, fall 2004 Review The Gift of William Faulkner m i c h a e l n o w l i n David Minter. Faulkner’s Questioning Narratives: Fiction of His Major Phase, 1929–42 Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press 2001. 166. US $35.00 As a teacher who has been exposing undergraduate students to William Faulkner’s novels for over a decade, I am familiar enough with complaints about their difficulty and inured to the likelihood that many students simply find ways not to read them and still pass the course. But I also know the reward of seeing, each year, a few students turn on to Faulkner at his best, which is often Faulkner at his most difficult. That experience of enjoying without fully understanding something uniquely beautiful, grandiose and certainly haunting in his prose rhythms, experimental narrative techniques, and stories of broken and obsessed people is probably remembered by most readers who have gone on to try to master to greater or lesser degrees Faulkner’s daunting literary opus (which includes eighteen ‘novels,’ depending on definitions, at least half a dozen of which might justifiably be called ‘major’). Like James Joyce’s fiction, Faulkner’s has produced its addicts and aficionados – perhaps because of as well as in spite of its difficulties. And like Joyce’s fiction, Faulkner’s has produced an academic literary-critical industry devoted to its preservation and explication – one that has grown monumental enough to rival the Shakespeare industry, so that newer readers intent on studying Faulkner must find themselves baffled soon enough by the problem of where to begin. Veteran scholar David Minter’s new book, Faulkner’s Questioning Narratives, is as good a place as any. Not because it is a beginner’s book – it is not. But in exploring the power of Faulkner’s greatest work, the grounds for his stature as one of the giants of modern American literature, Minter never loses sight of the so-called ordinary reader and generalist, or of the fundamental pleasures and challenges of reading. His book is well informed by the artistic and academic debates of a century, but is never academic in a sense too easily applicable to much Faulkner criticism churned out over the past several decades. 1052 michael nowlin university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 4, fall 2004 Faulkner’s Questioning Narratives brings together in revised form Minter’s essays on Faulkner from the past two decades, most of which refine and extend the thesis of his valuable biographical study, Faulkner: His Life and Work (1980). There he argued that Faulkner’s main achievement was to play in his fiction with the tension that had a peculiar resonance for him between an aestheticist impulse to remake ‘reality’ and an ethical commitment to the claims of his Southern heritage. For Minter, Faulkner made his art out of deeply felt personal divisions that had their origins in a specific familial, regional, and national history. In the new book, Minter focuses more exclusively on the writing itself to press this understanding of Faulkner further (mostly shorn of its psychoanalytic tropes). He situates him more pointedly within the general achievement of modernism while more specifically emphasizing ‘the burden of Southern history’ – an exceptional knowledge of loss and of racial, class, and gender divisions – to account for Faulkner’s critical relation to modernism and the scepticism about truth and representation that also makes him conducive to ‘postmodern’ appropriation . Minter’s Faulkner has affinities with both high modernism and Southern regionalism, and thus transcends the limitations of either. He brings to prose fiction the fundamental problems out of which Wallace Stevens (the author to whom Minter most frequently compares him) wrote his best poetry: that is, what fictions might best suffice for human beings in the face of the death of God, the loss of the sacred, and the recognition that all our truths finally are but fictions and incomplete attempts at approximating the real? But as a Southerner who accepted the burdens of his region – a culture committed to memories of a ‘lost cause,’ the tragic impasses of Jim Crow, and a sharper experience of...


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