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Posts Tagged ‘William Faulkner’

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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Outside of literary circles, The Autumn of the Patriarch may be one of Gabriel García Márquez’s lesser known works, hidden behind the towering One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.  This is a great shame as this is no less a masterpiece than those two works.  However, part of its greatness is no doubt part of the reason it may be less fancied, for it is a reading challenge that will alienate many readers.  Intrigued?  Allow me to explain…

Those who are familiar with García Márquez’s style will know that he favours languid sentences and paragraphs, with minimal dialogue, written in trademark lyricism that, as Salman Rushdie says, “no-one else can do”.  It is perhaps no surprise that at some point he would take these traits to the extreme – and he does so in this novel.  Each chapter, each around 35-40 pages, is just one paragraph.  Sentences often go on for pages.  Within this stream-of-consciousness-styled narrative, the point-of-view switches, often rapidly, from third-person to first to third, and dialogue is subsumed within the prose without quotation marks.  It is suffocating just looking at the page, let alone reading it.  There is barely a chance to draw breath.  Indeed, one of his friends became upset with him as he was in the habit of sipping a glass of wine during his reads but could not find any gaps in this novel in which to indulge!*

Of course, this is a very deliberate choice on the part of García Márquez – as is the equally particular six-part structure of the novel, in which the life and tyranny of an ‘eternal’ dictator is retold in each chapter.  He said of this work that is was “a poem on the solitude of power”.  (What’s with all the solitude Gabito?!  It is, of course, one of his recurring motifs.)  Just as many great war novels are delivered through the prism of absurdity to heighten the sense of madness, so one could argue that García Márquez has devised a perfect format for the paranoia and stifling of freedom inherent in a dictatorship with this tightly-packed, recurring nightmare of a narrative, where the simple act of drawing breath seems like sedition.  There are the usual García Márquez signatures: the exotic, lyrical language, the surreal and distorted realities, the fusion of magical and real.  The result is an uncompromising yet marvellous read, a book that truly pushes the boundaries of what the novel is capable of.

The novel opens with the Generals’ ultimate death, then falls back to his ‘first’ death.  The narrative is subject to these regular leaps in time, back and forth, the likes of which Faulkner would be proud.  The main portion of the chapter deals with the ‘first’ death, which is really the death of his look-alike double.  Such is the conceit of the real despot, lurking in the shadows, that he is surprised when the sunrise still occurs the next day.  Apart from a couple of mourners, the city begins to celebrate his death.  Aghast, the dictator shows himself to those people who have gathered to “divide up amongst themselves the booty of his death”, and orders them to be shot as they attempt to flee.

The depiction of the deadly apparatus of power is a highlight.  Take for instance the General’s rigging of the weekly lotteries so only he wins.  He forces children to pick his winning numbers, and subsequently jails all two thousand of them.  When the truth outs, he transfers them in “nocturnal boxcars to the least-inhabited regions of the country”, whilst he declares the rumours of the children’s’ imprisonment to be “an infamous lie on the part of traitors to get people stirred up, the doors of the nation were open so that the truth could be established …”.  He invites the League of Nations to come and inspect the jails for confirmation.  It all sounds eerily familiar.  Whilst in exile, candy and toys are dropped to the children from planes to keep them happy while the General waits for a ‘magical solution’ to occur to him.  The magical solution is the order to “put the children in a barge loaded with cement, take them singing to the limits of territorial waters, blow them up with a dynamite charge without giving them time to suffer…”.  He rewards the officers who carry out the order with promotion and medals before having them killed for their crime.

Soon thereafter the tyrant survives a failed assassination attempt.  The suspect’s fate is a lesson in violent retribution.  At the annual dinner at which members of the military are honoured, where Major General Rodrigo de Aguilar gives his familiar toast to the dictator, the guests become concerned when the Major General fails to show – but he then enters “on a silver tray stretched out … on a garnish of cauliflower and laurel leaves, … ready to be served at a banquet of comrades by the official carvers to the petrified horror of the guests … and when every plate held an equal portion of the minister of defense stuffed with pine nuts and aromatic herbs, [the General] gave the order to begin, eat hearty gentlemen.”  It pays to stay on the General’s good side!

In the fourth chapter, we find the General mourning the death of his mother.  He tries to make her into a saint, organising for the Church to review her merits given all the miracles she has performed for the people, but the investigator sent by Rome finds out that these thousands of claims of miracles have been made by people paid for their false testimony.  The effort to have her canonised fails.  Not to be out-manoeuvred, the General proclaims the “civil sainthood” of his mother, declaring a national holiday in her honour, after which he declares war on the Holy See.  The property of the Church is nationalised and all the priests and nuns are forced to leave the country stripped of everything, even their clothes.

When she was alive the General’s mother wished he had learnt how to read and write.  He is later taught to read by his lover Leticia Nazareno.  He refuses to allow any interruption to his daily two-hour lessons even when rural people begin to suffer from ‘the black vomit’.  As always, it is the people who suffer.  In return for her lessons, Leticia convinces the General to have the Nuns and God allowed back into the country.  Ironically, the Pope awards the General with a sash and a medal – the “order of the knights of the Holy Sepulcher”.  Meanwhile, Leticia becomes pregnant with the General’s child, and forces him to marry her.  The General by this stage is so convinced he is God that he names his son Emmanuel.  As soon as he is born he is declared a Major General with full authority, and his mother takes him in his “baby carriage to preside over official acts as representative of his father”.  (Of course, this is only one of thousands of babies he has sired – all ‘seven-month runts’).  After one failed assignation attempt on both mother and son, they are eventually killed in a “hellish whirlpool” of rabid hunting dogs in a public market, organised by treacherous conspirators, which prompts a further round of revenge killings that even the General seems tired of, particularly when one of those killed turns out to be an aide he used to play dominos with.

