Reprint: On As I Lay Dying

Faulkner is one of my favorite authors for a great many reasons.  And As I Lay Dying is nearly the perfect introduction to Faulkner.  It is simple enough in approach for a High School Student to read it--I did.  But it is deep and complex enough to keep an adult mind ruminating for several says on the Bundren family--Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, Vardaman.

It's also near and dear to me because my family life recapitulates an episode from it.  (Horrifying to think about isn't it?)  When my grandmother died in Florida, my grandfather transported her back to northern Ohio for burial.  He drove the route and stopped by where we were living in Virginia, at which time we were introduced to the woman who would become our new "grandmother."  The story goes on, but I won't regale you with the details.

CAVEAT LECTOR: Please note that these notes consider the book in some detail and may contain elements you'd rather read about after partaking of the book itself.

Some Faulkner Moments
 on January 22, 2008 8:33 AM

Once again, Faulkner's humor, mordant though it is, comes through in this story of the Bundrens.
from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

[Referring to Addie Bundren who lay on her bed dying as others are debating doing a lick of work to earn three dollars]
"But if she dont last until you get back," he says. "She will be disappointed."
*****
[And somewhat later]
His folks buries at New Hope, too, not three miles away . But it's just like him to marry a woman born a day's hard ride away and have her die on him.
As I Lay Dying is the story of the Bundren clan Addie (dying), Anse (ne'er-do-well layabout of a husband), Jewel, Darl, Vardaman, and Cash (her four sons, the last of whom is working on her coffin just outside the window and Dewey Dell (her daughter). Told through the voices of all of them, Cora and Vern Tull, and a number of other characters, Faulkner himself thought of it as a tour de force, the one book he would leave behind that would be remarkable and make a mark. However, in his introduction to a later edition of The Sound and the Fury, while he recognized its worth, he noted that when he first set pen to paper, he already knew the last words of the book--an experience that did not satisfy him the way writing The Sound and the Fury did.

I know that I enjoyed this book when I first read it in high school, but I suspect that it is likely to be a very different experience for me now. At least I hope so.

Later:--That famous note may have been associated with the introduction to the 1932 edition of Sanctuary, not The Sound and the Fury. Sorry.

Faulkner Gives Gore a Helping Hand
 on January 22, 2008 1:20 PM
from As I Lay Dying William Faulkner [From the chapter narrated by Peabody the Doctor]
"Me, walk up, weighing two hundred and twenty-five pounds?" I say. "Walk up that durn wall?" He stands there beside a tree. Too bad the Lord made the mistake of giving trees roots and giving the Anse Bundrens He makes feet and legs. If He'd just swapped them, there wouldn't ever be a worry about this country being deforested someday. Or any other country.
Moments. Small moments of real humor along with many other moments. And more than this--perhaps something for tomorrow--Faulkner as one progenitor of magic realism? Consider the case of Darl, narrator extraordinaire. . . or rather, let us consider it together in the near future.

Darl--The Strange One
 on January 23, 2008 8:29 AM

Throughout the book Darl Bundren is typified as "the strange one." Cora Tull thinks he's a darling and the most precious of the group, the one who loves Addie best, but Darl is the agent provacateur whose actions propel much of the book.

Darl is also very odd in this collection of characters. Consider this observation from early on in the book:
from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

Jewel glances back, then goes around the house. I enter the hall, hearing the voices before I reach the door. Tilting a little down the hill, as our house does, a breeze draws through the hall all the time, upslanting. A feather dropped near the front door will rise and brush along the ceiling, slanting backward, until it reaches the down-turning current at the back door: so with voices. As you enter the hall, they sound as though they were speaking out of the air about your head.
It doesn't seem particularly remarkable until you've read a little way and realized that there is no other character in this book that speaks with such remarkable clarity, such breadth of vision. The sentences are clear, grammatical, not shot through with the normal difficulties of Faulkner's country folk--ranging from near incoherence to an obsessive-compulsive concentration on the single object of their attention. Darl, in contrast is placid, distant, clear. In fact, he may be among the clearest voices in any of the Faulkner that I have read--preternaturally clear.

