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.”