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.

The Sound and The Fury, by William Faulkner

Despite its notoriety, I didn’t find The Sound and The Fury that difficult a read. It helps of course that I’ve read it before, and know the structure and the plot; and that I’ve read a lot of Faulkner and know his wiles. I remember last time being frustrated at the character Quentin, who seemed the most unstable and even to change sex; – but these days I’m aware of Faulkner’s penchant for multiple characters with the same names (see too his previous novel, Sartoris / Flags in the Dust) – of which in this novel we have (at least) three sets: Quentin, of course, and Quentin; then the two Jasons (the son and narrator of part three, and also the father); and there’s two Maurys (Uncle Maury; and also Maury is Benjamin’s given name – from which it is changed, I think maybe, in retrospect, at the will of the mother, so that Benjamin is less associated with her family – Uncle Maury is her brother, generally mocked by the Compsons). The latter two pairs are just by the by: at the most they lead to a full sentences’ worth of puzzlement.

Of the four parts, Part One, told from Benjy’s point of view, is the most notorious; but if anything I found certain passages of Part Two (told by Quentin the brother) more difficult. The difficulty in Benjy’s section is more around time-shifts: the action takes place over part of a day, but in reality mostly takes place in Benjy’s mind, scenes from the past which are brought back in his memory; – yet Faulkner puts in enough clues to make all this comprehensible: in particular, you can begin to gauge when a scene took place by the presence of certain secondary characters. Part two is similar in general structure, but there is much more concentration, on Quentin’s part, on the world immediately around him, and the forming of a clearer and coherent picture of the past, though again not everything is explained (and I would say, never is).

These two passage are bordering on stream-of-consciousness, but I didn’t think any of the book was told in a pure stream-of-consciousness manner: Faulkner fills in the picture a lot more than, say, Joyce; and his consideration in this respect is much appreciated; – indeed, in general I feel with Faulkner that he pushes things, but always gives the reader just enough information that he doesn’t become wholly frustrated and annoyed. The last two parts, the first told by Jason and the second for the most part merely narrated, are much easier going; and in fact, I found, much less interesting: firstly, because Jason himself is less interesting as a person, and has a much less interesting world-view; and secondly because the story has already been told; they don’t add much; – the fourth part, in particular, struck me as nothing but an unnecessary coda to the rest – though giving Faulkner a chance to return to his more baroque style, which he tragically eschews for the most part of the narrative.

I commented in my review of Flags in the Dust that that book was marred (and criticised and left unpublished) because Faulkner’s viewpoints were split into too many different narratives which didn’t really cohere; and perhaps he took this criticism on board, since The Sound and The Fury sticks with those multiple viewpoints (as do all his novels up to this point), but concentrates them now on a single narrative; – which I think is more successful, but suffers – as I feel do all such books – from in the end being measured by the worse rather than the better of those narratives.

All of which is in terms of style and structure, but there’s an awful lot of content in The Sound and The Fury too. I became intrigued after a time by the notion that Faulkner was heavily influenced in this book by Zola. (I know he was into French writing – but more poetry, I think; – the symbolists). This notion though of a family degenerating over several generations through the function of heredity is pure Zola – the Compsons are just the Lantiers – the Rougon-Macquarts; – the mother, particularly in the latter half of the book, perceives everything in the Compson (father’s) side of the family as morally evil and inherently selfish (even while defending Quentin the daughter, who is the Nana character and very much a Compson); – and this is for me the true centre of the narrator: for Faulkner portrays them as quite the opposite: Caddie is the truly loving, selfless character – as fundamentally seen in her attitude to Benjy; for it is only really Caddy who cares for Benjy; and as a consequence Benjy only really cares for Caddy; – his mother, you feel, would rather he hadn’t been born, and only ever complains about his presence; Jason – who is throughout the novel portrayed by Faulkner as utterly selfish – would have him locked away in an institution; neither Quentin’s attitudes to Benjy are ever fully established; and the father remains ever a distant, ironic figure; – but it is clear Faulkner’s sympathies remain with Caddie and the latter three, and we are to see the mother as wrong, deluded.

