It is impossible for a Southerner of my generation not to be affected by "One Matchless Time," a splendid life of William Faulkner. I was born the...

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“One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner”

by Jay Parini

HarperCollins, 492 pp., $29.95

It is impossible for a Southerner of my generation not to be affected by “One Matchless Time,” a splendid life of William Faulkner. I was born the year his fourth and fifth novels, “Sartoris” and “The Sound and the Fury,” came out (1929), though I was not able to read him with any understanding until I was in college, by which time I was astonished to find in his work an accurate picture of my town, my townsmen and my region.

The Sartoris and Snopes families were not fiction to me — they were incredibly lifelike depictions of the gentry and trash, respectively, who formed the human background of my life. Growing up surrounded by the tales of actual survivors of the Civil War, I felt the agony of the South’s defeat. The beloved Dilsey, the black servant in “The Sound and the Fury,” was for me an uncannily accurate fictional replica of Corrie Scott, a servant whom I always took to be my black grandmother until I was old enough to have the truth explained to me: that she had been left to my grandfather as an orphan and raised and educated in his family.

Jay Parini’s biography, “One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner,” is not only readable but downright enthralling. Parini is known primarily as a poet, but he is also a novelist and the biographer of Steinbeck and Frost. He gives due credit to the many others who have written of Faulkner’s life — especially to Joseph Blotner, the doyen in this field — but there is ample room for such a sensitive retelling of the story. Born in Scranton, Pa., and largely educated in Scotland, the author is immune to the regional feelings, both of outrage and love, that many Southerners bring to the subject of Faulkner.

English teachers might recommend the style of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But it was the headlong passion of Faulkner’s endless sentences, like some furious syntactic Mississippi flooding to reclaim the dry land, that struck me as the only prose adequate to the complexity of the South. A critic, Malcolm Cowley, actually advised readers to skip the famously difficult fourth section of “The Bear,” with unstoppable sentences running on for pages. To skip that would have been to skip the essence of Faulkner.

Hemingway famously said that anyone who wished to be a writer should make sure to have a miserable childhood. Faulkner had that, but he contrived to prolong it into the early stages of his actual fame as a writer. As novels by Faulkner now studied in college classes were being published, the author was a town drunk, still under the thumb of his parents. He worked in the boiler room at Ole Miss (University of Mississippi), where he had recently incurred the outrage of students by his total ineptitude as the college postmaster and been fired.

Faulkner was unimpressed by the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to him in 1950. He had little regard for earlier American recipients such as Sinclair Lewis and Pearl Buck. Yet nothing could so have justified him as the words that he spoke in Stockholm. The pathetic drunk, dependent infant and boiler-room worker uttered in a few short sentences a speech that deserves mention alongside the Gettysburg Address as one of the heights of American eloquence.