Saturday, 28 April 2012

Faulkner: As I Lay Dying

William Faulkner (2004) As I Lay Dying Vintage Books, London; 248 pp.; ISBN 978-0-099-47931-4

This novel was first published in 1930 and is set in a cotton growing area of Mississippi in the United States. I first read it as a teenager and was struck by the simplicity and directness of the language, and the way in which the story came together from the voices of the different characters. It reminded me very much of William Golding’s novels in the clarity and precision of the writing, and the depth and complexity of emotions in what was on the surface a simple tale. Both Faulkner and Golding were Nobel laureates for literature and their best novels have the timeless quality of ancient myths.

These days many people live in small family units or by themselves, often at a distance from their wider relations and their neighbours. When I spent a long time living with a family in a rural village in Asia, one of the things that foreign friends used to ask me was: how did I cope with the lack of privacy? But in fact I had no sense of that at all. My childhood was spent in a large extended family where the division between relatives and neighbours was not always very clear. Looking back, I realise that I learnt at a young age what could be said and done in public, what could be shared within the ‘family’, and what was simply out of bounds. Over the years I have gleaned from various relatives stories of scandal, gossip and (often ancient) rivalries in the extended family, but even today I know that there are many things that will remain hidden, and some things that will always be so no matter how hard I dig and question. So while large families and communities living at close quarters might nowadays seem like a life devoid of privacy, in fact many secrets swirl in the dark and all the players know the arts of how to conceal, distort and reveal in the continuing game of life.

As I Lay Dying is set around the death of Addie Bundren and her family’s journey to bury her in the home town of her original kin. Her husband Anse is laconic and lazy, but clearly has a way with people. His devotion to fulfilling his dead wife’s wish to be buried in Jefferson, Mississippi seems at odds with his otherwise less than determined character, and he pursues her wish even though doing so increasingly engulfs the family in crisis. The five children of the family, the parents, various neighbours and observers contribute to the story as the journey wends its way to Addie’s final destination.

The Bundrens and their neighbours are dirt poor but proud, and living in a time of particular hardship. The south is riven by both class and race, though we tend to see this obliquely in the novel. Various family members have secrets they have concealed from each other, and rivalries that become more apparent as the journey progresses. The three elder boys – Cash, Darl and Jewel – react very differently to their mother’s death and we see both cooperation and struggle between them as they deal with each other and events around them. The teenage daughter, Dewey Dell, holds her own in the family conflicts but has a secret deeply hidden from the others. Vardaman, still a young boy, expresses his grief and anger in symbols and imagery that he feels strongly but cannot yet articulate in words.

The journey changes the configuration of the family, and the somewhat surprise ending shows that Anse, the lazy father, can sometimes be a busy boy. There is no easy resolution or happy ending here. We know that the family drama will continue to play on and that poverty will continue to limit everyone’s options. The only way to cope is to hide parts of your life and to seek refuge in religion. A neighbour, Cara Tull, spends her days singing hymns because the world and dealing with it is just too, too hard.

Though it has been decades since I first read this book, in re-reading it I was struck again by the power of Faulkner’s writing. This is a story of ageless passions and conflicts, and simple truths about how we can live together while maintaining our sense of self and our own private worlds. It is a story that deserves a continued readership.

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