William Faulkner

I’ve picked up another classic in literature — As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.  I’ve attempted to read it at least three times before and never gotten very far, a page or two.  With this attempt, I’m about half-way through, and I believe I’ve finally got the hang of it, but it’s tough.  Several aspects of the novel are giving me trouble.  Stream of consciousness narratives are always hard for me to follow, but in this one, we get the internal thoughts of over a dozen characters, and I can hardly keep them straight.  The other hurdle I’m trying to clear is the language; it’s pre-automobile era, poor, southern folk, and some sentences I have to read over and over to make out what’s being said or thought.  Then, probably the most challenging is that while the title may be referring to Addie Bundren, the mother character who dies, to my mind it refers to every character in the story.  These zombie-like folk move through the action deadened not by grief over Addie’s passing but by grief over their own grossly unfulfilled, tragic and depressing lives.

O.K. so have I convinced you that I’m a glutton for punishment?  Are you wondering why I’d want to continue?  I’m wrestling  with this novel because it’s been deemed one of the most important works of literature from the 20th century.  I trust that scholars, authors, judges, and readers that have studied it before me know what they’re talking about.  I want to understand what they understand.

Somewhere in this tale of misery and defeat lies a truth about survival, and that interests me.  I suspect it’s no mistake that the first chapter begins with two brothers on a path “worn smooth by feet”.  I’m reminded that life is about the journey, not the destination.  Unfortunately for the characters in As I Lay Dying they never got that message.  I think I know these folk; their the ones that believe life begins when you die.  Their my ancestors, and their my shadow.  This is what I push against in order to seize the moment, jump for joy, hold my head up, smile at a stranger, love truly, and blush when complimented.  There’s dark and there’s light.  Faulkner has put language to the dark, and for that, I’m in awe.  Marshaling his talent to depict such human suffering, and then being recognized by the literary establishment as Pulitzer and Nobel prize worthy, tells me that Faulkner has tapped into something fundamentally human and worth the effort, if not to understand, at least to appreciate.  Which I do.

Until next time, have a good week, and I’ll post again next Friday.

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