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Archive for March, 2012

Confession time: every time I start to read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury I get bogged down part way in and pick up something else to read.  I then came across a viewpoint somewhere suggesting that for those readers who are put off by Faulkner’s heavy style, As I Lay Dying was the best place to start, an easier initiation if you will.  And I have to say thank-you to whoever wrote that because I was in part mesmerised by this story and how it’s told.  If you think multiple protagonist and/or multiple points-of-view (POV) is a more recent invention then think again.  Faulkner uses fifteen different narrators, each in first person, some of whom employ small sections of stream-of-consciousness.  There’s a little settling in required, but once comfortable, I found it quite a feat.  The voices are earthy and redolent of the deep south of America in which the book is set, each of them providing us with a slightly different slant on the story to which they are a party to, even if just for one brief encounter.  (Without giving anything away, the single chapter narrated by MacGowan, who serves one of the main characters, Dewey Dell, in a chemist store, is powerful and heart-rending stuff.)

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.  Let’s have a look at the story.  The Bundrens are poor farmers in Mississippi.  The calculating and vengeful Addie Bundren is dying.  Her husband, the very proud Anse, (surely he gives Mr Darcy a run for his prideful money?), has given his word to bury her with her people back in Jefferson.  Outside Addie’s window, Cash, one of her sons, is sawing wood for her coffin.  The first few chapters go on like this, with Cash sawing, Addie slowly dying, and Anse looking out over the land and rubbing his knees, (and wishing for a new set of teeth to boot!).  Meanwhile, a picture of the family slowly builds, with Darl and Jewel and the young Vardamon all brothers to Cash, and Dewey Dell, their sister.  Darl is quite prominent in these early chapters.

When Addie dies, Darl and Jewel are off earning a few bob making a delivery for a neighbour, Mr Tull.  They see their mother is dead on their return in the buzzards circulating over the farm.  The family set off on a road trip to get Addie to Jefferson but encounter several delays along the way, including a harrowing flood scene wherein they lose the team of mules pulling the wagon, and nearly lose the coffin.  All the while the buzzards grow in number.

It’s only 248 pages but there’s so much going on in this family: affairs, sexual relationships, unwanted pregnancies, revenge-seeking, favouritism, and deep scepticism in some, particularly Darl, about their seemingly mad undertaking, (so-to-speak).  There are disasters and near disasters.  There are falling outs and all sorts of shenanigans.  Poor little Vardamon is so traumatised by his mother’s death, he equates her to a fish, leading to the famous line (and very short whole chapter), in which he narrates: “My mother is a fish.”  Darl tries to end the journey by burning down a barn in which they store their mother’s reeking coffin one night – which lands him in some very, very hot water.  And no matter what the dour Anse does, he seems to have some strange hold over all his brood.

There is one chapter from the POV of Addie who lies dead in her coffin.  It is either her talking from beyond the grave, or we have jumped back in time to hear her deathbed thoughts on family, her unloving relationship with Anse, the way she favours some of her children over others, as well as other insights.

There are some wonderful sentences.  Take this description of the flooding river as the boys try to drive the wagon across: [p128]:

[The river] clucks and murmurs among the spokes and about the mules’ knees, yellows, skummed with flotsam and with thick soiled gouts of foam as though it had sweat, lathering, like a driven horse.   

And this description of Addie’s dying eyes, p39:

Only her eyes seem to move.  It’s like they touch us, not with sight or sense, but like the stream from a hose touches you, the stream at the instant of impact as dissociated from the nozzle as though it had never been there.

In fact, the eyes of all the characters are described with unerring deliberation throughout.

If there is one fault with the novel it is in what Hemmingway derisorily termed Faulkner’s penchant for using ‘ten-dollar words’.  There was a good feisty feud between the authors on the question of fancy words.  Hemmingway, not surprisingly, wasn’t a fan.  He wrote, ‘Poor Faulkner, does he really think big emotions come from big words?  He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words.  I know them all right.  But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.’  (Both Faulkner and Hemmingway won the Nobel Prize.)