This is brought home by the fact that Darl narrates the scene of Addie Bundren's death, even though he is, at the time, several miles away, helping his brother Jewel fix a wheel that has been broken while trying to transport some lumber in order to make some additional money. Moreover, Darl is also privy to the thoughts of several characters. Here he shares Dewey Dell's thoughts:
from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

She will go out where Peabody is, where she can stand in the twilight and look at his back with such an expression that, feeling her eyes and turning, he will say: I would not let it grieve me, now. She was old, and sick too. Suffering more than we knew. She couldn't have got well.

Vardaman's getting big now, and with you to take good care of them all. I would try not to let it grieve me. I expect you'd better go and get some supper ready. It dont have to be much. But they'll need to eat, and she looking at him, saying You could do so much for me if you just would. If you just knew. I am I and you are you and I know it and you don't know it and you could do so much for me if you just would and if you just would then I could tell you and then nobody would have to know it except you and me and Darl
And then he continues with a television-like viewing of the events around Addie's deathbed.

Darl knows things that have not been shared with him. For example, he knows about Jewel's parentage, about Dewey Dell's condition.

Distant, cool, and knowing, Darl seems to manipulate many of the circumstances of the novel. He is uncannily intelligent. The words he uses:
from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

Before us the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled monstrously into fading swirls travelling along the surface for an instant, silent impermanent and profoundly significant, as though just beneath the surface something huge and alive waked for a moment of lazy alertness out of and into light slumber again.
It clucks and murmurs among the spokes and about the mules' knees, yellow, skummed with flotsam and with thick soiled gouts of foam as though it had sweat, lathering, like a driven horse. Through the undergrowth it goes with a plaintive sound, a musing sound; in it the unwinded cane and saplings lean as before a little gale, swaying without reflections as though suspended on invisible wires from the branches overhead. Above the ceaseless surface they stand--trees, cane, vines--rootless, severed from the earth, spectral above a scene of immense yet circumscribed desolation filled with the voice of the waste and mournful water.
Who is this boy? Considering his upbringing and the schooling reflected in his siblings, how does he come to know the words "myriad," "Impermanent," "significant," among others?

Darl is one of the keys to the novel and one of the keys to what Faulkner has to say about family, community, grieving, and living again after grief. I don't know what that key will unlock--that remains to be seen. But he certainly poses a puzzle from very early on. This alien intelligence looks in to the events encompassing the Bundren family, manipulates them, and draws them into meaning and significance. What meaning and what significance remain to be seen.

A Little Knowledge
 on January 23, 2008 9:37 AM

Having read the book before, I'm looking for signs of something different--something that brings Anse Bundren into the realm of the human and humane. And it's here and it's interesting and it is one of those things that makes one pause and go, "Hmmmmm."
from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

[Dewey Dell narrating]
Pa helps himself and pushes the dish on. But he does not begin to eaat. His hands are halfclosed on either side of his plate, his head bowed a little, his awry hair standing into the lamplight. He looks like right after the maul hits the steer and it no longer alive and dont yet know that it is dead.
But Cash is eating, and he is too. "You better eat something," He says. He is looking at pa. "Like Cash and me. You'll need it."
"Ay," pa says. He rouses up, like a steer that's been kneeling in a pond and you run at it. "She would not degrudege me it."
This from the man who in his own sections says:
from As I Lay Dying William Faulkner
[Anse Bundren narrating]
But it's a long wait, seems like. It's bad that a fellow must earn the reward of his right-doing by flouting hisself and his dead. We drove all the rest of the day and got to Samson's at dust-dark and then that bridge was gone, too. They hadn't never see the river so high, and it not done raining yet. There was old men that hadn't never see nor hear of it being so in the memory of a man. I am the chosen of the Lord, for who He loveth, so doeth He chastiseth. But I be durn if He dont take some curious ways to show it, seems like.
But now I can get them teeth. That will be a comfort. It will.
Addie's death gives him the excuse to drive to Jefferson, a day's cart-trip away to bury her, but also to pick up some false teeth along the way. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.