Ah, there’s so much more than this too.

Next up: As I Lay Dying, which was the first Faulkner I read.

Flags in the Dust, by William Faulkner

Sartoris was Faulkner’s third published novel, after Soldiers’ Pay and Mosquitoes; Flags in the Dust was his fifth attempt at a novel, after Soldiers’ Pay, “Elmer” – a novel about an American artist visiting Europe – Mosquitoes, and “Father Abraham” – a first attempt at the Snopes novel that would become his later trilogy. The publisher who’d published Faulkner’s previous two novels rejected Flags in the Dust, claiming it was unfocussed, and so did eleven other publishers. A twelfth publisher agreed to publish it if Faulkner agreed to work on a cut version with the man who was more or less acting as his agent, Ben Wasson. So Wasson sat and worked on the cut version, while Faulkner ignored the matter and concentrated on a new book, which he intended to be far less publishable, called The Sound and The Fury. The cut version was then published as Sartoris.

Flags in the Dust is a key work of Faulkner’s, and along with The Sound and The Fury, a key part of why I wanted to go back and read through these Faulkner novels again (I’d read Sartoris before, not Flags in the Dust). The reason is twofold. Firstly, it is the first of his novels set in Yoknapatawpha County – or, more precisely, in the mythical past and present of the Mississippi where Faulkner had grown up and where he had now returned to live. Secondly, the rejection of this novel, which Faulkner had believed would be his breakthrough, seemed to alter Faulkner as a writer, for he had felt he’d finally found himself in the writing of Flags in the Dust, only to discover the rest of the world weren’t interested. This is an idea which has interested me for a while, which, coupled with a notion that the style of Sartoris is closer to the style of later Faulkner, certainly than either The Sound and The Fury or As I Lay Dying, has made me believe for a long time that this (this rich, ornate style) was how Faulkner had always wanted to write; and his more experiment style he’d undertaken more out of spite, or at least contrarianism. On the other hand, it’s true that Faulkner always claimed The Sound and The Fury as his favourite of his own novels – though I’m not sure this is so much for stylistic reasons, as for the motivation by which he turned to it and the affection he felt for the character of Caddie.

So for the first time we enter that familiar Faulknerian world, and our guides are to be the Sartoris family – which is to say, Faulkner’s own family. There are two living Sartorises in the novel, Old Bayard Sartoris and his grandson Young Bayard Sartoris (here we get the beginning of that familiar Faulknerian trope: having multiple character with the same name, which he was to develop, I seem to remember, to such effect in The Sound and The Fury), who represent Faulkner and his own grandfather (The Young Colonel); and many, many dead Sartorises: for instance, there’s John Sartoris (the brother of Bayard Sartoris, who isn’t Old Bayard Sartoris, but his father who was killed in the Civil War), and then there’s also John Sartoris (the brother of Bayard Sartoris, who is Young Bayard Sartoris, who was killed in First World War). The former John Sartoris is the legendary Sartoris figure, war-hero and so on, and represents The Old Colonel from Faulkner’s own family; the latter John Sartoris was a pilot (another familiar Faulknerian trope) who’d gone to war with his brother only to be killed, leaving his brother to come back alone, psychologically damaged (much like what happened in Soldiers’ Pay and much like what Faulkner believed had happened to himself, though he had in fact never been to war at all), where he can’t adjust again to civilian life and must spend his time drinking and driving fast cars in his eagerness to follow his dead brother. Then there’s Aunt Jenny, who I think was married to the first Bayard, who attempts to rule the Sartoris household. And there’s almost another John Sartoris, who’s Young Bayard’s son, but his mother decides to call him something else, in an attempt to save him from the Sartorises.

