Southern people love William Faulkner…unless they hate him. There’s really no middle ground. You won’t overhear a bookstore patron saying, “Faulkner’s all right, I reckon, but I prefer Stephen King.”
Reading “As I Lay Dying” in high school was my introduction to full-length Faulkner. I see this as both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because starting with, say, “The Sound and the Fury” might’ve caused me to break out in hives and consider myself allergic to his work. (This had happened before with Melville/”Billy Budd.”) A curse because “As I Lay Dying” set the standard by which I judge Southern novels. So far, everything else has come up short.
In “As I Lay Dying,” Faulkner offers a collection of first person narratives, recounting the adventures of a family transporting a dead body across Mississippi in the middle of summer. Why would they attempt this, you might ask. Because the body belongs to their mother (who had previously lain dying), and she insisted on being buried with her people. Also, each family member has an ulterior motive for going to town, ranging from Vardaman, the youngest who wants a toy train to Anse, the father who wants a new set of teeth (and manages to snag himself a new wife in the bargain).
Macabre comedy ensues.
I once made the mistake of taking a graduate-level course on Faulkner, which required reading an assigned novel every couple of weeks. I’ve always had a penchant (and dare I say, talent) for getting things done at the last possible minute. Not so with Faulkner. His work should be savored like a piece of artisan-crafted dark chocolate, not gobbled like a waxy Hershey’s Kiss. Sure, I read “The Unvanquished” in one night, but I can’t recall a single plot point. I’d guess it’s about a dysfunctional Mississippi family who may or may not turn out to be vanquished. Am I close?
The most common complaint I hear about Faulkner is that his work is difficult to read. No argument there: it is. But it’s kind of like exercise: difficult at the time, but satisfying (especially if you reward yourself with ice cream once you’re done).
In an interview for The Paris Review, Faulkner was asked: “Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them.” Faulkner replied: “Read it four times.”
If you find yourself near Oxford, MS, looking for a literary excursion, head over to Faulkner’s Greek Revival home, Rowan Oak. On my visit, the docent was knowledgeable and none-too-strict, which was nice, seeing as I had to move the plastic barrier at the door of his study to get a better view of his writing on the walls. This was the outline of his novel “The Fable,” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Sadly, my parents painted over all my crayon scribblings decades ago. Who knows what all I could have won by now…
What’s your favorite Faulkner novel, story, or anecdote? And if he’s not your cup of sweet tea, who is?
Photo credits: Rowan Oak sign and Faulkner’s writing on the walls photos courtesy of Nick Russell. Check out a collection of his AH-MAY-ZING photos on his blog Visual Textuality.