Happy birthday, Mister Faulkner!
Faulkner's birthday in the Crescent City: real mint juleps in traditional silver cups, a perfect sunset, and Napoleon's deathmask in the next room
(Of course, nothing in New Orleans is entirely what it seems, and this mask might actually be the face of Bony's friend who sometimes pretended to be the fallen emperor. It is accompanied by the emperor's handkerchief. which is somehow so much sadder, so fragile and starched and old, more tragically human than the overlarge paperweight of the deathmask.)
William Faulkner lived in this city for barely 16 months, but his relationship with the place was as formative as Hemingway's with Paris. He invented himself various times over--and routinely stole other people's stories to make his own life more interesting. And it was here that he really became a writer. He was often quiet, often dishonest, and often disreputable. Anita Loos (author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and one of my personal heroines) was introduced to him with the warning 'don't expect much of Bill, he has a silver plate in his head, you know.'
Faulkner did not have a plate in his head--this was just one of his many invented personas. He did drink rather a lot. And apparently his favourite cocktail was a mint julep. So that is what we raise in toast to his fabulous convoluted sentences and tremendous story-telling.
Tonight, the traditional drink is too cold to hold. Now I understand why the silver cups are used--they keep your hands nicely chilled against the summer heat. And this New Orleans summer has lasted a long long time--"The way summers used to last when you were a child, how they lasted forever," poet Lee Meitzen Grue tells me. The sunset illuminates the Pontalba buildings across from where we stand in the second-floor glassed-in balcony of the Cabildo.
Sherman Anderson lived just across the way, on the opposite side of Jackson Square. Author John Shelton Reed explains that if Anderson hadn't been in New Orleans, Faulkner might never have been inspired to try writing fiction. Maybe he'd have remained a fabulist, rather than a practical working writer. He was only a rather bad poet when he arrived in New Orleans. He left rather better.
So happy birthday, Mister Faulkner. May your ghost wander down Pirate's Alley every now and then, regaling fellow-ghosts with stories.
(When I visited Faulkner's house in Oxford, Miss., I photographed the famous wall in his study, where he plotted out the events of his work A Fable, scribbled in pencil on the plaster. I've just moved into a new workspace; I better not drink too many mint juleps, or I'll be plotting out the story of my next novel across the rather battered walls...)