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Asthetizismus und Moderne: Studien zu William Faulkners fruher Prosa.

For Many Years the Prevalent Notion in Faulkner criticism was that the writer's early work was neither particularly interesting in and by itself nor that it had much to offer by way of illuminating the great novels of his mature phase. Rather than having gradually reached the peak of such works as The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, or Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner, or so most critics thought, after the fumbling attempts of his early years took one astonishing leap that bridged "the inexplicable distance from talent to genius" (Andre Bleikasten). The recent work of Judith Sensibar, Lothar Honnighausen and others has shown us that this view was not necessarily true, and that Faulkner's early writing deserves more attention than it has hitherto received. It reveals the young author's preoccupation with modernist techniques which he developed to their full potential in his mature novels, and, perhaps more significantly, it shows how deeply embedded in the literary traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Faulkner's work is.

Claus Daufenbach's study of "estheticism and modernism" in Faulkner's early prose is another move in this direction. Daufenbach applies his fine critical intelligence to the early prose in order to show not only its considerable technical achievements, but to point to the numerous threads that link both its themes and its techniques to the work of such of Faulkner's contemporaries or immediate predecessors as Hofmannsthal, Joyce, Eliot, Thomas Mann, Gautier, Pater, Rilke, and a host of others. The concerns and attitudes reflected in Faulkner's early prose, he argues, more often than not are "zeittypisch"; they are those of his times, of a specific period in literary history, and have to be understood and appreciated as such. Three topics in particular engage Daufenbach's attention: first, the concept of "Bohemia," the artistic milieu Faulkner sought out as a young man in New Orleans, New York, and Paris and which he fictionalized in Mosquitoes; second, the role of the artist, which he explored in the fragment "Elmer," in Mosquitoes and a number of early sketches (Daufenbach here extends the chronological limits of his study and includes both Horace Benbow in Flags in the Dust and Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury in his analysis); and finally the stylization of nature, especially as we find it at work in Soldiers' Pay.

Of the three topics, I found the last two the most rewarding ones. To say this is not to denigrate the first part of Daufenbach's book - he has poured a great deal of energy into establishing parallel between, e.g., the character of Mrs. Maurier in Mosquitoes and other rich devotees of the arts, both fictional and real ones, and finds numerous literary echoes in the figures of Talliaferro and other guests on the yacht which he aptly terms a "ship of fools." The fact that Mosquitoes reflects contemporary representations of "Bohemia," however, will probably not attract more readers to it than the novel has found in the past.

Daufenbach moves through much more interesting terrain in the second and third parts of his book. He has illuminating things to say about the artist in Faulkner's early texts, about Elmer Hodge's concept of painting no less than about the "glass blowing outfit" Horace Benbow brought home from the war and which, as Daufenbach points out, we have to see against the use of glass as a material favored by many art nouveau artists. He is particularly good about Quentin Compson, another "dilettante." Quentin, as Daufenbach demonstrates, "creates" his father just as he "creates" important scenes in The Sound and the Fury; as an artist manque he is a figure whose like we meet in the young neurasthenics, "the men of nerves," in the works of Hofmannsthal, Thomas Mann and - I would add - Knut Hamsun. As if in passing, Daufenbach identifies the source of the puzzling phrase in Quentin's section, "the voice that breath'd over Eden," in John Keble's poem "Holy Matrimony." No less perceptive is his analysis of the sculptor Gordon and the torso Gordon creates in Mosquitoes; the latter, according to Daufenbach, anticipates the function of Keats's "Grecian Urn" in Faulkner's later novels.

Faulkner's preoccupation with the artist, especially with the pictorial artist, is evident also in the peculiar manner in which the young writer stylized nature. Daufenbach traces the way in which colors are treated as autonomous substances, divorced from the objects they qualify, in Soldiers' Pay; he describes Faulkner's use of synesthesia and analyzes in detail his "formal gardens," for which again he finds many counterparts both in contemporary European and American prose and poetry of the period. Finally, he looks at the "cubist" landscapes in "The Hill" and Soldiers' Pay and pursues the correspondences between the sense of space evoked here and in some of Faulkner's early drawings. He convincingly treats the young writer's experiments with the rendering of space, his many "depthless" tableaux and silhouettes, as literary variants of similar tendencies in contemporary art. They reflect the transition from mimetic realism to the emphasis on "planes" of color, and the general movement toward abstractionism typical of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century painting. Given his frequent references to Faulkner's interest in Cezanne, one wonders why he did not include Hemingway in the list of writers whose work shows similar tendencies. Hemingway's brand of estheticism is perhaps less far removed from Faulkner's than we may suspect, their mutual interest in androgynous figures probably not a coincidence.

Daufenbach's book may not explain, but it helps to reduce the gap between Faulkner's early and his later fiction. It is full of intelligent, perceptive observations, and is a mine of information about Faulkner's early prose. It is perhaps a bit too heavily annotated and at times slightly repetitive. Its only serious flaw, however, is the simply appalling number of misprints it contains; there is hardly a page without a glaring printing error. It is a shame that the care, literary sensitivity, and knowledge which have gone into the writing of the book could not have been met by equally high and professional publishing standards.
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Author:Nicolaisen, Peter
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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