Now, I like ten-dollar words, but when you’re using first-person narration and the characters are poor rural farmers from the 1930s Mississippi, these kind of words don’t fit.  Faulkner can’t help himself.  Take this moment when little Vardamon is narrating, [p51], and compare the simplicity of the opening words with the ones that follow:

It is dark.  I can hear wood, silence: I know them.  But not living sounds, not even him.  It is though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components—snuffings and stampings; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a coordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret and familiar, an is different from my is

There is also a moment where Dewey Dell, who has trouble communicating the serious trouble she is in, uses in her narration the word ‘stertorous’* to describe a cow’s breathing — a word so unusual and erudite that Microsoft Word thinks I’ve misspelled it!

Darl’s narration is full of ten-dollar words —‘proscenium’ and ‘portière’** anyone? — but at least his articulate nature is consistent.

Despite this minor quibble, the book soars.  It explores the great existential questions, of what it means to be.  Faulkner says it was written in just six weeks and he didn’t change a word, and if either or both of those claims are true, it’s simply miraculous.  The characters will stay long in the memory.

The book has inspired many others, including Graham Swift’s Booker Prize winning Last Orders, which I highly recommend.  Those of us in Australia will recognise the “My mother is a fish” quote from the start of the beguiling Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan.  There are many others, as well as authors who call Faulkner a key influence.  I remember Peter Carey for instance eulogising on Faulkner.  Now I can see why.  Bring on The Sound and the Fury!

* Stertorous: from stertor: ‘a heavy snoring sound in respiration’.

** Proscenium: in short, ‘the stage of an ancient theatre’.

** Portiere: ‘a heavy curtain hung across a doorway.’

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Vintage

1935

ISBN: 9780099479314

248 pages

Source: the local municipal library

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Grieving for the baby stillborn to them in Pennsylvania, Jack and Mabel move to Alaska for a quieter existence on their new  farm.  Set in the 1920s, the cold, unforgiving landscape is real frontier stuff.  They share an awkward love, and their grief is slowly strangling them.  They also face the harsh truth that, in middle age and with no offspring to help them, and with their farm failing, they might have to leave.  They might not have enough food for the winter.  The story is told, at least initially, in alternating POV between Jack and Mabel.  Mabel sees Jack return from an unsuccessful hunt, thus [p42]:

… Jack walked out of the barn carrying a lantern and the snow eddied around him in the circle of light.   He turned his head, as if he had sensed her eyes on him, and the two of them looked at each other across the distance, each in their pocket of light, snow failing like a veil between them.  Mabel couldn’t remember the last time they had so deliberately gazed at each other, and the moment was like the snow, slow and drifting.

However, as that first snow of their second full winter settles in the yard about their log cabin, they find a moment of levity and decide to build a snowman, although, once dressed in mittens and scarf, the creation is more child than man.  Jack carves a little face and they have made themselves a snow girl.  Awakening from his sleep that night Jack sees what he thinks is a girl in the woods but, thinking he’s seeing things, he goes back to bed.  The next morning they wake to find the snow girl gone, including all her clothes.  Little footprints lead away from the place she stood, but none lead to it.  Thus begins the mystery of the snow girl, coming and going as she pleases with her red fox companion.  She favours the cold outside air rather than the warm cabin.  The girl leads Jack to the moose that will feed him and Mabel for the winter.  She is the child they always wanted.  But is she real or a dream, some form of “cabin fever” that is known to grip the minds of those souls waiting out the long, dark winters?

Into the picture arrives the no-nonsense Esther Benson and her husband George, two established farmers and ‘neighbours’, though there’s a good distance between the respective farms.  They have three sons, including Garret, their youngest, who helps Jack and Mabel with the farming in the spring and summer, and goes out trapping in the winter.  Only Jack and Mabel see the girl though, who calls herself Faina, and who comes each winter and disappears each spring.  When Mabel tells Esther about her, Esther thinks her friend’s gone mad.  She says to Mabel: “You start seeing things that you’re afraid of … or things you’ve always wished for.”  Making matters worse, Jack won’t back Mabel up.  Despite this they ask Garret to promise not to kill any red foxes.  It’s only years later, after Jack and Mabel survive all manner of mishap and challenge with the help of Garret, that Garret sees Faina, now a young woman.  How will his interest in her alter the balance of things?  And what will she make of the fact that he had, in the end, killed her fox?

