I bought this book shortly after arriving in America, probably in the summer or fall of 1974. (You can click on the images to enlarge them to read the back cover copy.) They don’t make books like this any more, and I don’t just mean the price. It’s printed on a nice bit of paper — looks like S. D. Warren’s 1854 MF to me; that’s a sheet I loved and used all the time back then. But it’s bound to fail: back then our adhesives were really pretty lousy, and a perfect bound book was a book almost destined to fall into loose-leaf format after a while. I’ve read this copy three or four times. You may be able to see the packaging tape repair holding the front and back cover to the spine. I’ve had to read it very carefully, resisting as far as possible bending the spine, and have managed to keep it all in one piece — till last week when a gust of wind whipped it open and blew the first page of Malcolm Cowley’s Introduction into the bushes. Of course I got it back, but there it is, a loose page ready to get lost. Ah well, it should have died hereafter.

The book is, of course, still in print, but now the paper is worse, while the binding is better, although still of course perfect.

The Portable Faulkner is renowned among all the Portables, which were published by The Viking Press who were located on Madison Avenue just above 57th Street; 57th and Madison is where Cambridge’s US offices were in those days too. They are now, inevitably, part of Penguin Random House. Malcolm Cowley compiled and edited it in 1945 when as he puts it “Faulkner’s books were little read and often disparaged.” It isn’t altogether inaccurate to say that the volume was the making of Faulkner. It was 1950 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The author took an active part in the compilation of this volume, which includes short stories and extracts from the novels, and wrote a history of the Compson family for inclusion in the book. His continuing output necessitated a revised and expanded edition in 1967: he had died in 1962. The renown of the book is based upon Mr Cowley’s ability to sort out the jumbled account of the growth of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County which comes in here, there and everywhere in Faulkner’s oeuvre in no coherent chronological sequence. If the experience of reading Faulkner wasn’t so wonderful in whichever book or order you attempt, this would be the best way to understand his world. It remains the best way for the initiate to enter the world of Yoknapatawpha.

I assume that I bought this book in White Plains in that big bookstore on Mamaroneck Avenue which soon went out of business, selling off its inventory by reducing every price by 50% each week. I got several rather dull books — but they were cheap. I can tell this was when I had it because of the marks down the fore-edge. I had been given a huge car by my boss, the admirable Jack Schulman — maybe I had to give him something for it, just to keep things straight. It was one of these large, long cars, with fins, in a slightly stained pale blue. Plymouth is the word that floats into my mind. It eventually got stolen just across from St John the Divine: my reaction (I swear) was “Damn. Someone’s taken my parking place”. Anyway, the car wouldn’t start one day — flat battery. Simple solution: I took it out, put it in the basket of my bike and took it into the garage on my way to work, picking it up, fully charged, in the evening. For those who doubt there’s acid involved in car batteries, please observe the dark marks where the book which I was reading on the train rested against the battery terminals. It has eaten out interesting semicircles in the back cover.

Amazingly I once went to dinner with Mr Cowley and his wife in their Connecticut home. (He was a friend of my then wife’s then boss.) I didn’t take the book for signing. I was still a self-absorbed jerk in those days and hadn’t yet managed to work out that many authors are pleased and flattered by being asked to sign their books. I strive to imagine that Red Warren dropped by after dinner, but though he was a neighbor he did not. Malcolm Cowley was a member of that now extinct (?) species, the man of letters. He seemed to know everyone; to have read everything; and to have sensible balanced judgements about everything, which he was able to present in clear elegant prose. He did also write good poetry. Quiet, gracious and generous — would there were more like that.

The penultimate piece in the book, “The Jail” is the prologue to Act III of Requiem for a Nun (1951). Earlier in that work Gavin Stevens, no doubt speaking for the author, says “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner’s reaction to this perpetual potentially explanatory presence of the past was a wish to include everything in a single sentence. “My ambition is to put everything into one sentence — not only the present but the whole past on which it depends and which keeps overtaking the present, second by second.” This piece, at bottom a riff on the name engraved into the glass of the window of the Jefferson jailhouse, Cecilia Farmer April 16th 1861 — though of course also a history of everything — is 39 pages long in this edition and consists of two sentences. The first is 32 words long. When one reaches the end the effect of the final words “Listen, stranger; this was myself; this was I” is heart wrenching. You look over your shoulder to see Walt Whitman watching you on the Brooklyn ferry.