From Airplanes to Absalom, Absalom

by Matthew McEver

Ninety-four years ago today, in 1919, William Faulkner published his first short story, “Landing in Luck,” in The Mississippian, the literary magazine of Ole Miss. “Landing in Luck,” about an air force cadet’s first solo flight, doesn’t receive near the notoriety of “A Rose for Emily” (1930) or “Barn Burning” (1939). “Landing” doesn’t even appear in my nine hundred-page collection of Faulkner’s short stories.  One of Faulkner’s biographers (J. Parini) even calls the story “generic.”

For that matter, compare Faulkner’s first novel, A Soldier’s Pay (1926), with The Sound and the Fury (1929) and the differences are quantifiable. The former offers occasional flashes of the brilliance to come, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the latter. Faulkner, like any other writer, had to develop his voice, hone his writing, cultivate.

Sure, I know we should write more. I get that. What I can’t get past, though, is that Faulkner’s writing improved so dramatically. The man who wrote this “generic” story about flying a plane went on to write Absalom, Absalom. How?

A clue is found in this bit of counsel attributed to Faulkner. I see this quote every now and then, and it’s a saying with which many of you are familiar, I’m sure:

“Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it,” Faulkner said. “Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”

I could never overemphasize how, in my own experience, better reading makes for better writing. My growth as a writer is directly related to how I challenge myself as a reader.

As I look ahead to completing the MFA in January, I’ve already realized that one of the benefits of graduate school was faculty advisers who prodded me into reading several works that I otherwise would’ve missed or avoided for one reason or another. Once the required reading of graduate school no longer looms, though, it’s tempting to settle into less challenging reading— to seek the kind of literature that comforts rather than confronts, to turn to books that will “teach me what I know.”

Reading lists aren’t just for school. Use the semester calendar, if it helps.  Choose titles with some purpose in mind. Reconsider works that you’ve “never gotten around to” reading. Better yet, ask other writer friends, perhaps those who understand your aesthetic, for their suggestions. Some of the most fascinating literature that I’ve read over the past two years came through suggestions from other grad students.  Or, maybe, there’s an author whose work you found—at an earlier time in your life—“too dense, too confusing, too much.” You might give that author a second chance, now that you see the world differently. For instance, my introduction to Faulkner was as a college freshman. (Many high schools still avoid him). I was ill-prepared to read his work at that time; therefore, I hated it. But as I ripened and got into literature and writing, I turned to and became a real admirer of Faulkner, appreciative of his willingness to take risks, reveling in his lyricism, recognizing the extent to which his writing rewards rereading.

As writers, we are either writing the same airplane story over and over, or we are moving into something beyond ourselves. None of us are Faulkner, and even he believed that his writing could be better. In the 1956 Paris Review interview, he said, “I don’t care about John Doe’s opinion on my or anyone else’s work. Mine is the standard which has to be met.”

“Try to be better than yourself,” he added.


Why We Do the Things We Do: Character Actions in “The Remains of the Day”

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a novel about an aging butler, Stevens, who has spent his whole life trying to be the best butler he can be, to the point where he almost seems incapable of emotion. He pushes away those closest to him (Miss Kenton and his father) because he values his professionalism above all else. What makes The Remains of the Day such an enjoyable read is the way in which Ishiguro shows the reader the conflict between Stevens’s actions, thoughts, and emotions. Often Stevens is only aware of the first two, being too professional to let his emotions even intrude on his thoughts. Ishiguro also structures the novel in such a way that the reader gradually comes to know what Stevens has been aware of from the beginning of the story. The Remains of the Day does a masterful job of drawing the reader in by keeping them at a distance early on, and gradually bringing them closer to the narrator in ways the character is unaware of.

The butler Stevens is a fantastic example of an unreliable narrator. He is perfectly earnest when addressing the reader, but his actions and emotions are often at odds with what he says and thinks. This opposition provides many great opportunities for humor, which Ishiguro uses well, but this is also where the true heart of the story shines. We can see from the way Stevens conducts himself in the first few pages that he is a professional of the highest caliber. But it is not until midway through the novel that the reader is able to see the toll that maintaining this level of professionalism has on Stevens, and it isn’t clear that Stevens realizes the price he has paid for being a butler of the highest class until the end of the novel. The real glimpse of conflict between Stevens’s thoughts and his emotions occurs when his father falls ill during an international conference of the greatest importance to Lord Darlington. Stevens is informed by one of the cooks that his father has suffered a stroke, but Stevens is required downstairs to attend to the conference guests. It is clear that Stevens loves his father (from any number of Stevens’s actions earlier, ranging from getting his father the position at Darlington Hall to the obvious embarrassment when forced to scale back his father’s responsibilities), but he has defined himself as a distinguished servant, and that is where he feels he is most needed. However, even Stevens’s professional exterior cannot hold back the emotion that he feels at this moment. Both Mr. Cardinal and Lord Darlington ask Stevens if he is all right in quick succession, and though he replies that he is fine his tears say otherwise.

“’Stevens, are you all right?’

