Jim's Reviews > Knight's Gambit

Knight's Gambit by William Faulkner
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Mar 07, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: mysteries, short-stories, 20th-century-lit, faulkner
Read from February 06 to 11, 2012

My edition of William Faulkner's Knight's Gambit is subtitled Six Mystery Stories. I cannot help but think that this is wrong: Faulkner just wasn't into the mystery genre. These aren't whodunits, but rather wry observations of the human condition by a middle aged attorney named Gavin Stevens who is playing the part of a kind of Jedi master to his eighteen year old nephew Charles Mallison.

The last two Faulkner books I have read, this one and Intruder in the Dust, both concentrated on the character of Stevens and the Boswell-like nephew who hung on his every word. Faulkner must, I think, have seen Lawyer Stevens as an alter ego. Think about it: the Mississippi writer from an old family, but immured in a oh-so-proud rural culture, though he has seen World War I and Paris and met the likes of James Joyce. We keep seeing him play with his Phi Beta Kappa key from Harvard and we are frequently reminded of his years at Heidelberg University.

I understand that Faulkner was not well-liked by his neighbors in Oxford, Mississippi. He was of them but not of them. Yet when I read his interviews in Faulkner at the University and elsewhere, he was remarkably forthcoming for a great author. He did not retreat to some Nobel Prize cave where he could spend the rest of his life making gnomic statements for the cognoscenti. No, both Faulkner and Stevens were men who had seen the world; and both are deeply involved in the land and the people of their birth.

The stories in Knight's Gambit act more than anything else as vehicles for the enlightenment of Gavin Stevens and of his nephew Charles. For instance, take this quote from the eponymous story of the collection, "Knight's Gambit," in which Stevens uses an analogy from poker to reprove the wealthy and spoiled young Max Harriss and perhaps guide him toward a better life:
"Look. You are playing poker (I assume you know poker, or at least—like a lot of people—anyway play it.) You draw cards. When you do that, you affirm two things: either that you have something to draw to, or are willing to support to your last cent the fact that you have not. You dont draw and then throw the cards in because they are not what you wanted, expected, hoped for; not just for the sake of your own soul and pocket-book, but for the sake of the others in the game, who have likewise assumed that unspoken obligation."
Many people do not like Knight's Gambit. Many others do not like Faulkner at all. They see the Old Testament cadences of his language as being too murky, too difficult to unravel. As I frequently tell those who are dubious about Faulkner, remember that there is always a great story in there; and it is always worth every effort to take the time and trouble to ferret it out. The two classics of this principle are The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!. Knight's Gambit is not up to their level, but it has some of the same great stuff.
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