And then there’s a completely different other story about a young man called Horace Benbow – who, if Young Bayard represents the drinking Faulkner, represents Faulkner’s more artistic side – who’s come back from the war and has less difficulty adjusting to civilian life, starting an affair with a married woman, and doesn’t seem to have any family at all, aside from his sister Narcissa, who in turn is repulsed by and falls in love with Young Bayard, and is being stalked by another man by the name of Snopes, who’s wandered in from another novel.

It’s interesting to note that the fourth generation whom this novel is primarily about (Young Bayard and the deceased John Sartoris, Horace and Narcissa Benbow) don’t appear to have any parents. Horace and Narcissa live on their own in a big house; Young Bayard with his grandfather and his great-(great?)-aunt. Faulkner has effaced his parents’ generation as in life he ignored his worthless father and worshipped his grandfather and great-grandfather (Stendhal was exactly the same, as I’m reading in The Life of Henry Brulard).

How then does it differ from Sartoris? Is it better? – Well, there’s about 100 pages cut out of a 400 page book. I read Sartoris nine or ten years ago, and my memory is not so good. Certain scenes (the tale of Bayard Sartoris from the civil war, Young Bayard riding a horse round town, Young Bayard driving cars at speed) I remembered well; others (every section involving Horace Benbow) I didn’t remember at all. Yet I couldn’t have said what had been there or not; I could only suspect; consider what I myself would have excised. For certainly there are parts (every section involving Horace Benbow, for instance) which could do with excising; and it would make the book much better. And from what I recall, Sartoris is a much better book than Flags in the Dust; I must occasionally credit my nine-years-younger self; though I remain suspicious of his aesthetics, he has nonetheless often turned out to have been right. Luckily though I have a critical biography of Faulkner which tells me mostly what was in fact cut: oh,  it was “some of the Snopes material and large pieces of the Benbow story”. Which no doubt made for a much more focussed and coherent narrative.

Onwards and ever onwards: next up, The Sound and The Fury.

 

Soldiers’ Pay, by William Faulkner

I wasn’t going to read Soldiers’ Pay in my Faulkner project, put off by the knowledge that Faulkner never really found his rhythm till he wrote Sartoris, and being much disappointed by the in-between novel, Mosquitoes; – but I happened to pick it up, just to mull it over – read the first lines or so, to see what it was like – and I just carried on.

I won’t make any great claims for it. It’s one of those first novels of promise. It has some pleasing prose in it, some nicely worded passages; there’s the odd moment of experimentation; but Faulkner is still finding his feet as a novelist. Certainly Faulknerian obsessions are already in place: it is fitting that his novelistic career should begin with a long passage in which everyone gets drunk; – Faulkner’s always good at describing drunkenness – I recall Pylon here with great fondness; – and another thing it has in common with that great novel is an obsession with flying aeroplanes: our hero – or at least, the individual the novel starts out following, is an airman, who has just been frustrated in his ambition to fly by the end of The Great War; – though he is soon forgotten in favour of his drinking partner, another demobilised soldier Gilligan, who holds our attention before being replaced by another character, who in turn is replaced by another character; – it is in fact full of good, rich characters; – yet none of these characters disappear, they just drift into the background; leaving a world which feels quite complete, even if we’re a little disappointed it’s not yet Yoknapatawpha County.

What I found most odd about this book – something I recall it having in common with Mosquitoes – is what I’m going to call its JaneAustenness: the tendency of characters to engage in long conversations, in which they try to score points off one another in curious esoteric dialogues of such remarkable subtlety as to be unintelligible – rather like all those quibbling puns in Shakespeare’s comedies – none of which I’m expecting to find in Faulkner. The whole thing is strangely mannered.