As I Lay Dying--William Faulkner
 on January 28, 2008 7:47 AM

I finished As I Lay Dying last Wednesday and I've been thinking about it on and off since then. A few simple facts: it is by far and away one of the easiest of Faulkner's books to read; it was written, deliberately, as a tour-de-force, and features the voices/thoughts of some 15 or so characters; while you might wonder why all the voices, it isn't just a gimmick, it really is integral to one of Faulkner's points.

While I enjoyed this book and would recommend it as the second book one steps to in the scaffolded entry into Faulkner's world, I have to admit that most of my thought has been around one place where I felt the book slip out of Faulkner's control--Darl's fate.

Without saying overly much about this important part of the denouement, let's say that Faulkner's propensity for histrionics which would serve him well as a screen writer, shows clearly in Darl's final monologue. There really is no trigger for it, nor any real sense of its inevitability. It neatly rounds out the package of the distant and alienated, somehow supernatural intellect I wrote about last week, but it fails to satisfy because it does tend to be over the top. I hesitate to write this because much of my thought has been puzzling through this portion of the novel and trying to see what Faulkner may have been attempting and what I may have missed. As I've said before, I am not necessarily a very deep or profound reader and so things that are right there on the surface can sometimes elude me. Which is to say, don't take what is said here as a profound critique of the book--it is merely a surface impression.

One of the themes of As I Lay Dying is the mass of contradictions that each person is as a person. Add to that the meaning of grief and the meaning, purpose, and playing out of family life, and you have a robust and sometimes rollicking novel. Despite what may seem to be very down-beat subject matter, there are moments of high comedy--in fact, more than moments. Much of the book is hilarious, if sometimes darkly.

The book begins as Addie Bundren lay dying in her room. Outside the room her oldest son Cash, who might not be the brightest bulb in the Marquis, is plank by plank assembling her coffin, showing her each finished board as it is complete. Addie has extracted from her husband Anse a promise that she will be buried with "her people" in the town of Jefferson, some 8 to 10 miles away and across the river that marks the southern border of Yoknapatawpha County.

Addie dies early on and the remainder of the book is getting her to Jefferson to be buried. The trials start with Darl and Jewel returning late from carting a load of lumber, and continue with a three day delay in the services which results in the Bundrens not beig able to set out until after the river has reached flood stage and washed out several easy passages across.

And so it continues--an almost epic quest to return Addie to the lap of her ancestors. Through it we learn much of the family dynamics and discover that Addie's death is quite convenient for almost all of her family. Cash wants to go to town to buy a gramaphone, Dewey Dell has urgent reasons of her own for wanting to go to town, Vardaman wants to see the red electric train on display in one of the town stores, and Anse wants to get a set of false teeth. All of these ulterior motives drive the Bundrens to Jefferson and through a host of escapades in between, including a stop in Mottston that nearly gets them all landed in jail because poor Addie isn't holding up well. And of course, the trio, quartet, or quintet of winged heralds that accompany them through much of the trip.

Through it we learn about Addie and Anse's relationship. In fact, that is one of the most intriguing juxtapositions of the book. Addie's only narration comes well after she is dead and in sharp contrast to Cora's reflection on some past events that shed light on the family--why Darl so viciously baits Jewel, for example.

I may post more excerpts later, but for now, let this review stand. The book is vintage Faulkner--it is far more easily comprehended than almost any other--a veritable model of clarity compared to either The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom! and a nice second step into Faulkner's world after The Unvanquished. I remember reading this in my senior year of high school and "getting" most of it; however, like all of Faulkner, I think it is better visited by an older, more seasoned, more patient, and generally more perceptive reader. The young reader is likely to be more derailed and fascinated by the literary pyrotechnics and tricks. I remember trying to write my own imitation of it after reading it all those many years ago. And in some ways, I am still writing my own imitation of it.

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