Bookmarks Issue: 
Jay Parini

A Life of William Faulkner

A-OneMatchlessTimeFor an author studied as widely as William Faulkner, the dearth of biographies is surprising. Surprising, that is, until one realizes that apart from his writing, Faulkner led a fairly typical life. Born to a well-to-do Mississippi family, he spent his early years loafing through school and working at a series of mindless jobs. Once he found success as an author, he spent the bulk of his time writing, drinking, and working on the family farm. Parini, in leading up to the "matchless time" of As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and other masterpieces, aims to circle the square and uncover the connections between Faulkner’s simple life and the rich fictional world he left for posterity.
HarperCollins. 492 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 0066210720

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"... nothing less than spellbinding. … Anecdotal without being tawdry, analytical without being academic, it captures the essence of Faulkner’s life with the narrative drive of a novel." William J. Cobb

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What Parini adds to our knowledge of Faulkner is not so much new information but a new understanding of how the novelist connected his violent, inchoate past with literature’s perdurable future, how he turned the savagery of his own blood into the permanence of art."
David Kirby

Chicago Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, the ubiquitous reach of critical theory, abetted by Freudian excess, sometimes weakens Parini’s argument, nowhere more so than in matters related to sex. … Though exasperating, these threads of theory are in the end a minor distraction from Parini’s main text." Victor Strandberg

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"The time is ripe for a biography like … One Matchless Time, which modestly attempts to shift the focus from Faulkner’s life and persona back to the work itself. Unlike the titanic works by Frederick Karl and Joseph Blotner, Mr. Parini’s biography makes no claim to being exhaustive, nor does he care to exhume every real-life association between Faulkner’s invented Yoknapatawpha County and his hometown of Oxford." John Freeman

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"Though Parini does tell Faulkner’s story in a workmanlike way, there isn’t all that much of a story to tell." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

Faulkner must hold an irresistible allure for biographers, but Joseph Blotner’s colossal 1974 biography of the author and the shortage of much new information beyond Blotner’s work make all but the most devoted writers move forward. Parini, novelist, poet, and biographer of Robert Frost and John Steinbeck, takes a pragmatic approach, opting for concision and a smattering of new interviews with Faulkner’s friends and family. The book weaves Faulkner’s story in with chronological analyses of his books, a structure that provides context for his novels and a clean narrative line. Though Parini uncovers nothing new (unless you count the whispers about homosexuality that critics dismiss as feeble at best) One Matchless Time is a fine introduction to the life and works of one of America’s great writers.

Supplemental Reading

Faulkner A Biography | Joseph Blotner (1974): Originally published in two volumes, this is an in-depth look at Faulkner’s life that was recommended by several of the reviewers.

In our Book by Book Profile of William Faulkner in our Mar/Apr 2004 issue, we recommended Where to Start: "The Portable Faulkner transformed the author into a literary celebrity, and it is an ideal introduction to his style, characters, and invented Mississippi county. Light in August is his Southern masterpiece, and an ultimately hopeful work. For the true Faulknerian experience, go with his stream-of-consciousness narratives: As I Lay Dying and, for the daredevil reader, The Sound and the Fury."