A perilous and unnecessary journey

As I Lay DyingAs I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A poor Mississippi family disintegrates upon the death of Anse Bundren's wife Addie, mother of the 5 other Bundrens. Through the running thoughts and memories of these family members, and of others who come in contact with and sometimes try to help them, sometimes to cheat them, bit by bit we learn the complex story of marriage, adultery, and conflicts never voiced but tearing the insides of Cash, the eldest son (about 30), his slightly younger brother Darl, and the three who came many years later and at least one of them by a different father, the rebellious Jewel who is the most loved by Addie, and his 17-year-old sister Dewey Dell, and their littlest brother Vardaman, convinced that his mother is a fish and is not really dead. The only character whose mind remains closed to us is the passive-aggressive Anse, a devious old coot who likes to see himself as a victim of fate but manages to manipulate everybody else.

Most of story is the tremendously difficult journey by wagon and mules, in the face of storm and flooding, to distant Jefferson where Anse insists is the only proper place to bury the by now rotting corpse of Addie — but Anse's real motive for this totally unnecessary trip to town is to get himself a set of false teeth, which he has been longing for for years. Flood, injury, mutual betrayal, madness, conflagration, and the exploitation of a poor rural girl in trouble by an unscrupulous city-slicker intensify the drama of their odyssey.

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The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text with Faulkner's Appendix (Modern Library)The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text with Faulkner's Appendix by William Faulkner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Of all the vast output of William Faulkner (September 25, 1897 – July 6, 1962), The Sound and the Fury is the most often cited as an influence by contemporary Latin American and Spanish novelists (see article the day after the 50th anniversary of his death, El País 2012/07/10). It is a difficult challenge for the reader (and surely more difficult for its Spanish translators, because of the recourse to different Mississippi dialects), with abrupt unannounced shifts of time (from 1928 back to 1910 or even earlier) and of points of view, and deliberate disregard of conventional punctuation. From the beginning, we are required to decipher the ramblings of the "idiot", Benjy, a full-grown man (celebrating in 1928 his 33d birthday) with the mentality of an infant, deducing from his incoherent stream of consciousness the where and when of events vaguely described. We also have to accept that this severely brain-disabled person can, in his inner consciousness, repeat verbatim long passages that he has heard but not understood. The next sections are also 1st-person streams of consciousness, also disjointed but more intelligible, of Benjy's older, deeply-troubled brother Quentin (on one fateful day in 1910) and then his younger, deceitful and extremely cruel brother Jason (in 1928, but remembering much earlier times), and finally a beautifully rendered 3d-person account on the life and concerns of the black servant Dilsey, the only loving creature and the one who has been trying to hold this self-destructive and self-hating family together. The story of Benjy's sister Candace and of her bastard daughter, also named Quentin, we piece together from all the other narratives.

It's a wonder that Faulkner could get this published at all in 1929. It didn't sell well until years later, after Faulkner had become famous for other works. Then in 1946 he added the "Appendix," printed as an introduction, as a kind of reader's guide, adding the history of the once illustrious, now disintegrated Compson family and some hints about its survivors and providing very helpful clues to the events and personalities we are about to meet.

Reading it can be an exhausting but exhilarating experience. What other authors have taken away from it is the deep intensity of the portraits of place — mostly rural Mississippi, but also Cambridge-Boston — and the liberty to write freely in the disconnected natural way our thoughts flow. In the end, it is, as Macbeth says of life itself (Act V), "a tale /Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing." But only to the ill-starred Compsons, unable to make any sense of their own lives. To the attentive reader and especially to other authors, Faulkner's manner of telling the tale signifies everything.

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