william faulkner

Story Playlist 11: A Rose for Emily

William Faulkner: “A Rose for Emily” (1930) Okay, Faulkner, you got me. There I was, reading your short story, thinking that we had a nice, southern, lightly Gothic character study on our hands. Then, on the last page, you pulled a fast one and not only surprised me with your ending, but thoroughly creeped me out. In a good way. In fact, the last image in this story is the creepiest I’ve read over the course of this project—and this is not a horror story!

Faulkner is a master of haunting, slightly surreal, loaded images. Of his work I’ve only read As I Lay Dying, and I loved it. The images in that novel (the old woman hearing her own coffin being made by her son beneath her window, then the family carrying the coffin on a shaky carriage across a river) haunt better than any ghost, so I was hoping for more of the same. Faulkner is often called a “Southern Gothic” writer, which implies not only a setting in the Deep South, but also an element of darkness, perhaps even of the grotesque. On my playlist, Southern writers, like Faulkner and Eudora Welty (both from Mississippi) and Flannery O’Connor (from Georgia), are well-represented and have major reputations as short fiction authors. So, obviously, the southern setting of “A Rose for Emily” did not surprise me, nor did the first 90 percent of the story.

It begins with the story of a wealthy single woman, Emily, who is an odd recluse, much-discussed but little-seen, living alone in a grand home, never socializing. Her only companion is an old black servant. Emily refuses to be given a street address when post is first introduced to the town, and refuses to pay taxes; a previous mayor officially relieved her of her tax obligations, but newer administrations wish to enforce them. Those who pass her house glimpse her occasionally on the ground floor, and she seems to have boarded up the top floor, but little else can be said for certain.

The narrator is a member of the administration of the town, one of many curious who come snooping when Emily finally passes away. The old black servant, now very old, silently lets in the funeral-goers and then disappears. The narrator and other administrators explore the stuffy, moldy, grand old house and find a single upstairs room locked. Forcing the door, they find inside a bedroom that looks as though inhabited by a gentleman, with discarded clothing, a hairbrush, cufflinks laid out to be put on, but all corroded by time and covered in a film of dust. And, on the bed, there is something sinister, beautiful, moving, and haunting . . .

I’ve noticed, over the course of this project of mine, that the majority of the stories I’ve included feature a) creeping dread, b) eerie atmosphere (which often accompanies creeping dread, but not always), and c) a “flip,” “kicker,” or “twist” in the last line that turns the story you’ve just read on its head. Now, I know that I tend to prefer that kind of story, as, like a lot of people, I enjoy the fascination of scary fiction. But I also know that the stories I’ve chosen were culled from a variety of lists, syllabi, recommendations of fellow writers, and anthologies of the greatest works of short fiction ever written. I had only read about a third of the selected stories prior to this project, and I read no summaries of the stories before adding them to the list. While this is hardly a scientific study, there seems to me to be a very large percentage of stories with those three aforementioned components—all of which I tend to associate with “thrillers,” and not with literary works in general. It surprises me that these features should appear so often in landmark short fiction. Or is that why these stories make the lists in the first place?

Though I chose Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” as a “classic” and because I loved As I Lay Dying and wanted to try out his short fiction, I knew nothing about the story and, to be honest, I was less than enthused by the title. That probably sounds silly, but one can be put off by a title just as easily as urged forward. I expected a character study about some kind of genteel Southern belle with a touch of the gossipy aspects of Southern Gothic, and dressed up in Faulkner’s fancy writing. That’s just what it seemed I got, until I reached the last page and, bam, I got the chills. Hats off to Faulkner for surprising me like that, and injecting me with a syringeful of the creeps: in short, doing everything I love a story to do, but which I was not expecting from this particular story.

The Last Romantic

The Broken Tower, written and directed by James Franco, starring James Franco, with Michael Shannon. The most obvious comment is that Hart Crane deserves better.

A complex poet who tried to combine the ecstatic reach of Whitman with a Shakespearean richness of syntax and verbal excess, while haunted by the modernist search for prevailing myths found in Eliot’s The Waste Land, Crane, born in 1899, also "wrestled the angel” that wouldn’t get full exploration until the era of the Beats: whether or not to express openly a gay sensibility.

In addition to all that, Crane was the scion of a man made rich by crass commercialism—his father invented that symbol of polite social hygiene, the Life Saver mint—with ambitions to be a writer of a more Baudelairean era. He was doomed to be “the last romantic,” a figure living out a version of the tortured artist tale that was a familiar cautionary fable before poets—beginning with the generation after Crane—regularly became tenured professors. Crane’s, then, is a very American story, poised flamboyantly between the wars, looking backward to the Paris spleen of the symbolists, participating in the Paris fads of the expatriates, and looking forward to the Paris squats of the Beats. It’s a story that partakes of an age-old incentive to suffer for art while proclaiming a noble indifference to the demands of the work-a-day world.

