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Susan’s Bookshelves: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

It has taken me a long time to get round to William Faulkner (1897-1962). I first heard of him back in the late 60s when a fellow English student at Bishop Otter College, Chichester told me that he was going to do Faulkner for his Special Study. This was an extended essay which most institutions would now dignify with the term “dissertation” but we weren’t a university.  Ours was a teacher training college and the distinctions were clear at the time.  So “special study” it was. Since you ask, I did mine on the presentation of women in the novels of CP Snow.

Anyway, I never gave Faulkner  much thought until his name came up recently in conversation with a bookish friend. I said I’d never read him and wondered whether I should rectify that. She suggested I start with As I Lay Dying. So I did.

And it was quite a revelation. It’s a stream of consciousness novel with 15 narrating characters and 59 chapters of varying length. The multi-faceted view points are reminiscent of a Picasso painting and the influences of, say Joyce and Woolf are clear although the story telling is more accessible than either, despite the fractured chronology.

We’re in Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, a fictional version of Faulkner’s native Lafayette County where he spent most of his life. Addie Bundren is dying. Her eldest son Cash is building her coffin. Once she dies the family – Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman – set out with their father Anse to bury the body in Jefferson, Mississippi. These people are poor rural folk and the coffin has to go in their mule cart in what becomes a time-honoured quest story. The journey is beset by dreadful hazards including the traditional water and fire  which means the journey takes a long time and the body begins to smell.

And there is a complex, gradually unravelled, back story. The big ten year gap between Darl and Jewel, for example, is down to a breakdown in relations between Anse and Addie and part of the reason Anse is now blinkeredly determined to bury his wife with her own people. There’s a lot of guilt and angst in this novel. Darl is poetic by nature, Jewel is obsessed with having a decent horse, Cash is injured en route and the account of setting his broken leg with concrete is horrific. Vardaman is still a child and his point of view is poignant. And the gut-wrenching tragedy and anguish of Dewey Dell’s search for an abortifacient and the way she is duped remind me strongly of Steinbeck.

It isn’t an easy novel to penetrate at the start but once you tune into it, it’s  powerful and deeply moving.  Moreover, I have fallen in love with the poetry of Faulkner’s prose. For example: “… the no-wind, no-sound,  the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of the old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls.” Or, of a horse being rescued from fire: “ …its eyes roll with soft fleet opaline fire: its muscles bunch as it flings its head about.

So I’m now wondering why it took me so long.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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