On the back of this book is the observation, “It was during the summer of 1925, when he was working in New Orleans, that Faulkner met Sherwood Anderson and was encouraged by him to write novel.” For all the years I’ve been reading Faulkner, I’ve always had this idea in my mind – conditioned by this quote – that up until that point, Faulkner had never thought of writing, but encouraged (for some reason) by Anderson, he thought he’d give it a go. But along with reading this book, I’ve been reading a biography of Faulkner, and it turns out this was not the case: Faulkner was obsessed with art, to the point that he’d no interest in anything else (apart from a woman called Estelle and drinking), but up tilll then he’d been preoccupied by poetry: an admirer of the French symbolists, and (oh, I don’t know – I’m not getting up to check my references) Swinburne and Wilde and people like that: hence, no doubt, the strange manneredness of his early work.

I’m not sure though if this reading about an author’s life is a good thing. One suffers from what I shall call “the disenchantment of the work”: aspects which one had consider general and universal – purely imaginative fictions – turn out to be merely aspects of Faulkner’s life. Pretty much all the male characters are suffering from unrequited love; and pretty much all the woman are capricious and mysterious in their emotions – and one can’t help seeing in all this the fact that the love of Faulkner’s life, who also seems to have been his best friend and his muse, had gone and got herself married to someone else (hence some at least of Faulkner’s drinking). The grounded airman is Faulkner too, who was himself training as a pilot at the moment WW1 ended (I didn’t know though he’d pretended to be English to enrol in the RAF, after the US Airforce had rejected him); and the pilot who returns disfigured and from his war wounds is curiously Faulkner as well, who pretended when he came back from the war to have seen action, to have been traumatised by it and to have been injured (he went around for a timewith a limp). One seems to lose a certain spiritual aspect of the work, by gaining a knowledge of the artist.

Next up: Sartoris – or at least, Flags in the Dust.

A Faulkner Project

I’m going to indulge myself over the next few months in a Faulkner project. I will be starting with his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, and reading my way through to Absalom, Absalom!, in chronologically, omitting only Mosquitoes (because I’ve read it before and it’s not that good) and Pylon (because I’ve read it quite recently). Only three of these I haven’t read before – Soldiers’ Pay, Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!, and partly the project is a preparation to read these latter two great novels (in my conception, as someone who hasn’t read them, Faulkner’s finest novels). The other reason to undertake this project is to address (challenge) certain theories (prejudices, if you will) about the progression of Faulkner’s early career – particularly from Sartoris down to Light in August; a period in which Faulkner is in general quite experimental, before settling down into the familiar style of his middle to late works.

I’ve always considered myself a late Faulkner person, and have tended to be dismissive in particular about The Sound and The Fury and As I Lay Dying. In fact, the first two Faulkner novels I ever read were As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary, and from my impression of them I’ve no idea why I ever continued with him. Nowadays, I tend to view Faulkner as the greatest of all American novelists (Melville has somewhat fallen in my estimation recently), and the greatest English-language novelist of the twentieth century (perhaps of all time). So yes, I quite like him.

First up then, Soldiers’ Pay.

A Few Notes on Books Read

Simplicissimus, by Johann Grimmelshausen

Hooray, I’ve finished it! – This is one of those moral tales (of the picaresque variety) in which the author seems to take far greater delight in violence and vice, and merely tags the protagonist’s (re)conversion to Christian morals on at the end. In fact, the whole last 100 pages we’re reading waiting for his conversion and some tedious Christian platitudes, and Grimmelshausen seems to be toying with us – tantalising us with morality before plunging back into vice and violence. – For some reason, I mostly read this book on long train journeys – and in all probability would not have finished it without those journeys. (This book was read entirely coincidentally with German Literature Month).

