Addie Bundren has asked to be buried not near her home but over in Jefferson; this necessitates the family making an epic journey with the coffined corpse. The journey takes far longer than it should have done, because the river has flooded and the bridges cannot be crossed, and because of the attitude of Addie's husband Anse, who repeatedly refuses help because he will not be beholden to anyone. "It's like a man who has let everything slide all his life to get set on something that will make the most trouble for everybody he knows." (p 78)
The story is told in a multiple perspective stream of consciousness, a bit like Ulysses by James Joyce, except that Faulkner uses fifteen narrators while Joyce used only three and, importantly, because Faulkner's characters sometimes know things they cannot know, transcending time and place, including the by-then-dead Addie, who has a chapter reflecting upon her life.
Once again, the fifty per cent rule works: Darl articulates secrets about both Jewel and Dewey Dell exactly half way through the book.
I was immensely confused about who was who after the first thirty pages. Each chapter is headed with the name of the character who is narrating. To be helpful, here are the main characters.
- Addie Bundren, the dying woman, later a corpse.
- Anse Bundren, her husband. He repeatedly describes himself as a 'luckless' man but it is his dogmatism, his delaying and refusal to seek help that causes many of the problems the other characters face.
- Addie and Anse have five children:
- Cash the eldest boy, a skilled carpenter, methodical and careful, and incredibly stoical.
- Darl the second eldest, the main narrator, a character who is much more fluent and articulate than any of the others, so much so that he transcends the limitations of his education.
- Jewel, the third eldest, who loves horses; it turns out that he is not Anse's son but, apart from Addie and his biological father, and perhaps Darl, and maybe Jewel himself, no one else seems to know.
- Dewey Dell, the girl, who has got herself pregnant and is secretly seeking an abortion.
- Vardaman, the littlest boy, whose stream of consciousness displays his immaturity.
- Other characters include Vernon Tull, the neighbouring farmer, and his hyper religious wife Cora (Vernon's relationship with Cora is summarised when he muses on how God could leave the Universe to Core: “I reckon if there's ere a man or woman anywhere that He could turn it all over to and go away with His mind at rest, it would be Cora. And I reckon she would make a few changes, no matter how He was running it. And I reckon they would be for man's good. Leastways, we would have to like them. Leastways, we might as well go on and make like we did.”; p 65); Peabody the doctor; and Reverend Whitfield the local pastor.
There are stupendous descriptions:
- “Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candle-sticks.” (p 5)
- “It would be black, the shelf black, the still surface of the water a round orifice in nothingness.” (p 7)
- “The horse snorts, then Jewel sees him, glinting for a gaudy instant among the blue shadows.” (p 8)
- “He flows upward in a stooping swirl like the lash of a whip, his body in mid-air shaped to the horse.” (p 9)
- “The sun, an hour above the horizon, is poised like a bloody egg upon a crest of thunderheads.” (p 34)
- “She looks at us. Only her eyes seem to move. It's like they touch us, not with sight or sense, but like the stream from a hose touches you, the stream at the instant of impact as dissociated from the nozzle as though it had never been there.” (p 37 - 38)
- “He looks like right after the maul hits the steer and it Ed no longer alive and don't yet know that it is dead.” (p 54)
- "Motionless, the tall buzzards hang in soaring circles, the clouds giving them an illusion of retrograde." (p 82)
- “When I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind - and that of the ones who suffer the bereavement. The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town.” (p 37)
- “Now and then a fellow gets to thinking about it. Not often, though. Which is a good thing. For the Lord aimed for him to do and not to spend too much time thinking, because his brain it's like a piece of machinery: it won't stand a whole lot of racking. It's best when it all runs along the same, doing the day's work and not no one part used no more than needful.” (p 63)
- "I am the chosen of the Lord, for who He loveth, so doeth He chastiseth. But I be durn of He don't take some curious ways to show it, seems like." (p 95)
- "You can't tell about them. Just about when you decide they mean one thing, I be durn if you not only haven't got to change your mind, like as not you got to take a raw-hiding for thinking they meant it." (p 102)
- "A fellow can see every now and then that children have more sense than him, But he don't like to admit it to them until they have beards." (p 123)
- "My father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time." (p 153)
- "How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls." (p 188)
- "I ain't sho who's got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he ain't." (p 214)
- "Some folks have the smooth, pretty boards to build a court-house with and others don't have no more than rough lumber fitten to build a chicken coop. But it's better to build atight chicken coop than a shoddy court-house." (p 215)
This was one of the novels Faulkner had written before being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is a read which challenges the reader to work out who is who and what their back stories are, and I'm not sure after a single read-through that I haven't missed some of the subtleties, but the inevitability of tragedy builds up and builds up until you can hardly bear to find out what must happen next.
One of those books I need to think about and re-visit.
September 2020; 240 pages
Books and plays written by Nobel Laureates that I have reviewed in this blog include:
- Thomas Mann (1929) Death in Venice
- Hermann Hesse (1946) Steppenwolf and Demian
- Andre Gide (1947) The Immoralist and Strait is the Gate and The Vatican Cellars
- William Faulkner (1949) Sanctuary and As I Lay Dying
- Albert Camus (1957) The Plague and The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus and The Fall
- John Steinbeck (1962) Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row
- Samuel Beckett (1969) "The Expelled; The Calmative; The End & First Love" and "Waiting for Godot"
- Heinrich Boll (1972) The Train was on Time
- Saul Bellow (1976) "The Victim"
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1982) Chronicle of a Death Foretold
- Doris Lessing (2007) The Golden Notebook
- Patrick Modiano (2014) The Black Notebook
- Kazuo Ishiguro (2017) When We Were Orphans and The Buried Giant