"As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades."
- Homer, The Iliad, Book XI
William Faulkner (1897 – 1962) was a celebrated American novelist who not only received the Nobel Prize for Literature, but also won two Pulitzer Prizes, as well as popularizing a new genre of literature (‘Southern Gothic’). Any of these accomplishments would mean that he deserves our attention.
"I set out deliberately to write a tour-de-force. Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first word I knew what the last word would be and almost where the last period would fall. "
- Faulkner on writing As I Lay Dying
It’s a simple enough story: the death and subsequent burial of the matriarchal Addie Bundren. As she lays dying in her small home, she listens to the sawing and hammering from outside of her coffin being constructed by her eldest son.
She is determined to be buried in the country of her kinfolk, which lies forty miles from her home. Her husband Anse is determined that her wish be fulfilled, despite the threat of the annual heavy rains flooding the river which they must cross in their pilgrimage. But perhaps he has another agenda?
“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.”
- William Faulkner
It is in the telling which made As I Lay Dying a classic of modernism: 59 short chapters, each told from the point of view of one of the fifteen characters. The point of this is to present the same event – the death and burial of Addie – from different points of view. In this it is also a meditation on the various reactions to grief.
Upon Addie’s death the coffin is completed and carried into the house:
‘It is light, yet they move slowly; empty, yet they carry it carefully; lifeless, yet they move with hushed precautionary words to one another, speaking of it as though, complete, it now slumbered lightly alive, waiting to come awake. On the dark floor their feet clump awkwardly, as though for a long time they have not walked on floors.’
Here they are carrying Addie’s coffin down a hill to a waiting wagon:
‘Cash begins to fall behind, hobbling to keep up, breathing harshly; then he is distanced and Jewel carries the entire front end alone, so that, tilting as the path begins to slant, it begins to rush away from me and slip down the air like a sled upon invisible snow, smoothly evacuating atmosphere in which the sense of it is still shaped.’
‘…smoothly evacuating atmosphere in which the sense of it is still shaped’, like it’s happening in slow motion, or a series of still frames from a movie. Most writers spend their whole careers trying to come up with images like that.
But there are troubles brewing: the rains have arrived, complicating their journey:
‘Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it not yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either…’
‘…hear the rain shaping the wagon…’ – like a blind person creating pictures from sound.
They come to the river they must cross, only to find it in flood. And yet they decide to ford the river, with disastrous consequences as they and their wagon are swept away, and they are forced to hold on for their lives:
‘We could watch the rope cutting down into the water, and we could feel the weight of the wagon kind of blump [sic] and lunge lazy like, like it just as soon as not, and that rope cutting down into the water hard as a iron bar. We could hear the water hissing on it like it was red hot. Like it was a straight iron bar stuck into the bottom and us holding the end of it…There was a shoat [young pig] come by, blowed up like a balloon…It bumped against the rope like it was a iron bar and bumped off and went on, and us watching that rope slanting down into the water.’
See what Faulkner did there with the recurring image of the rope? Not once does that passage describe the water itself; the sense of the power of the river in flood comes from the transformation of the rope – normally a limp and passive object – into an iron bar, almost alive (and the brilliant double meaning of ‘hissing’).
“I took this family and subjected them to the two greatest catastrophes which man can suffer – flood and fire, that’s all”.
- Faulkner on As I Lay Dying
Nine days (!) into their journey, the barn they are storing the now putrid body burns down in suspicious circumstances. As an example of the multi-narrator format of the book – and how quickly the reader must adjust to and translate the idiosyncrasies of each character’s point of view - here is the youngest daughter (seven years old) Vardaman’s impression of the barn burning down:
‘The barn was still red, but it wasn’t a barn now. It was sunk down, and the red went swirling up. The barn went swirling up in little red pieces, against the sky and the stars so that the stars moved backwards.’
One of the aims of these reviews is to give you an insight into the what and the how of great works: what makes them great, and how they were created. As I Lay Dying takes a simple story and presents it in an innovative way. But together this is still not enough: the poetry must be there:
‘How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hands on no-strings; in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls.’
Why ‘ravel out’ instead of the more common ‘unravel’? Why ‘no-wind’ and ‘no-sound’ instead of the ‘windless’ and ‘soundless’? The reinforcing of ‘weary’ and ‘wearily’. ‘No-hands’ and ‘no-strings’ echoing ‘no-wind’ and ‘no-sound’. I’ve read that sentence twenty times and I’m still not sure what it all means. But I know it means something.
In the end they bury Addie in her home county and life for her family goes on, though each of them is subject to unexpected changes.
I’ll leave the final word to Mr Faulkner:
“The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
- William Faulkner, Nobel Prize in Literature Acceptance Speech, 1949
“The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
Though this quote is from Faulkner’s novel Requiem for a Nun (1951), it has come to symbolise Faulkner’s style, where poor rural families of the American south struggle to adapt to a modern world, and where the ghosts of the Civil War and racism still linger.
Faulkner is probably most revered for The Sound and the Fury (1929). Like many of his books it plays with notions of time and perception; I found it quite incomprehensible upon first reading, told as it is from three different viewpoints (one a mentally challenged adult). Much more conventional, though still employing Faulkner’s tropes, is Light in August, (1932) along with the multigenerational epic Absalom! Absalom! (1936).
Here is Faulkner himself reading a section of As I Lay Dying. Give it a listen for a minute to gain an appreciation of his Mississippi inflections: