As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying was the first Faulkner novel I read, aged about 16 or 17, and I remember exactly what I thought about it at the time: the story was good, but it had been badly written. After the passage of time, do I disagree with my youthful self?

As I Lay Dying certainly has in the Bundrens the least eloquent narrators that appear in Faulkner; and I’ve no doubt it was this I didn’t like when I was young, and which I still don’t like now. I know now that this style is not in fact typical of Faulkner: he has rather a penchant for the excessive long and rambling sentence, and consequently for characters who tend to think this way. My prejudice extends from As I Lay Dying to almost all modern literature, which is all similarly ineloquent, whether because of incapacity or otherwise affectation; though sometimes I think it is not mere prejudice.

No, I don’t like it. I feel, when Faulkner tries to get his characters to have thoughts more complex than their verbiage allows, everything becomes abstract and unclear. This is particularly true of Darl, whose character in this novel I frankly struggle with: he is meant to be insane, but doesn’t really come across this way at all in the first two-third of the novel. In fact, he seems the most sensible of the Bundrens. And I still have little idea what Vardaman is going on about most of the time. I was lost on how old he is meant to be, since he often comes across as about eight, but actually I think it is likely he is about sixteen. Faulkner does in fact give away the ages of the children during the course of the novel and I don’t think it’s entirely what I’d been considering: Darl and Cash are both about thirty, Dewey Dell is about nineteen (it is given exactly in the text), and Jewel is about eighteen. Vardaman is merely younger than this, though perhaps not much. On the whole, it is the less contemplative characters, and especially the supporting cast, who I think succeed much better.

These characters, the children in particular, are already now becoming familiar Faulkner types; comparable especially with those in The Sound and the Fury. Darl is Quentin; Vardaman like Benjy in the way he expresses his thoughts and his lack of a full understanding of the world around him; Dewey Dell has aspects about her of Caddie, especially the younger Caddie; and Jewel is very much like Jason, the son privileged by his mother whom the other children are not entirely enamoured of. The book is, like The Sound and The Fury, about the children, their inter-relations, and their relationship with their parents, particularly with their mother.

This is the only novel of Faulkner’s (I think) which has a constant changing of points of view; quite a few of his other novels have long sections told by different narrators; and Faulkner uses the effect of this quite plainly, merely building up a multi-sided picture of events. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring any of the less natural, more literary possibilities of this formal structure (contradiction, misunderstanding, irony etc). The only moment I noticed in this novel, is where Cora observes Darl is the only child who has any feeling for his mother, and her reasons for stating this are then directly contradicted in other passages. Perhaps it is not in keeping with the subject. I’m not sure he explores these things much in his other novels either. Not really much of one for experimentation for experimentation’s sake, eh?

A Snopes appears, though off-stage, as a horse-dealer. I notice a Snopes has appeared so far in every one of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels, a pattern I’m beginning to believe is deliberate.

This wasn’t actually the novel Faulkner started after finishing The Sound and The Fury; he first started on Sanctuary, but put it aside to write this. It is Sanctuary which will be up next.

Graham Swift, Emperor of Last Year

The Guardian had a curious article the other day by the novelist Graham Swift, in which he constructed a very fine man of straw in order to justify why it was he was writing a book based on events as long as five years ago.

Any mention of Graham Swift, of course, immediately brings back to mind his novel Last Orders, and it’s curious resemblance to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Whilst at the time many “literary heavyweights” (such as Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith) came forward and claimed that, despite the striking resemblance in structure, plot, style, diction, split narrative, one sentence chapters etc. (Wikipedia, I note, calls them “superficial similarities”), Swift’s work was far from an act of plagiarism, I still feel curiously uneasy about the affair. Yet looking into it after reading The Guardian piece, wherever I went, I only found people defending him (and castigating his Aussie accuser as an envious madman). There’s even a few dissertations available, comparing the two works: here’s one; and here’s another.

Now, it’s true, I haven’t read these dissertations from beginning to end – but it doesn’t take much effort to see that they’re incredibly badly written and argued. It’s as if Swift could only be found a plagiarist if he had copied As I Lay Dying word for word. Let me quote though what I take to be one of the finest pieces of argumentation ever, from the first dissertation: – this, be it remembered, from the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy at the University of Ghent:

Similar to Swift’s novel, we can detect references to Shakespeare’s work in Faulkner’s oeuvre and especially his masterpiece Hamlet. The clearest reference can be found in the title of Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet. Instead of referring to a person, the hamlet is part of the geography of Yoknapatawpha County.

If I was eleven, I imagine I would have been very proud of this argument and I’d have thought myself very clever indeed. (Though, to be fair, I’ve never read Faulkner’s The Hamlet, and there remains the possibility it is based on Shakespeare’s play).

The other thing, of course, this whole matter reminded me of was Bernardo Atxaga’s marvellous advice for plagiarists in his Obooki Prize-winning work, Obabakoak (a book which is, incidentally, all about borrowing stories – and much recommended), which I previously … er … copied in this post here. OK, so Atxaga specifically discounts plagiarising the work of Faulkner, but the rest of his instructions might have been followed to the letter, particularly I think:

All a plagiarist need do is alter the time and setting of his story: – other discrepancies from the original will then appear as a matter of course.

and

The plagiarist should learn something about metaliterature.

since these seem to be the basis of both Swift’s defence of himself (he specifically talks about postmodernism, homage, echoes etc) and others’ defences (which are largely based on the time and scene swap, and the general use of past writers).

Atxaga’s novel was originally published in 1988, and translated into English in 1992, which would be just about the right time for Swift, whose Last Orders came out in 1996.

While I can accept that authors continually borrow from one another (I myself am planning on pilfering a short story of Leonid Andreev’s), I still find something deeply disquieting and essentially wrong about Last Orders. But then again, perhaps it just comes down to the fact that I don’t think much of Swift as a writer and that in using Faulkner, he really doesn’t improve it any. After all, I’m not the world’s greatest defender of originality.