Mark Handley illustration - Josie Barnard on William Faulkner, Slightly Foxed Issue 19

Southern Comfort

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When I sat down to start this piece, I nearly got tangled up in theory. William Faulkner was so brilliantly experimental with form, and consequently captured the interests of literary critics over such a broad spectrum, that it is very easy to get tangled. Then I recalled why I had wanted to write about Faulkner in the first place. I’d wanted to revisit two books by which I had been smitten in my teens.

‘Interested in’; ‘challenged by’: surely those reactions are more appropriate when it comes to Faulkner. But, aged 16, when perhaps I should have been thinking more about make-up and boys, in my spare time I was busy being smitten by his writing.

I was living in late-1970s Yorkshire, with woolly sheep on the moor outside and gaudy pop bands such as the Bay City Rollers and The Sweet on the telly. What on earth did I get from Faulkner? He was nowhere near the curriculum. I sought out and read for pleasure As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, books that tackled class divisions, incest, poverty and death in the 1930s in the American South. Faulkner’s Mississippi couldn’t have been much further from me geographically or thematically – at first glance.

Nearly three decades later, in Wales last summer, almost immediately upon opening As I Lay Dying, in the voice of Cora I recognized a woman from my home village who had always frightened me. It was visceral. Yet Cora is, certainly at the beginning of Faulkner’s novel, apparently a kind, good woman, and in any case surely marginal to the main story. It was precisely these qualities that made me think of the woman from my home village, who I’ll call Mrs C. There are no flies on Cora. She has scrimped and saved to make cakes to sell to a rich lady who has decided she doesn’t want them, but Cora doesn’t mind because ‘The Lord can see into the heart.’ And she has remained painfully, selflessly committed to her dying neighbour Addie Bundren, whose death

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About the contributor

Josie Barnard has written two novels, Poker Face and The Pleasure Dome, and is currently saving up to fly out to see the bluegum and jimson weed that characterized Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

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