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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Saturday
Dec192009

« In Which With Any Other Man I Would Not Have Been Afraid to Ask Questions »

Meta & Faulkner

by JOSEPH BLOTNER

I think women are wonderful. They're stronger than men.

- William Faulkner

William Faulkner's relationship with Meta Carpenter, begun during his work on Road to Glory, had steadily grown more intense when he returned for Banjo on My Knee and Gunga Din. He was the ardent lover, reciting poems and writing out verses for her, sometimes his own, once a variation on part of Keats' 'Ode to a Grecian Urn,' another time, eight lines imperfectly remembered from Ulysses, "The Rogue's Delight in Praise of His Strolling Mort." (As Joyce did not acknowledge his seventeenth century source, so Faulkner did not acknowledge Joyce as his.) Some of the verses were intensely sexual and completely explicit in their four-letter Anglo-Saxon words.

As D.H. Lawrence's gamekeeper had done in Lady Chatterly's Lover, he devised proper names for the sexual organs of his beloved and himself. When Meta told him they needed other people in their life, he reluctantly agreed to go to the beach with her friend Sally Richards, a pianist, and Sally's twenty-two year old lover, pianist John Crown. The two couples spent weekends in cottages of the Miramar Hotel, in Santa Monica. There were mementos for Meta of those weekends, twenty-six fine-line pen-and-ink drawings of the two of them: before, during, and after love-making.

To the one who would see them many years later, "The basic concept of Faulkner's drawings was witty: Working at a film studio, Faulkner on a slack day, thinking of Meta while being paid to be there to make films, made drawings which suggest they are animation stills and would give the illusion of movement if seen in a rapid sequence. As he was supposed to do in that office, he made a movie." If this aspect of their relationship provided humor and ribaldry, their affair was also, for him, a riot of the senses that curiously ranged from the explicit sexual wordplay and graphically erotic drawings to gifts of hair ribbons and to pillows strewn in anticipation with petals of jasmine and gardenias.

It was not easy for her. "With any other man," she wrote, "I would not have been afraid to ask questions....but not with Bill. From the beginnings, I knew somehow that I had to be incurious. The insularity that he drew over himself like a second, tougher skin put him beyond common query." This gently nurtured daughter of the Delta could share the throes of physical passion with him, but she had to come to terms with the fact that the inner core of the man would remain beyond her ken.

bill's typewriterShe felt it sometimes when he was with her and more keenly when he was away. During those lonely times she tried to "connect the warm, outgoing man of the letters with the man who was largely a cipher to me." And she was caught in yet another dilemma. When he spoke of other writers, of contemporaries, she was "painfully aware of my intellectual limitations," and so she held herself to "dazzling smiles when they were appropriate." She wanted to be able to take with him on this level, yet she also knew how he valued that quality of youth and inexperience that elicited the gifts of hair ribbons.

They had now passed the gardenia-and-jasmine phase of their relationship. She had seen him in the throes of delirium tremens, when he shuddered and screamed that the Jerries were going to shoot him down, and she had helped him get to the private hospital where he could ride out the ragged end of another debilitating drinking bout. Yet she told herself, "I could live with this man for the rest of my life... the dark moods, the lack of attention to me when his characters possessed his mind, his aversion to self-revelation that would be with him all his life, his coldness to others when they pressed in upon him - none of it would be more than I could rationalize."

There were things that could not but trouble her deeply. He complained bitterly about his wife, but he said he feared to sue for divorce because he would lose his daughter in the process. Meta tried to anticipate his wishes and wants. When he gave her a dog, a cocker named Chloe, she was sure that meant she was to move from the Studio Club into an apartment where they could live together, but he told her it would be better if they had their own places.

She wanted to be his wife, she wanted to mother Jill, but there were so many areas that were off limits. He did not discuss his work with her. And though he told her what she had meant to him, "He had never been one for spoken sentiment out of bed, distrusting the flatness of the spoken word, resorting to French endearments when the playback of his own voice offended his ears. I knew he loved me by looks, by touch, by the poems and letters, only seldom by what he said to me."

Somehow, he could say clearly to Ben Wasson what he could not say to Meta herself. "That's the girl I'm in love with," he told Ben after he introduced him. "Can't get her out of my mind or system. And don't want to. ... She's brought me peace of mind. I haven't said anything yet to Estelle, who's already suspicious, I think. I want to marry Meta."

Faulkner could also talk about his work to Ben. After typing out pages of Absalom, Absalom! in an upstairs room of Ben's tiny rented Alpine chateau, Faulkner descended to the living room one day and told Ben, "It's a tortured story, and torture to write it." But he had no trouble in expressing his feelings about Hollywood to both his lover and his friend. One afternoon when he descended after finishing his stint, he looked to see what Ben was reading. "Oh, Proust. Swann's Way," he said. "Swann! That poor misguided son of a bitch, and they call him a snob. I think he was just opposite. Godamighty, what Odette did to him. To have crucified him would have brought him less hell, less anguish. In some ways Proust was lucky. He didn't ever have to contend with Hollywood for his bread and butter. I'd rather have spent my time in that corklined bedroom of his, asthma and all. Anytime."

Some of the things Faulkner was able to say to Meta echoed the age-old cry of the man away from home, the man who was lonely and desperately in need of the solace of physical love. There was scant comfort in his promise to do what he could to seek his freedom. "I can't say what will happen or whether anything will happen," he told her. "If you had a grain of sense, you'd get shut of me right here and now, tell me to stay out of your life." But she did not, as he surely hoped and perhaps expected. But she did wonder what was going to come of it, what would happen to her.

Joseph Blotner is the author of Faulkner: A Biography from which this excerpt is taken. He was born in Scotch Plains, New Jersey in 1923. You can buy the book here.

blotner and his subject

"Quiet" - Rachael Yamagata (mp3)

"The Reason Why" - Rachael Yamagata (mp3)

"Under My Skin" - Rachael Yamagata (mp3)


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