As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

I am a serendipitous reader, allowing chance references to lead me meanderingly from book to book, author to author. The timing of my discovery of Rebecca’s Classics Circuit was impeccable, hard on the discovery of William Faulkner’s influence on Beauvoir. Sartre said, “The technique of Simone de Beauvoir, also, was inspired by Faulkner. Without him she never would have conceived the idea, used in Le Sang des Autres, of cutting the chronological order of the story and substituting instead a more subtle order, half logical, half intuitive.”

Describing Faulkner and, in particular of As I Lay Dying, Beauvoir wrote:

Not only did he show great skill in deploying and harmonising multiple viewpoints, but he got inside each individual mind, setting forth its knowledge and ignorance, its moments of insincerity, its fantasies, the words it formed and the silences it kept. As a result the narrative was bathed in a chiaroscuro, which gave each event the greatest possible highlight and shadow.

The contrasts in As I Lay Dying are intriguing, foremost the language: the vernacular coexistent with the poetic. Whilst reading the viewpoint of confused child Vardaman, after a period of rambling thought interspersed with dialogue, the narrative offers:

It is as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components-snuffings and stampings; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a coordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret and familiar, an is different from my is.

Faulkner is, I surmise, not expecting the reader to concede this as part of Vardaman’s stream of consciousness. So who narrates here, and on similar occasions elsewhere? I know little of Faulkner and his reading of psychology, but took it to be the voice of the unconscious, ‘it, the Id, that never shuts up’ that, ‘talks even when it is silent’.

The fifteen fragmentary viewpoints on offer in As I Lay Dying include the departed mother; not too much of a stretch that the Id has a voice. The technique is intriguing but somehow works to give us precisely that chiaroscuro of deep contrasts, between speech, thought and action.

Beauvoir finds the dark comedy in As I Lay Dying. Though disturbing, there is a surreal humour in the rag-tag Bundren family traipsing across the county to bury the decomposing, odiferous corpse of the lady of the house. We expect the set pieces, like the coffin almost being borne away on the river , before they occur, but find agony and a smidgen of humour in that inevitability. Beauvoir adds, “If objects or habits were presented to the reader in a preposterous light, the reason was that misery and want not only change man’s attitude to things but transform the very appearance of things.”

13 thoughts on “As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

  1. >I love the chiaroscuro metaphor – an apt description, I think, for the ways in which unclear boundaries can often accentuate contrasts rather than obscuring them. Certainly applicable to the Faulkner I've read, particularly Absalom, Absalom!.I continue to find it fascinating that Beauvoir was such a fan of Faulkner. Two authors I would never have considered pairing. The next time I read him I will definitely keep her in mind.

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  2. >Emily, I came across an interesting theory in Bernard-Henri Lévy's book on Sartre that the latter (and by implication the Beaver) used the Americans (Faulkner, Dos Passos, Hemingway) as cover:He used the Americans, so that he could write like Gide without saying so. The Americans, so as to put Mauriac behind him, without thereby simply writing like Gide. The Americans, little soldiers of the internecine guerilla war he was waging against the French novel, in which victory, ex hypothesi, must above all owe nothing to André Gide.

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  3. >My favorite Faulkner, too, partly because it is hilarious, although "a good read" is not at all what I would call this book. I have no idea what that term means, though.Faulkner had a profound ifluence on numerous French writers, an almost bizarre number of French writers. Claude Simon is almost pure French Faulkner.

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  4. >Susan, I've yet to read Beauvoir's fiction, where the Faulkner influence is most apparent.This is only my second Faulkner, Sanctuary the other, and I far preferred As I lay Dying. It is funny, but the humour is dark and wicked.

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  5. >Amateur Reader: I'm intrigued by your linking Claude Simon to Faulkner. You are probably right — I'll have to reread and see… I don't think Faulkner has such a strong sense of form, though (here I'm thinking of works like Triptych). Any thoughts?

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  6. >I haven't read Triptych and barely remember the structures of the three I have read.Try this, though, from The Wind, tr. Richard Howard, early in Ch. 12:"(time not threadlike, filiform, like those knotted braids primitive Indians use for their messages, a conception of a one-dimensional duration along which the event-knots – the past, the present, the future – follow each other without conflict, well-behaved, single file; but on the contrary (time) like a sort of clotted magma in which the moment is a spade cutting into the dark earth, revealing the innumerable swarm of worms)"and that's just one parenthetical comment in a three-and-a-half page sentence.Try almost any page at random from The Wind or The Grass.

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  7. >Jessica: As I Lay Dying is considered Faulkner's most accessible work. I've certainly got some niggling questions in my mind about viewpoint, but it's not too problematic. I am sure I will read more Faulkner, but feel no urgency to do so.

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  8. >I read it a couple of years ago and was mightly impressed. The viewpoints, the humour, the struggle of the journey. The language and dialects appear at one level to confuse (particularly if you are not used to hearing/seeing it on page) but on reading I found they drove the story on or at least my interpretation of it.I also loved the description of the cart moving on a dirt track like a piece of white ribbon unravalling from its bobbin.

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