The final chapter sees the General promoted in the final moment before his death to ‘general of the universe’, “to give him a rank higher than death”.  The chapter is partly narrated by a girl who is offered candy by the old General who then takes advantage of the twelve year old and has his way with her.  He dreams of eating the girl, seasoned with rock salt, hot pepper and laurel leaves.  The girl narrates this with fondness, even love, for the old man.  When he dies, she thinks on behalf of the people “we no longer wanted it to be true, we had ended up not understanding what would become of us without him”.  Thus begins a strong indictment of those who allow military dictators to enslave them.

The General learns that the information given to him all these years has been falsified.  One of the ironies of his newly acquired ability to read is the fact that the newspaper he reads is the only one of its kind, full of stories and pictures his hangers-on think he wants to read.  The real news is something else entirely – for not only is the nationa morally bankrupt but economically bankrupt too.  He and his cronies have driven the country into the ground, having sold off the farm as it were, forced to pay interest on borrowings taken to pay back other loans.  The only thing left to sell is the sea.  When faced with an ultimatum from the ‘gringos’ to allow the removal of the sea or face invasion by marines, the General relents.  The sea is taken, in numbered sections no less, back to Arizona, whilst the people won’t come out to protest despite the offered inducements because they have done so before and been shot, and won’t fall for the same trick twice.

Great polemic novels are a product of their time yet have the power and reach to become classics.  This is definitely the case here.  García Márquez began writing Autumn in 1968, and whilst he reportedly finished it in 1971, he continued to polish it until its eventual publication in 1975.  So it sits in between One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and his novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), which was followed by Love in the Time of Cholera (1985).  García Márquez was definitely at the height of his powers in these years.  Autumn is set in an unnamed Caribbean nation, and the General is installed with the help of the British, but the man Garcia Marquez most had in mind when writing it was Venezuelan dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.  García Márquez said the overthrow of Jimenez “was the first time we had seen a dictator fall in Latin America.”  The book was actually written in Barcelona in the autumn of the Franco’s brutal dictatorship, which also ended in 1975.  Barcelona provided stern resistance to Franco and endured much hardship.  Furthermore, Spain offered asylum to numerous ousted dictators including Jimenez.  So there was plenty of material and first-hand experience for García Márquez to utilise in constructing the General’s character and his apparatus of fear.  This extended to the persistent rumours of Franco’s death that dragged on much like the numerous lives of the General and very reminiscent of Fidel Castro.  Speaking of Castro, much has been made of García Márquez’s friendship with him, whom he has been quoted as saying is a “very cultured man”.  Cuban writer, Reinaldo Arenas recalls with justified bitterness in his memoir the 1980 speech given by Castro and attended by Garcia Marquez in which Castro painted the recently gunned-down refugees in the Peruvian embassy as ‘riffraff’.  Apparently García Márquez applauded the speech.  Perhaps in his mind a left-wing dictator like Castro is far superior than a right-wing version such as a Pinochet or Franco.  In any case, it seems a perverse act for the author of Autumn.  It is a shame that such a great writer became enamoured of the very type of man he ridiculed in his writing.  Perhaps it is the ultimate proof of the cult-like power such men possess and the eternal danger they pose.

Not everyone will enjoy Autumn, but it is, as they say, an important book**.  I am a bit sceptical when I see comments like ‘deserves to be read twice’.  I am not usually one for reading things a second time – unless they are truly special.  This is one of those books.  Whilst the novel is only 229 pages, it reads like a book at least twice as long.  Close reading is a must, and you need to plan your reading time; you can’t grab a few sentences during the advertisements in your favourite TV show; reading in bed is problematic if you wish to sleep; and reading on public transport is downright treacherous – you’re trying to find a break in the story when your stop comes along that simply doesn’t exist.  I dare say it will be a while before I return to it, my eyes will take a long time to recover(!), but I’m convinced I’ll discover so much more in a second reading that it’s tempting to start again now.

One last thing: spare a thought for the translator!  Can you imagine trying to translate never-ending swathes of narrative such as this?  Wow, I’m not sure if there are awards for translating, but if there is, Gregory Rabassa – also responsible for the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude – deserves it.

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabríel Garcia Márquez

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141032474

229 pages

* This was noted in García Márquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale which was intended to be the first of a three volume memoir, and covers his life up to the point he asked his wife Mercedes to marry him.  Unfortunately, the other two will not be completed.

** It is one of four of García Márquez’s works that sit on the (2008) 1,001 Must Read Books list, an honour he shares with: Austen, Calvino, deLillo, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Henry Green, Hemmingway, Henry James, DH Lawrence, Iris Murdoch, Nabokov, Rousseau, Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf, and possibly others I’ve missed.  (Coetzee, Graham Greene, and Emile Zola have five!)  It’s pretty good company to be in and no surprise from the Nobel Prize winner (1982).  The Autumn of the Patriarch truly deserves its place on such a list.

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