Sunday, November 13, 2022

Reading group: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

John, who had suggested this book, and had read it more than once before, said that he thought it was a truly great book (in the sense of its literary stature), but that he both loved and hated it.

It is the story of the Bundrens, a family of poor farmers of the deep American south, exeriencing the death of their wife and mother Addie, and then taking an arduous journey to bury her, according to her wishes, in Jefferson from where she came. They are delayed by various difficulties including floods and a fire, and the body in the coffin on the wagon begins to rot as vultures wheel overhead. The whole expedition - and the family rivalries and the characters' various additional ulterior motives for taking the journey - is conveyed in a series of multiple vernacular interior monologues: the thoughts, observations and memories of the family members and others they encounter.

Clearly a landmark book in the advent of Modernism in the early twentieth-century, it thus eschews entirely the prop of an objective narrator, and relies on the characters revealing themselves and each other through their inner stream-of-consciousness thoughts, often unreliable and incomplete in understanding, and leaving readers having to piece together the story and its implications for themselves.

John said he loved this experimentalism and in particular the stress on psychology, which is rendered with such searing insight, but it was certainly a novel that worked the reader hard, both for the reason stated above and because the southern vernacular was very hard to penetrate, particularly before you got used to it. As Doug and I interjected, some of the sentences seem at first impenetrable, even unfinished, until you attune to their logic, particularly as part of Faulker's project here is to render with veracity the way our thoughts can be sometimes muddled, incomplete and inconsistent. It took me a second reading to understand these sentences from the only section in the voice of the (more literate, ex-schoolteacher) Addie:

'I knew that [the word] fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride who never had the pride. I knew that it had been, not that they [ie the schoolchildren she had taught] had dirty noses, but that we had used one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching.' 

Addie's preoccupation in this whole section is, significantly, about the uselessness of words, and their inability truly to represent experience, or, as the second sentence conveys, to create connections between people. (At one point there is a gap in the text illustrating the impossibility for her of expressing one particular feeling). For this reason, having initially thought that the beginning of the second sentence was referring back to the previous sentence ('it' being fear or pride or both), I then thought I was reading an unfinished sentence, as apparently indicated by that comma, interrupted by a new thought about the schoolchildren. Only after a double-take did I realise that 'it' in the second sentence referred to the reason (for her hating the children and beating them), which wasn't, as she had once thought, their dirty noses, but because she couldn't connect with them through the impossibility of words.

Everyone agreed that the book was hard work, so that no one could say they had actually enjoyed it, but all found it extremely interesting. We all felt we really needed to read it again, sure that we would get a lot more out of it a second time. (There were plot points about which some of us were still unclear, and ironies that, having resolved them in our discussion, we felt we could relish better a second time around; John said he'd enjoyed the book best on this his third or so reading.) Another thing that made the going harder for the reader at the start was the sheer number of characters (fifteen I think in all), most of them speaking early on. We all agreed that the early part of the book, as these characters are allowed to establish themselves, was slow, and that it was later that the book really got going with some pace. (Doug said that he had started the book years ago but had not got past the early part, and I, who thought I had read the book before, must have done the same, as I had absolutely no recognition of the more dramatic events of the rest of the novel.)

Someone suggested that another problem was that the voices weren't all that distinct from each other, and our initial reaction was to agree, but when we talked about it, it seemed that perhaps we were seeing them too much through their vernacular, and that within it there were indeed distinctions: Addie, as I have commented, is more literate and speaks/thinks in more abstract terms, as do the doctor, Peabody, and the Whitfield the priest. The language of Darl, the second of Addie's five children, more insightful, observant and imaginative than the rest and given the greatest number of sections, often takes a poetic turn; Cash, her first-born, a carpenter who has made her coffin, is distinguished (before the end of the novel) by being a man of few words, his only two early sections consisting of a short list and a single paragraph respectively; the youngest, Vardaman, the only non adult of the children, is strikingly distinct in his muddled thought and language. Those of the only girl, Dewey Dell, begin as fairly straightforward, but turn convoluted and disconnected as she becomes emotionally desperate. Anse, the feckless father, is distinguished by his repetitive self-justifications and whining manipulations, contrasting with the down-to-earth voices of the farmers who help the family out on their travels. (Jewel, the most different of Addie's children, taller than the rest and filled with a distinctive vicious streak, is given no monologue of his own and thus remains to the reader the outsider that the plot will reveal he is within the family.)

We had a fairly intense discussion about the fact that, although the characters speak chiefly in the vernacular, and although a main point seems to be the difficulty for them of articulating their private reality, they quite frequently come out with sophisticated concepts and insights expressed in abstract Latinate vocabulary that was unusual even to us. Darl describes the motion of the wagon as they travel as 'so dreamlike as to be uninferent of progress' and Dewey Dell as 'watchful and repudient' (my italics). Even Dewey Dell, whose outlook is simpler, calls the cow's breathing 'stertorous'. Most people felt that this detracted from the authenticity of the voices, Doug in particular finding that it jarred, and that although it can perhaps be accepted as poetic/novelistic licence in a novel so groundbreaking at the time of its publication, it wouldn't be accepted in a novel written today - the voices would be expected to be much more accurately realistic. Mark objected that he didn't see how Faulker could have done it any other way: if such characters don't have the language to express their own feelings, then the author has to provide it. Doug and I said, But that doesn't work in interior monologue mode, since an interior monologue is meant to replicate a character's thought (and language) - it just makes it feel inauthentic, and brings in for the reader a sense of the author telling the story, after all. Mark said again that he didn't see how it could be done otherwise. Personally, I think it can be done, although it is one of the hardest things to do in writing, and I thought there was an instance in the book that illustrated how: Addie talks of how, trapped in her unhappy premarital life, she lay in bed and heard 'the wild geese going north and their honking coming faint and high and wild out of the wild darkness'. This is a concrete visceral image/symbol that left me with a far more vivid and lasting sense of her longing and feelings of being trapped, left behind and cut off, than any of the abstract musings of her section could or did.

