My Summer with Graham, Kurt, and William

I feel the work of art displayed below, “On the Way, Open Book” by Quint Buchholz accurately displays the mindset I was in this summer while reading and writing…

 

During this long, hot seemingly endless summer while nursing the early stages of a new novel into being, I also dug deep into the classics for inspiration and went on a wild reading spree.  I caught up with some of Graham Greene’s lesser known novels, the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut, and for the first time ever, tackled William Faulkner.  Taking a queue from Oprah (say what you will about the woman–I know no one in the public eye more passionate about spreading literacy and serious literature), I picked up her personally endorsed box set of three of Faulkner’s works.  Faulkner is one of those writers, like Shakespeare, who people endlessly study and write about–reading him is a daunting task that you should only take if you are truly prepared and ready.  I doubt I would’ve appreciated him had I read him in college.

Here’s the rundown:

Graham Greene:

After watching and loving the film adaptations of his End of the Affair and The Quiet American, I snatched up his gargantuan short-story collection and devoured it.  Now having read two more of his novels, he is hands-down my favorite writer.  Every time I visit the book store, I snatch up another one of his works.

The Tenth Man.  I read this twisty convoluted tale of switched identities and the things men will do to survive in times of war while on the North Carolina beach in late May.  It’s a shockingly effective and tense little thriller that would’ve made a great story for an Alfred Hitchcock film.

A Gun for Sale.  This deliciously wicked and psychologically complex “noir” tells the tale of a hired killer paid with stolen banknotes who hunts down the man who scammed him while trying to elude the police and the sharp-witted young showgirl who gets tangled in his web.  Greene called this one of his “entertainments,” clearly thinking less of it than his standard and more serious-minded work, but he did for the thriller here what Hitchcock did for the rote suspense flick during the same era–he raised it to the level of art.

Kurt Vonnegut:

Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction.  Vonnegut is the master of sparse, no-nonsense, modern prose full of satire, humor, the wonders of technology, and an exploration of the social mores of the Baby Boom Generation.  He’s also good for those ironic twists, which after reading four or five of his stories in a row become more apparent and predictable.  My favorites from this collection include “Any Reasonable Offer,” “The Cruise of the Jolly Roger,” and “A Present for Big Saint Nick.”  There’re some great bits in the introduction where Kurt discusses the need for the short-story form and offers some witty advice to writers.

William Faulkner:

As I Lay Dying.  Faulkner’s tale of the Bundren family’s tragic trek made to bury their mother in her hometown is an aggravatingly brilliant tour-de-force.  It features all of the hallmarks that make Faulkner so beloved and hated: roving 1st-person narration, often incomprehensible train-of-thought, dialogue in Southern dialect that is often unreadable, and long-winded flowery prose that occasionally reaches the level of transcendence.  A short work just over 200 pages, this is best read quickly and straight through.  If you stop and try to understand everything or attempt to dissect a piece, you’ll drive yourself mad.  I got the gist of it and moved on. 

The Sound and the Fury.  Oddly, the novel most quoted as his defining piece of work, I found to be the most un-involving as I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters in this tale of the highly dysfunctional Compson clan.  That isn’t to say there aren’t moments of shear stupefying literary brilliance, especially towards the end where he vividly describes the servants going to Church and the passionate sermon delivered by a visiting preacher.  Ultimately the novel goes nowhere, signifying, well, fancy that, sound and fury.

Light in August.  This represents Faulkner’s most traditionally structured and plotted work.  His hallmarks are all here, but kept in check: the flowery prose sprawling but intoxicating, the Southern-style dialogue used for great purpose to further the plot, and the train-of-thought kept to a minimum resulting in maximum effect.  He masterfully intertwines the tales of a young pregnant woman hunting down her baby’s father, a criminal haunted by his mixed ancestry, a fallen preacher, and many others in this epic treatise on life in the South in the 1930’s.  Light in August is a stone-cold masterpiece.

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Next up: The Orient Express by Graham Greene and the collected short stories of William Faulkner.  If anyone has any suggestions for a contemporary best-seller with literary merit, please feel free to leave your recommendations in the comment field.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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