‘Yes, sir. Perfectly.’

‘You look as though you’re crying,’” (105).

By making other characters notice what Stevens himself cannot, Ishiguro is able to show the reader all sides of Stevens in a tragic, realistic manner. Up until that moment Stevens had been little more than an interesting character to me, one who I wasn’t invested in. Ishiguro utilizes the unreliability of Stevens perfectly to give him a human side while still allowing Stevens himself to be proud and professional.

It is not until page 136 of The Remains of the Day that it becomes clear why Stevens regards Lord Darlington in the way he does. The best word I would use to describe it is pity. The reader gets a sense of this subtle tone of pity throughout the novel (more so in the later parts), but its source is not apparent until page 136. This is when Stevens reveals to the reader that Lord Darlington had contacts with the Nazi party and often dined with Herr Ribbentrop, one of Hitler’s most useful pawns in England at the time. Even in the present time of the novel Stevens defends the actions of his former employer, saying: “The fact is, the most established, respected ladies and gentlemen in England were availing themselves of the hospitality of the German leaders…” (137). This is a surprising bit of information, but the reader doesn’t know the full effect of Stevens’s pity for Lord Darlington until near the end of the novel, when Stevens is awaiting the turning on of the pier lights. Stevens has had his meeting with Miss Kenton (the only scene in the book where Stevens actually admits to having feelings for Miss Kenton, saying: “…at that moment, my heart was breaking…” (239), which was, for me, one of the most touching parts of the book), and he tells a stranger of his time at Darlington Hall. Here, finally, we get to see Stevens acknowledge how he actually feels about being in Lord Darlington’s employ: “I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom…I can’t even say I made my own mistakes,” (243). That is a powerful revelation.  Stevens has spent the entire length of the novel defending and pitying his former employer, and now it is clear why. If Ishiguro had begun the novel by telling the reader that Lord Darlington had been used as a pawn by the Nazis, and that Stevens consequently regretted his lifetime of service there would be no emotional impact in that knowledge. But, by revealing this information slowly over the course of the novel, the reader forms a bond with Stevens. We feel his pain when his father dies, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it at the time. We feel loss when he discovers that Miss Kenton had considered starting a life with him, when it was so clear to us the entire time. Stevens has missed out on these things because of his singular pursuit of dignity in his profession, and by slowly informing the reader of all the details Ishiguro fills The Remains of the Day with heart.

Stevens is an endearing and worthwhile character in part because of his unreliability as a narrator, and not in spite of it. By pitting Stevens’s thoughts against his actions Ishiguro demonstrates the inner conflict inside us all.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. Toronto: Faber and Faber, 1990.

“[W]hat happens, sometimes, when two men meet.”

I love a poem that tells a story, gives such a distinct sense of time, place, and character in so few words that the reader can’t help but be right there in the moment. When that same poem has the power of becoming more than a vivid scene, of going beyond the moment, of becoming a MOMENT, then it is a poem that really works. 

Suzanne Cleary’s poem “Are You Max Schmeling?” is one of those poems that the reader first experiences as a narrative. The year is 1944. An American soldier comes upon a German soldier in the woods. It is raining, and that is why the American can sneak up on the German. When the German soldier finally turns to face the American soldier, the American realizes that the man standing in front of him is the famous boxer  Max Schmeling, a boxer who the American has admired for quite some time. The American indicates that Schmeling should go, and he does.

The story is incredible on its own. Imagine being at war and coming face-to-face with your idol. Imagine being trained to shoot that idol because he is the enemy. Now have Suzanne Cleary write that event in a poem.The title, a question, is introduced in the opening stanza as follows: “It was 1944 and no one who’d ever seen a newspaper or / a newsreel, who’d ever been lucky enough / to get a Max Schmeling trading card inside a pack of cigarettes, / no one alive in that year would have had to ask / this man his name” (40). But the American soldier does ask his name. “It sounded like a real question and it gave the uncle time, / but not too much time, to think, this young soldier / who stood steady while inside hi head a voice, / his own voice, shouted Shoot! Shoot him! // Schmeling nodded, waited, as in truth / both men waited to see what would happen next” (40).  

The only words spoken between the two men are a question, an unnecessary question. But the words put off the American soldier’s training just long enough for him to make the conscious decision to not shoot, to let the man go. The tension and humanity in this narrative stay with the reader. It is one of those poems that you don’t realize until after reading it that you have been waiting to read this poem for a long time.

 There is more to this story, to this poem. You have been waiting to read it.

 Cleary, Suzanne. “Are You Max Schmeling?” Trick Pear. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon UP, 2007.

Writing Advice-Voice

Voice-as defined (sorta kinda) by wikipedia-states “The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).

For more thoughts on voice, check out these blog posts:
Ten Steps to Finding Your Writing Voice
How Can I Find My Writing Voice?
What Is Writer’s Voice?

Still Searching For My Voice

How To Craft a Great Voice

Develop voice by Listening

Finding A Voice

Know of any posts/articles/advice on voice? Post the links in the comments. (links not contributing to the discussion will be deleted)