The Magazine

The Visiting Farmer

Paris, 1954, and a close encounter with William Faulkner.

Jul 31, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 43 • By CYNTHIA GRENIER
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Last summer, when Oprah re-launched her book club by promoting three of William Faulkner's novels--As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August--I had to wonder what on earth he would have thought of it. To say nothing of a full-page ad in the New York Times telling readers they could sign up to watch "the brand-new Faulkner Video Series from the comfort of your own home." All this stirred my memory, because the first article I ever had published was an interview with the notoriously difficult-to-interview William Faulkner.

In my senior year at Radcliffe, Albert Guerard was giving a course on "Hardy, Conrad, and Gide," and somewhere along the way we sidelined into a rath er lengthy discussion of William Faulk ner and his writings. I recollect buying a paperback edition of Sanctuary at the Harvard Coop, and reading for the first time the author who (Guerard had told us) was more appreciated in France than in his own country.

I wasn't particularly impressed at the time, but that might have been because I was in the midst of discovering Joseph Conrad, and absorbing everything he'd written as fast as I could. (I wound up writing an honors thesis on "Realism and Symbolism in the Shorter Novels of Joseph Conrad.") Four months after graduation I married Richard Grenier in Cambridge City Hall, and that same afternoon we sailed for France on the Ile de France, on Richard's Fulbright Grant to study French theater.

After a most agreeable year of absorbing French theatrical life, I managed to talk my way into a job at the American Embassy with the United States Information Services (USIS), which was quartered in the handsome onetime Rothschild mansion at 41 rue Saint-Honoré, next door to the British Embassy and a half-block down from Hermès. A spacious, well-kept garden with a vast green lawn and tall chestnut trees lay at the rear of the building.

One day in September 1954, a telegram arrived on my desk announcing the impending visit of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner to Paris. USIS would be charged with looking after him during his brief stay.

Being somewhat aggressive by nature, I presumed on my acquaintance with his work--I'd caught up on most of his major novels since Harvard Yard days--and, by virtue of a complicated link to him involving a Southern woman (a close friend of his who also happened to be close to Albert Marre, director of the Brattle Street Theater Group in Cambridge), I was assigned to Faulkner.

At that time, I had no idea what publication would want an interview with William Faulkner; but since his distaste for interviews was well known, I figured someone out there in the literary world would surely be interested. Besides, having been around theater people for a few years, I was fairly confident I could cope with any temperamental artist sort.

So, at one of Faulkner's first visits to the embassy, I simply walked up to him and mentioned the name of the southern woman. The wary look on his face relaxed into a partial smile of acknowledgment. I asked whether I could interview him while he was in Paris. We settled on a time and place.

Faulkner was a small, trim, handsome man with a well-brushed head of white hair, tanned face, very alert, with small black-brown eyes under epicanthic lids. There was an air about him that said: "Don't try to talk to me. You won't like it." It was a look I would see many times later with celebrities in public, their faces tightening into hostility.

There was something else in Faulkner's manner: He exuded a kind of reserve, a certain diffidence. You felt you were in the presence of an animal in the wild that called for you to hold out your hand with salt on it, and wait patiently for him to approach you. But being young, fairly presentable, and having on my lips the name of a mutual acquaintance as I greeted him, seemed to do the trick. I've considered since whether he was coming on to me, and decided he simply liked that I was young and interested in what he had to say.

It was mid-morning when I led him out to the garden, where we sat down on the grass under a tall chestnut tree. You couldn't hear the city traffic within the sheltered grounds. Faulkner was wearing a light blue Brooks Brothers shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His Harris tweed jacket, with dark leather elbow patches, lay beside him.

I thought his bearing and appearance belied his 57 years. His chin jutted up and out, meeting the world directly and defiantly. He spoke in a soft, slow voice with what might be called a genteel Southern accent. Sometimes he spoke in short, almost abrupt sentences--"'cause I do"--and at other times, when he talked about his craft, or his beliefs, fine, long, convoluted sentences, reminiscent of his prose, would roll forth.