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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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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 and burial are the subject of the book. ‘Why,’ Cora says, ‘for the last three weeks I have been coming over every time I could, coming sometimes when I shouldn’t have, neglecting my own family and duties so that somebody would be with her in her last moments and she would not have to face the Great Unknown without one familiar face to give her courage.’ It is only two-thirds of the way through the novel that we realize Cora has actually always been infuriated by Addie. Even after ‘that summer at the camp meeting when Brother Whitfield wrestled with her spirit, singled her out, and strove with the vanity in her mortal heart’, Addie Bundren would not accept that she was a sinner, or that Cora had the right to kneel in front of her and pray for her salvation. And the awful truth about Cora’s obsession with cake-making is that Addie was always the better cook. Once Addie is dead, Cora will be able to take her place. In attending Addie’s death-bed, Cora is seeing off her rival. There was no equivalent death-bed scene, of course, and my Mrs C was a top cake-maker – she was always winning rosettes for her produce at the village fête – but otherwise, the Mrs C of my childhood was unnervingly like Cora. She and the Reverend ruled the church. She did the flowers, she ran the Harvest Festival. When a local girl wanted to be confirmed but came from a non-believing family, Mrs C supplied the dress and sat in the front pew. She was so utterly on the moral high ground that I spent most of my moments with her petrified that she would see through me. I too came from a non-believing family. And my siblings and I were latch-key kids. Mrs C would often take us in and give us scones, with pity – and a rarely spoken but constantly resonating expectation of a return invitation. Only we didn’t have high tea, and my dad certainly didn’t make scones. Without meaning to, we managed to slight her on a regular basis when we hadn’t asked for her ‘kindness’ in the first place. Yet disliking her was out of the question as she never, ever did anything wrong. Whenever I was around Mrs C, I knew that He, the Lord I didn’t believe in, was looking into my heart and seeing that it was a dark, terrible place, and I quaked. Faulkner evokes this power so effectively that even as a grown-up on a Welsh beach with sea extending to the horizon, I could feel the oppression that often goes with small communities simply because circumstance won’t let people escape one another. But of course while creating an oppressive atmosphere, Faulkner was also revealing the elements that made it and therefore allowing escape, for Addie through death, for the reader through knowledge. Faulkner was showing that people don’t have to do identifiably wrong things for it to be okay for you to want to get away from them. He was revealing adults as deeply, laughably fallible, a revelation that is especially important for a 16-year-old. It’s not just the odd fallible one, either. Many of Faulkner’s characters are laughably fallible. And comedy is another aspect of As I Lay Dying that I am sure appealed to me. As an adult reader, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the horror of the situation. The determination of Addie’s husband Anse to take her body back to the place of her ancestors through floods and baking heat has a devastating effect on the family members whom he forces to go with him. Yet the cast of characters is also at times positively slapstick. An upside of his wife’s death for Anse is, ‘Now I can get them teeth.’ But what about The Sound and the Fury? It’s hard to apply the comic tag to this novel. Charting the fortunes of the Compson family, the book is divided into four parts, the third of which is narrated by the oldest brother, Jason, a character so close to evil that at times I thought I might have to throw the book away. And as if that isn’t hard enough to take, the first part of the novel is told by the ‘idiot’ brother Benjy, who has no sense of time and therefore imposes no chronology on his thoughts, which splash out as text that appears completely random. Yet Benjy’s extraordinary ramble, which extends over sixty pages, is perhaps easier for a 16-year-old, still in touch with a child’s sense of time, to understand. As an adult, one tends to want order. To enjoy Benjy’s narrative, it has to be possible to let go of that desire and become unquestioningly absorbed. Asking young children to hurry because you have to be out of the house in five minutes may well have no impact because for them, time, this thing parents and teachers see when they look at marks on a clock, doesn’t exist. There is only the toy they are playing with now, the pleasure or pain they are feeling at this moment. For Benjy, there is only the fence and the golf course beyond it, from which he might hear the word ‘caddie’, which brings three decades’ worth of associative memories of his adored sister Caddy crowding in. Benjy’s narrative makes sense, once the reader gets to the narratives of his brothers Quentin and Jason and can apply the facts they give retrospectively. But in the meantime, the reader must see the world as Benjy does. And while teenagers want, need, groundshaking revelations such as that adults are indeed fallible, such revelations are scary. Teenagers also want to be able to continue having the heightened senses and feelings of sheer wonder that children have as they interact with their surroundings – as Benjy does. Leaves ‘rattle’ around him; flowers ‘rasp’ against him. Benjy can ‘smell the bright cold’. For him, ‘the cellar steps [run] up the hill in the moonlight’. Even the pace of reading that one has become used to can be interfered with by the first section of The Sound and the Fury. I kept having to stop and reread sentences so I could look again at the beauty of the world as Benjy sees it. And while the four narrative voices of the novel remain distinct, they are all marked by the beauty of Faulkner’s writing. In the second section, Quentin is affected by the very air. ‘Some days in late August at home are like this, the air thin and eager like this.’ He watches a buggy passing. ‘The wheels were spidery. Beneath the sag of the buggy the hooves neatly rapid like the motions of a lady doing embroidery.’ But Quentin is tortured. It begins to feel unnerving that he evokes wonderful, engrossing images. As he seduces us, we can fear that we will lose our minds too. And although his greedy, racist, misogynist brother Jason doesn’t have the time or inclination to sit about watching buggies, which means that we don’t get many beautiful images in his section, Jason’s thoughts are rendered with a clarity that becomes horrifying. ‘I’m glad I haven’t got the kind of conscience I’ve got to nurse like a sick puppy all the time.’ Despite everything he does, the details of which get worse and worse, he feels no remorse. Faulkner makes Jason’s voice and his utter belief in his own moral superiority so convincing that at the worst points we fear that Faulkner shares his world view. As Elizabeth Bowen says, not only does Faulkner ‘command us’ with his discoveries, he also confounds us. His work goes deep inside us and ignites confusion. And it gives intense pleasure. Faulkner writes beautifully about terrible feelings and events. But how? An adult may well continue turning the pages of a novel because they feel they ought to. As a teenager, I recall gladly and eagerly reading on. The revelations about adults were clearly invaluable to me; the chance to see nature with fresh wonder must have been welcome respite from teenage angst. But none of that explains the compulsion. What magic was Faulkner weaving? I couldn’t work it out, until one evening I looked again at a passage in The Sound and the Fury, after a session of reading fairytales to my daughter. I realized, whether it’s that a ‘venomous’ shaft of daylight is nullified by loyal servant Dilsey’s ‘myriad sunken face’, or that the sound of his father’s watch ticking is overpowered by the creak of Quentin’s friend Shreve’s bedsprings next door, the shift through a state of struggle to resolution and reward that makes fairytales so gratifying for children is something that Faulkner achieves again and again – even with scenes that are pretty well devoid of conventional action. As Virginia Woolf said any ‘modern’ must, he addressed the fact that ‘Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged’ and used a variety of methods including stream-of-consciousness to show life instead, as Woolf puts it, as ‘a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us’. He experimented with form. And, with practically every paragraph, Faulkner enchants us.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 19 © Josie Barnard 2008


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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