Quite often, the text will break suddenly for a short space into italics, and Doug said he hadn't been able to work out the point of this. I said I'd noticed that in the cases of Vardaman and Dewey Dell, the italics tended to represent troubling thoughts that kept recurring to them, often in a non sequitur way. Doug agreed, but pointed out rightly that there wasn't consistency throughout the novel over this, and that it wasn't clear what the point was in Darl's sections, for instance.  

Much of the commentary we have come across finds the book fundamentally tragi-comic, but none of us found much in it to laugh at. We did all find funny the moment where the neighbouring farmer Tull tells how the Bundrens laid Addie the wrong way round in the coffin so that they could splay out her dress in the wider space meant for her shoulders, and I and others found funny the self-justifying section of the priest, Whitfield, who has felt that he should confess a sin to the Bundrens but argues himself out of the need for it now that Addie is dead. And the very ending of the book - the last sentence - is very funny as well as grim, and, we all agreed, quite brilliant. Mostly, however, we found the situation of the family gruellingly tragic. 

All in all, although most of us said that we probably wouldn't have taken up this novel out of choice, we were all really glad to have read it and found it very interesting indeed.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

Reading group: Turbulence by David Szalay

This book of linked episodes won the Edge Hill Prize for short stories, and as one of the three judges that year (along with Sam Jordison and Tessa Hadley) I of course admire it greatly and was eager to share it with the group.

It takes a large cast of characters connected by flights, each section dealing with a character only briefly or loosely connected with the character in the previous section. It's a short book, and the sections are fairly brief, but manages to convey huge psychological complexity, and to make the situation of each character moving. One thing that really moved me was the way the book portrayed the paradox of the interconnectedness of this global world - and of us all to each other - and our simultaneous aloneness with our personal dilemmas. Another thing I found very moving was the changes in viewpoint and perspective, the difference between how characters are seen by others on the one hand, and their inner lives and personal reality on the other. An early instance of this concerns a pilot: in the section dedicated to him we learn, as he flies a cargo plane from Dakar to Sao Paulo, of the death of his sister when they were children, and the way that, clearly, it has affected him for good, and see his vulnerability and his sensitivity. The next episode opens with the viewpoint of a young female journalist about to take an important flight to Toronto and desperate to get rid of the man with whom she had a one-night stand the night before - a desperation we are made to share along with her anxieties about her commission. It is a moment before we realise - and a little shock when we do - that this is the pilot we came to know in the previous section, seen through her eyes as a piece of inconvenient meat she needs to get out of her bed. 

Doug, Mark and John very much agreed with me, Mark in particular saying he found the book quite brilliant (and not, he said, just because of his past career as a flight attendant). John said he didn't understand how Szalay managed to make the characters, so briefly dealt with in terms of physical space in the book, so  convincing and moving. I said I'd noticed that often when we share a character's point of view here, that character is not named, which makes for psychological veracity - people don't name themselves when they are lost in their inner thoughts, and so it's distancing to name them (which a lot of authors don't seem to have noticed!) The main thing that makes the book so moving, I think, is the way Szalay adopts the techniques of both short stories and novels (the book has in fact been marketed as each, at different times). It uses the short story techniques of economy: implication rather than explication, and omissions and jumps that create moving juxtapositions (connections and contrasts), while also embracing a novelistic overall story arc and forward motion, culminating in a satisfying novelistic link to the beginning.

Doug did say however that the one thing he found unconvincing about the book was that ending, which he found artificial and forced. I have to say that on this, my third or fourth reading of the book, it did strike me that there was a psychological element missing from the last section, which did have the potential for making it seem a little manipulated (I won't say what it is, in order not to plot-spoil), but I must also say that the first two or three times I read the book it never occurred to me, and, apart from that psychological aspect, I still found moving the way the general direction was steered back to the beginning, underlining the theme of our disconnectedness yet surprising connectedness. Mark and John I think felt the same.

Our only real dissenter was Ann, who I'm afraid had found the whole thing too schematic. She had guessed right from the start that the book was going to take us in flights around the world back to the same point (and had quickly flicked through to see that this was the case) and couldn't read it without a sense of the sketched plan Szalay must have drawn up to follow, with all the obvious representative characters ticked off, right down to the Syrian refugee. None of the rest of us had had this reaction. Personally, I couldn't see anything wrong with an author having such a scheme: I saw it merely as the openly disclosed framework for something much more subtle in terms of themes and narrative surprises.

Doug said he didn't think it was a novel, though, as you could read the stories entirely in isolation. Someone else disagreed that that was the case: the stories were much richer if read in sequence through the prisms of the previous stories, which of course is how you read a novel.  Doug said however it didn't have the feel of a novel, it felt like something else. I commented that the novel has always been subject to change and innovation, its very name meaning new. In any case, as with Tove Jansson's Summer Book, which we read earlier this year, I thought that, apart from the pressures of marketing, from a literary point of view there was no need to categorise the book: it was what it was, very successfully in the view of most of us.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here