Faina is cautious when it comes to Garret.  She asks Jack about him.  Jack says: [p310]:

You don’t have to be frightened of him.  He doesn’t mean you any harm. 

All right, she said. 

She set the fish in the snow and washed the blood from her hands.

There’s an ominous portent in this exchange, those words ‘harm’ and ‘blood’ shot through with meaning even as he tried to calm her fears.  Adding another level of intrigue is Mabel’s memory of how she used to conure fairies in her garden as a girl, and, more troublingly, the fairy tale her father used to tell her, about a girl made from snow who is born to a childless couple in exactly the same way as Faina seems to have been born to them — a story that doesn’t end well.

I love stories merging the magical and real.  And I’ve been reading so many classics and historical fiction of late that it was a joy to get back to some magical realism.  Based on an old fairy tale by Arthur Ransome, called Little Daughter of the Snow, which is re-printed at the end of the book, The Snow Child is pure storytelling.  Ivey lives in Alaska and it shows in every description of the hard winters and light-filled summers.  There is a simple lyricism in her prose, reminiscent of fairy tales, which is captivating.  There is a real honesty in the way events are depicted, including the killing and gutting of wild animals, the risky venturing into wilderness, the hardships of the farm.

There are some curious things, though.  First is the introduction of a Garret as a third point-of-view (POV) around two-thirds of the way through the novel.  This would ordinarily be a no-no but it because of where the plot is heading there seems little choice to include him.  Just as curious is the way his POV leaves the story as we return to just Jack and Mabel’s POV toward the end.

There is so much good story pulling us along that I barely noticed the slight lack of depth to the thematic treatment of grief, the longing for family, and how much love is enough.  The ending is perhaps ever so slightly less controlled than the rest of the novel in this regard.  Maybe that’s why The Snow Child didn’t make the 2012 Orange Prize longlist, though I, like The Guardian’s Robert McCrum, in his commentary on the strength of the Orange longlist, would have liked to see Ivey get a nod.  (McCrum adds Kate Grenville latest, Sarah Thornhill to the list of overlooked novels.)  All in all, the quibbles are minor, especially for such a sparkling debut.

I enjoyed The Snow Child a lot.  I wonder whether Eowyn Ivey will take us back into the wilds of Alaska in her next novel…

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Headline Review

2012

ISBN: 9780755380527

404 pages, & Arthur Ransome’s Fairy Tale, Little Daughter of the Snow, 11 pages.

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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“Please, sir, I want some more.”

It was one of the classic lines isn’t it?

I’ve been doing some reading on Newgate Gaol of late which is why, when I decided to celebrate Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, I chose Oliver Twist, for it is typically classified as a ‘Newgate Novel’.  This seems to me to be a bit of a misnomer because there is precious little of the novel set inside Newgate.  (As an aside, the nefarious place went by endless nicknames which, according to Kelly Grovier in his excellent book, The Gaol: The Story of Newgate (2008), include: ‘Whittington’s College’, ‘The Quod’, ‘Rumboe’, ‘The Start’, ‘The Stone Pitcher’, ‘The Stone Jug’, and ‘The Mint’.  Presumably ‘The Start’ was coined because of the role Newgate played in the education of young thieves.  But I (sort of) digress!)

We’ve all grown up with Oliver Twist.  His is a classic tale, the poor orphan boy brought up in the workhouse and escaping off to London where he falls in with Fagin’s gang of thieves, including the evil Bill Sikes and the boy who runs the pickpockets, the Artful Dodger.

