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
Source: the local municipal library