Does this story have anything to teach us today? Perhaps it might be the lesson that one man’s rich dilettante is another man’s outcast genius. James Franco, director and star and author and editor and co-producer of The Broken Tower, and currently a grad student in English at Yale, might be said to be resurrecting the ghost of Crane for the sake of his own romantic ambitions: as a celebrity actor, thanks in part to the meaningless but lucrative distinction of playing Harry Osborne, Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s friend/nemesis in a trio of crassly commercial comic-book rip-offs, Franco craves artistic respectability and achievement. He’s an author, an installation artist, a performance artist, a filmmaker, an exploiter/sufferer of his own celebrity—the latest post-ironic subject position in line with what used to be known as being “a poor little rich kid”—and a living, breathing, endlessly replicated image of the artist as PR stunt, or as pop image, surface sans depth, or as a self-perpetuating commodity fetish, perhaps. And, sometimes, he’s just an actor, man.

If this sounds like I’m reviewing Franco more than his film, I can’t help it. Never for a moment watching this film did I believe in Franco as Crane. Franco’s idea of convincing us of his subject’s reality is to have the folks from wardrobe put him in period costume and then let Christina Voros film him, with a sort of YouTube version of cinema verité, walking around parts of New York or Paris or the Cayman Islands or Mexico that don’t feature any anachronistic details. Unfortunately, such visuals don’t immediately transport us to the Jazz Age perambulations of Crane. Nor does watching Crane/Franco—Cranco—chop wood outside a rustic cabin while we hear him earnestly reading from a letter in which the poet voices his grand ambitions give us any real access to the ritual of withdrawal that Crane felt was necessary for his art.

And, typical of most biopics of the artist type, whenever Crane is around people he acts like a fool. He’s insufferable as, I suppose, only the truly gifted can be, but, his little moustache notwithstanding, it’s hard to separate the character Franco portrays this time around from the character he portrayed when he essayed the role of Allen Ginsberg for the film Howl, particularly when Crane sits hashing out his views over wine with a friend, sounding as if he’s waiting for a Charlie Parker sax sound-byte to catch up with him any minute. Impersonating literary mavericks seems to be Franco’s thing (he also plays Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner in short films he made for an installation), but, as an actor, he hasn’t begun to excavate what made these men who they were, rather than simply free-floating signifiers of literary greatness one finds on a college syllabus.

Franco, who began the film as a thesis at the Tisch School of the Arts, cops a bit of cinematic style from Andy Warhol in the early going, enough, particularly with Franco’s even prettier younger brother Dave playing the teen-aged Crane, to make us think fond thoughts of Joey Dallesandro, and if that’s not enough to make us feel we’ve entered a “gay sensibility,” there are quasi-explicit moments of sex with men to register Crane’s lonely candle. And there’s even—naively—Robert Lowell’s poem “Words for Hart Crane” printed on the screen (unattributed) to let us know that everything this film is trying to say, about the poet maudit “wolfing the stray lambs of the Place de la Concorde,” was masterfully said in sonnet form in the late Fifties.

And that brings me to what dismays me most about The Broken Tower: the sense that Franco, dissatisfied, understandably, with the roles Hollywood sends his way, is trying to find his own path by standing on the shoulders of giants. The background most significant to this foray into what is ultimately a vanity project about Hart Crane is Franco’s early role as James Dean. The greatness of Dean as an actor is unplayable by another actor; one can only look foolish trying to “be” James Dean on screen. And yet Franco took on the task. It helps that he resembles Dean at times, and that’s enough to make us think sometimes of Dean while watching The Broken Tower, and that produces an odd Franco-inspired palimpsest that is surely the point of this film—Hart Crane was a rebel without a cause, got it? Dean was doomed to be Dean; Crane, Crane. Franco seems doomed to be a well-intentioned interpreter of an ineffable greatness that eludes him.

The effort is not without its pathos, but it’s the pathos of Franco, rather than of Crane. The closest we get to the latter is when Crane reads “The Marriage of Faustus and Helen” to a stuffy literary salon. Franco reads the poem dutifully, respectful of its sonorities but never relishing them, and we get a shot of what John Berryman called “spelled, all-disappointed ladies,” eyes alight, listening. For a moment we get an idea, with the poet’s words ringing in our ears, of what an unheralded creature young Crane was, overwrought at times but always graceful, at his best “original . . . and pure.” We glimpse his greatness and we see that, like Baudelaire’s albatross, his wingspan will make him an awkward figure in life.

The rest is a montage of clichés in search of a script.

The film opened this weekend at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, W. 3rd Street, New York; James Franco will be on hand for Q&A following the 7:35 p.m. screening (sold out) and will give an extended introduction to the 10 p.m. screening, on Sat., April 28th; he will also be in person on Sunday, April 29th, for Q&A following the 5:10 p.m. screening and will provide an introduction before the 7:35 p.m. screening.

Listen Here This Week: William Faulkner and Louise Erdrich

The Listen Here! Short Story Reading Series rolls into its 12th week with readings at Manjares Fine Pastries, this Tuesday, 838 Whalley Avenue (on West Rock Avenue), May 25, 7 p.m. Our Theme? “Romeos & Juliets”

Our Stories? Louise Erdrich’s “The Plague of Doves” and William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”

Why these? Ah, Louise, again. We just couldn’t help ourselves, and besides, this story fits the theme so well. “A Plague of Doves” is a wonderfully touching story of young love, too young to grasp fully the story it finds itself engaged in. This, too, we discovered while waiting in an airport and perusing The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford. The story first appeared in The New Yorker.

William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is a classic of the southern Gothic tradition. Spinster, possibly wandering lover, gossipy townsfolk—it’s all there, and Faulkner manages to bring it together with the same Southern polish he gives much of his short fiction.