Saturday, January 8, 2011

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

I first read this book in a freshman English Lit course at Wellesley.  I'd never read Faulkner before, and the professor, William Cain, advised us not to obsess about gleaning precise meaning from the stream-of-consciousness text.  Rather, we should let the language flow over us like water and simply feel it.  I was grateful for that direction as I started reading, because I found the narrative all but impossible to follow with my rational mind.  

Now, 30 years later, I'm reading the book again, but this time audibly.  I'm listening to a Random House recording, with 4 readers -- 2 men and 2 women -- reading the parts of the story's 15 narrators.  I've written often of my mixed feelings about reading audio vs. text.  There are a few books that I've preferred in audio -- maybe the narrators breathed extra life into them, or reading aloud emphasised the poetic beauty of the text.  Some books are definitely much better in hard copy.  And then there are the books that are just very different when read aloud than when in print.  Nabokov's Lolita is one, and As I Lay Dying is another.  

The struggle to follow the story, to comprehend, is surprisingly diminished.  I remember being vexed by the southern vernacular, the absence of punctuation, and the run-on and fragmentary sentences in the print version.  The multiple readers probably help, and they certainly eliminate the punctuation struggles.  Read aloud, the narrative is still not crystal-clear, but I don't feel as lost as I did with the text.  Best of all:  I still have that primal sensation, the feeling that I am right there in Mississippi with the Bundren clan as they transport their wife & mother's remains from their country home to the town of Jackson, where she'd asked to be buried.  

Anse Bundren, husband of deceased Addie, is generally an under-motivated man, so his stubborn determination to take Addie's corpse to Jackson puzzles some of his neighbors.  One of them remarks that there's nothing quite as implacable as a lazy man who's finally decided to make a move.  As the family meets with disaster trying to cross a flood-swollen river, I realise the stupidity and futility of the journey.  It's becoming clearer that Anse never treated Addie with much regard when she was living, yet he imperils the whole family to transport her corpse.  It's also become clear that, in Faulkner's Mississippi (as everywhere else, I suppose), race is not the only social division:  there are country people, and there are town people, and they are not the same.  Some of the onlookers suggest that this is not only a foolhardy venture but an arrogant one, taking Addie to Jackson for burial when the Bundrens are country people.  

Novelist Amy Tan once defined a classic as a book that you can re-read every ten years and have a notably different experience each time.  (Her own once-a-decade book is Lolita.)  As Faulkner's characters span the age range from 6-ish to dead, I think there are voices in this book that will speak up differently to the same reader over the course of a lifetime.  


  1. Well, my book reading list for Agatha Christie alone in 2010 was:

    Hercule Poirot (Read)

    1. The Mysterious Affair At Styles
    2. Murder On The Links
    3. Poirot Investigates
    4. The Murder Of Roger Akroyd
    5. The Big Four
    6. The Mystery Of The Blue Train
    7. Peril At End House
    8. Lord Edgware Dies
    9. Murder On The Orient Express
    10. Three Act Tragedy
    11. Death In The Clouds
    12. The ABC Murders
    13. Murder In Mesopotamia
    14. Cards On The Table
    15. Dumb Witness
    16. Death On The Nile
    17. Murder In The Mews
    18. Appointment With Death
    19. Poirot's Christmas
    20. Sad Cypress
    21. One Two Buckle My Shoe
    22. Evil Under The Sun
    23. Five Little Pigs
    24. The Hollow
    25. The Labours of Hercules
    26. Taken At The Flood
    27. Mrs McGinty's Dead
    28. After The Funeral
    29. Hickory Dickory Dock
    30. Cat Among Pigeons

    31. The Adventure Of The Christmas Pudding
    32. The Clocks
    33. Third GIrl
    34. Halloween Party
    35. Elephants Can Remember

    36. Curtain: Poirot's Last Case
    Miss Marple (Read)

    1. Murder At The Vicarage

    2. The Thirteen Problems
    3. Body In The Library
    4. The Moving Finger
    5. A Murder Is Announced

    6. They Do It With Mirrors
    7. A Pocketful Of Rye
    8. 4.50 From Paddington
    9. Mirror Crack's From Side to Side
    10. A Caribbean Mystery
    11. At Betram's Hotel
    12. Nemesis
    13. Sleeping Murder
    14. Miss Marple's Final Cases
    Tommy & Tuppence (Read)

    1. Secret Adversary
    2. Partners In Crime
    3. N or M
    4. By The Pricking Of My Thumbs
    5. Postern Of Fate
    Others (Read)

    1. The Man In The Brown Suit
    2. The Secret Of Chimneys
    3. The Seven Dials Mystery
    4. The Sittaford Mystery
    5. Why Didn't They Ask Evans?
    6. Parket Pyne Investigates
    7. Murder Is Easy
    8. And Then There Were None
    9. Towards Zero
    10. Death Comes As The End
    11. Sparkling Cyanide
    12. Crooked House
    13. They Came To Baghdad
    14. Spider's Web
    15. The Unexpected Guest
    16. Ordeal By Innocence
    17. The Pale Horse
    18. Endless Night
    19. Passenger To Frankfurt
    20. Problem At Polensa Bay

    This is not counting Darren Shan, Derek Landy & non-fiction reading!

  2. Well, Daniel's comment completely sidetracked me. There's nothing like an Agatha Christie, after all! And to think that for years, until I was 30, I think, I snobbishly avoided her

    But back to Faulkner. In truth, I have never read him, though I have often intended to. Perhaps this year...


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