“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”

Tomorrow is a 1972 film based upon the William Faulkner short story of the same name.  Directed by Joseph Anthony and adapted by Horton Foote, it is, in my humble opinion, the best and most representative adaptation of Faulkner ever made.  Shot in black and white on a shoestring budget, it is a hauntingly beautiful film.  It also has perhaps the greatest performance by one of the all time great film actors, Robert Duvall, as the simple farmer and watchman Fentry.

The movie begins with a young lawyer trying to understand the strange man who hung the jury in his first trial, a seemingly open and shut case of murder in self defense.   It then proceeds to tell Fentry’s story in flashback.   It is a story of isolation and loneliness, of two simple people finding and losing one another, of man and woman and nature and time, and above all, about love and the enduring power of the human spirit.  Fentry’s character is simple and unsophisticated and quiet, yet his soul is pure and complex and heroic.  Above all he is graced with the capacity for love, and in true Faulkner fashion, his love endures, and he remains true to it.  Duvall masterly breathes life into a character who is simple and complex, in fact, his complexity and depth arise from his simplicity.  Watch the movie, you’ll know what I mean.

When you scrape away the layers of his overly complex style and the guilt of his southern gothic themes and the twisted violence of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the Mississippi setting for nearly all of his work, what you find at the core of Faulkner is a romantic existentialist.   He is, after all, the man who wrote the line, “given the choice between pain and nothing, I would choose pain every time”.   Ephemeral and endure, two words that seem to be at odds with each other, reappear through his work, and I think sum up his central conflict, whether or not these romantic ideals can survive the unfeeling onslaught of time and change.   In bleaker moments, he said “the sad thing about love is not that it can’t last forever, but that soon, even the pain is gone”.

It’s interesting that in his darkest and most famous work, the novel The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner took the title from the famous Macbeth soliloquy that ends with:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and then is heard no more. It is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
signifying nothing

Not only does Faulkner take this passage literally by having the first section of The Sound and the Fury  told from the point of view of an “idiot”, the adult man-child and seriously mentally handicapped Benji Compson, the book itself is about the dissolution and end of the Compson family.   The ephemeral tides of time wash away any trace of romanticism.  Significantly, the most romantic character in the book, Quentin Compson,  is doomed because his romanticism is misaligned – he tries to convince himself he is romantically in love with his sister, when in fact he is in love with death, and ends up a suicide.   The Sound and the Fury ultimately is about the triumph of the ephemeral over the romantic.

In the short story Tomorrow, Faulkner goes back to the same stanza from Macbeth that inspired “The Sound and the Fury”, this time focusing on its beginning rather than its end:

          She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

In closing the short story, Faulkner writes:

“The lowly and invincible of the earth – to endure and endure and then endure, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”

Tomorrow, taken from the same source as The Sound and the Fury, is about the triumph of the romance inherent in the human condition over the ephemeral nature of the universe.  I think he is saying that the unfeeling and unending movement of time and our romantic ideals of the human spirit are intertwined and tied up with each other.   It is the passage of time and its ability to bury the past that give things like truth and love their romantic power.  That a simple man like Fentry, one of “the lowly” is capable of such depths of soul is what will ultimately endure and make him, and us, “invincible”.

Or as Faulkner put it in his address upon winning the Nobel Prize for Literature:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.”

Amen to that.

List-O-Mania: Short Stories

For some reason lately, I’ve been occupying my spare time making any number of top ten lists.  I have no idea why.   The lists cover a wide range of topics, from top 10 favorite movies to top 10 favorite pre-packaged breakfast foods (Quaker Oats Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal is number one, in case you are curious).    Not that anyone gives a rip about me or my opinions, but I thought I’d post some of these lists from time to time on my blog, because,  one, it is my blog,  and two, why not?

So, since it is the middle of summer, we begin with my top ten favorite short stories of all time.  It seems like summer, for whatever reason, is when I read most of these stories.  Maybe it’s because the days are longer and as a kid I had summer vacation, but short stories for me are as much a part of summer as baseball.

You’ll notice that I have actually listed 20, not ten, because it didn’t seem right leaving the ones in places 11-20 off the list.

Like all the lists, not a tremendous amount of thought or time went into creating it, and I have undoubtedly forgotten a couple that moments after I post this I will remember and slap myself on the forehead, hopefully not rendering myself unconscious again.

Note too that all the entries are from American Lit.  I’d like to give some high falutin’ explanation of the short story as a uniquely American art form, but the truth is that I am not as well read in world literature as I’d like to pretend I am.

You’ll also notice an overabundance of William Faulkner titles.  This is because, despite his many and considerable faults, he is my favorite short-story writer of all time.  His ridiculous and over dramatic style for me, for some reason, works so much better in the short forms than in his novels.   One of the first books I ever purchased was his Collected Stories, and it remains among my favorite books (list number 37).

 Here is my list – comments are welcome:

  1.                  A Good Man is Hard to Find                                       Flannery O’Connor
  2.                  That Evening Sun                                                         William Faulkner
  3.                  Big Two Hearted River                                                Ernest Hemmingway
  4.                  An Occurrence at Owl’s Creek Bridge                       Ambrose Bierce
  5.                  Hunters in the Snow                                                    Tobias Wolff
  6.                  My Son the Murderer                                                 Bernard Malamud
  7.                  A Rose For Emily                                                         William Faulkner
  8.                 Death in the Woods                                                       Sherwood Anderson
  9.                 Barn Burning                                                                 William Faulkner
  10.                 Two Soldiers                                                                  William Faulkner
  11.                 The Man Who Was Almost A Man                             Richard Wright
  12.                 Bartleby the Scribner                                                   Herman Melville
  13.                 To Build a Fire                                                               Jack London
  14.                 Good Country People                                                   Flannery O’Connor
  15.                 Dry September                                                             William Faulkner
  16.                 Indian Camp                                                                  Ernest Hemmingway
  17.                 Young Goodman Brown                                               Nathaniel Hawthorne
  18.                 The Secret Life of Walter Mitty                                  James Thurber
  19.                 Eyes of the Panther                                                      Ambrose Bierce
  20.                 The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky                                  Stephen Crane