The interesting thing is that there is much of the novel in which Oliver is ‘off-stage’, or at its edges.  Often when he appears in a scene he says very little.  Things happen around him, affecting his prospects.  He is a pawn in a larger game.  I felt a surprising distance to Oliver which was, I believe, exacerbated by the omnipotent narrator, who calls himself a ‘biographer’ of Oliver, but he is much more than that.  This framework goes some way to explaining the very mature and learned diction of Oliver’s dialogue, but it read unevenly to me; some of it sounded like that of a young boy, while elsewhere it sounded more adult-like.

The streets of London are suitably dark, grimy, and – for children particularly – full of menace.  Oliver’s introduction to them is described as follows: [p63]:

A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen.  The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours.  There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside.

The story is populated with memorable characters – or caricatures if you prefer.  There is the arch-criminal (though uncomfortably racially stereotyped) Fagin, with his “My dear(s)” reeking of malevolence.  His whole ethos is captured in his advice to Mr Claypole, [p360]:

Every man’s his own friend … Some conjurers say that number three is the magic number, and some say number seven.  It’s neither, my friend, neither.  It’s number one. 

Working for him is the Artful Dodger, who sadly has far less of a part than I expected.  There is the menacing Sikes.  There is Nancy, the prostitute whose heart wins over her shortcomings but who, maddeningly, cannot see a way out of her relationship with Sikes.  There is the scheming, bumbling, ‘parochial’ Mr Bumble, always complaining of the pauper’s demands; there’s a great scene in which he edges his chair around the table to lay a kiss on Mrs Corney, in which her feigned protests – “I shall scream!” – are indeed a scream.  Monks’ ravings are perhaps less successful.

Dickensian humour is found throughout, too.  Take Oliver’s first night spent in Fagin’s den, [p64-6]:

One young gentleman was very anxious to hang up his cap for him; and another was so obliging as to put his hands in his pockets, in order that, as he was very tired, he might not have the trouble of emptying them when he went to bed.

There is a wonderful recurring motif of the noose as neckerchief/cravat.  (The irony of course, and I’ll give a small spoiler alert here, is that when Oliver meets Fagin, Fagin is described as having a bare throat.)

Adding to the enjoyment is the dark artwork of George Cruikshank.

As with any satire, the thematic aims are lofty: the treatment of the poor, how they are at the mercy of those with wealth and power, how they are exploited by the criminal class.  It explores how criminals operate and instil their code and methods into the young boys who find themselves cast out of society with little choice but to play the game.  Much of this is summarised when the lowly Nancy says to the lady Rose [p333]: “Oh, lady, lady! … if there was more like you, there would be fewer like me…”

Part of the intrigue of Dickens’ writing is the way he published in serial form.  In the case of Oliver there is disagreement as to how much of a plan he had for the story when starting out.  Often his writing was only a few chapters ahead of the latest published ones.  It’s a remarkable achievement in many ways, especially considering modern writers’ editing practices using all manner of word processing and other organisational tools.  In the case of Oliver Twist it means somewhat ‘loose’ plotting and some astonishing coincidences (all those handily placed aunts and chance meetings!), though serialised ‘novels’ were not usually tightly plotted.  Many of his later novels were far more controlled in this regard.

Even more astonishing is his work ethic and the fact that he had often started – and had published the first chapters of – a new story before reaching the end of the one in progress.  This overlap was more than just chronological; it was often thematic as well.  The end of Oliver Twist is set in Newgate, while the start of his next book, Nicholas Nickleby, sees Nicholas in a fright at seeing Newgate and has him imagining an execution.

For all that, Oliver Twist was slightly disappointing.  Though I can point to some reasons, I don’t fully understand why I felt the distance between myself and the eponymous hero because, on paper, the fact his life is at risk should be moving.  The result was that I didn’t love Oliver Twist in the way I did Great Expectations (see my review here).  In a sense, I was a boy like Oliver, wanting just that little bit ‘more’.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Penguin Classics

1837-8

ISBN: 9780141439747

455 pages & additional appendices.

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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