Something of Myself, by Rudyard Kipling

In which Kipling, a largely secretive man (by which I mean he didn’t spend his career writing about himself), reveals a little of his life – though largely the bits we’re not interested in: i.e. the actual incidents of his life, rather than his thoughts about those incidents – though, to be fair, he did lead a fairly interesting life. I read it to see if I could get an idea of his political opinions: i.e. whether he thought he was a jingoist imperialist: – but rather like his fiction, I only come away with the conclusion that it’s rather hard to say. – He does defend the English use of concentration camps in South Africa, for instance (well, of course, he doesn’t call them concentration camps), but only by suggesting that it wasn’t part of the English strategy to starve a lot of people to death – it had just all been badly thought through; he was friends with Cecil Rhodes (not necessarily a great recommendation); he hated Liberals, for their ill-thought out policies; and I even sense a trace of anti-semitism in there, though I guess equally it might not have been. His only reference to his own Imperialist image is the following, about the writing of Rewards and Fairies:

since the tales had to be read by children, before people realized that they were meant for grown-ups; and since they had to be a sort of balance to, as well as a seal upon, some aspects of my “Imperialistic” output in the past, I worked the material in three or four overlaid tints and textures, which might or might not reveal themselves according to the shifting light of sex, youth and experience.

Then further down the page, he is fairly dismissive of If – , saying it “contained counsels of perfection most easy to give” and mentioning his surprise, and perhaps a certain amount of discomfort, at its popularity.

Pylon, by William Faulkner

I was wondering before why this novel – one of my favourites of the year – was so little recognised or read. My conclusion is that it’s because it is about air racing. Air racing is a sport that doesn’t really exist any more (or not to my knowledge): – it is much like motor racing, but in the air. I imagine it’s not really any longer allowed because of the health and safety dangers, as amply exemplified by Faulkner’s text (though with the current government’s war on health and safety bureaucracy, perhaps we’ll see it back). This isn’t the only of Faulkner’s works about planes, the flying of them, the competition to be found by setting one against the other – he did, after all, train to be a pilot. (He also seems much interested in automobiles.) And there’s a great scene where everyone goes out and gets drunk, rivalling the scene in Sartoris when everyone goes out and gets drunk. Faulkner was interested in drink too.

Faux Faulkner

I’m reading (and greatly enjoying) Faulkner’s famous novel Pylon at the moment. Perhaps you’ve got the impression, from the last two Faulkner novels I’ve given bad scores to, that I don’t rate Faulkner; but I think you’ll find with Pylon that I don’t merely rate him, I absurdly overrate him.

But how could you not like a book with a paragraph like this in it – he’s here describing the entrance lobby of a hotel (I’m pretty sure):

And here also the cryptic shield caught (i n r i) loops of bunting giving an appearance temporary and tentlike to interminable long corridors of machine plush and gilded synthetic plaster running between anonymous and rentable spaces or alcoves from sunrise to sunset across America, between the nameless faience woman-face behind the phallic ranks of cigars and the stuffed chairs sentinelled each by its spittoon and potted palm; – the congruous stripe of Turkey red beneath the recent-gleamed and homeless shoes running on into an interval of implacable circumspection: a silent and discreet inference of lysol and a bath – billboard stage and vehicle for what in the old lusty days called themselves drummers: among the brass spittoons of elegance and the potted plants of decorum, legion homeless and symbolic: the immemorial flying buttresses of ten million American Saturday nights, with shrewd heads filled with to-morrow’s cosmic alterations in the form of price lists and the telephone numbers of discontented wives and high-schools girls.

This is why, when people say Faulkner’s greatest novel is The Sound and the Fury, I tend to think they don’t understand Faulkner at all, since it’s about his most unrepresentative novel and demonstrates almost everything to my mind that isn’t in fact great about Faulkner (though possibly others are of the opposite opinion, since it isn’t a man these days who enjoys the verbose).

Anyway, I came across this (now defunct) Faux Faulkner competition, in the archived pages of the internet, where people are invited to write a (loving) parody of the Faulknerian style. Again, there are too many Sounds and Furies, but the best I think is the Goldilocks and the Three Bears one (2003 winner) [actually, I take that back: The Rabbit from 2002 is better], which really does happen to capture Faulkner.