Monday, 22 November 1999

William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying (1935)

Edition: Chatto & Windus
Review number: 394

The title of this Faulkner novel may seem a little misleading. The motivation for the plot is a death, in the remotest parts of the south of the US, but it is about what follows the death, not what led up to it. Well known to his neighbours as lazy and feckless, Anse Budren is suddenly galvanised into activity by the death of his wife. Recalling a wish that she had expressed to be buried in her native town, he and his children set out on a cart with a home made coffin for Jefferson. The journey becomes an epic struggle as heavy rain has destroyed bridges and the river they have to cross is running at an unprecedented level. Despite the attempts of his neighbours to persuade him to wait for a few days or bury Addie locally, Anse insists on making the journey, nearly destroying his entire family in the process.

The story is told from the viewpoints of the various family members and the people that they meet. Short sections are used, written in the first person. The writing is not exactly stream of consciousness, there being more of the air of a narrative. It reads more like a transcription of each person's verbal description of the journey. The narrators range widely in intelligence and education, from the local doctor to Anse's simple daughter (whose chapters are full of delightful childish logic).

Faulkner has written a book which seems to convey admirably what it felt like to live in backwoods America in the twenties. (I say "seems to" because I don't have first-hand experience to compare it with.) The two inventions of television and the car have changed society to such a huge extent that the world in which Anse lives seems far more foreign than, say, modern India.

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