In 1929 William Faulkner began writing a novel in the early morning hours while employed as a nightwatchman at the University of Mississippi power plant. He had already published three novels, including The Sound and the Fury (1929), but was yet to find widespread success. He staked everything on his new novel: ‘I set out deliberately to write a tour-de-force,’ he later commented. ‘Before I began I said, I am going to write a book by which, at a pinch, I can stand or fall if I never touch ink again.’ According to Faulkner, he finished the novel in six weeks. The book he wrote, published the following year, was As I Lay Dying. The title comes from Agamemnon’s speech from the Underworld in the Odyssey, about his ignominious death plotted by his wife on his return home to Greece from the Trojan War. In As I Lay Dying it is the wife, Addie Bundren, who dies and her husband, Anse, whose neglect and meanness are implicated in her dying.
As I Lay Dying is composed of 59 fragments spoken by fifteen characters—Addie herself; Anse; their four sons, Cash, Darl, Jewel and Vardaman; their daughter Dewey Dell; their neighbours; the doctor, Peabody; and various bystanders who are drawn into the outlandish events that follow Addie’s death as Anse, for once determined to follow Addie’s wishes, transports her corpse from her deathbed to her final resting place in Jefferson. Over the course of the novel the Budrens’ harsh farming life in the backwaters of one of America’s most impoverished states, Mississippi, is revealed in beautiful, muscular prose: ‘That’s the trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long. Like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image.’
Like a Cubist painting the novel’s multiple perspectives are shattered and put back together by Faulkner. Each new view brings to life a character’s intimate thoughts sparked by Addie’s death, thoughts that are filled with grief, sorrow, incomprehension, selfishness, madness, love. The picture Faulkner paints, never quite seen in its totality, is one of the most bizarre of literature: a straggly group of four men, a girl and a coffin on a cart, accompanied by a fierce, sinewy man on a ‘durn circus animal’ (Jewel on his piebald horse) trailing across the land through flood and fire under a buzzard-hung sky with a decaying corpse which, by the time they reach Jefferson, is nine days dead. Two books that filled Faulkner’s mind, which he returned to time and again, were the Old Testament and Don Quixote, and As I Lay Dying is like some surreal incarnation of the spirits of these two books in the soil of Faulkner’s ‘apocryphal country’, the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County where his novel takes place.
As I Lay Dying is a meditation on life, death and madness. The views of death range from the doctor’s learned ‘I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind—and that of the minds of the ones who suffer the bereavement’, to Addie’s brutal truth: ‘I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.’ Cash’s poignant observations on his brother Darl, who is ‘touched by God himself and considered queer by us mortals’, show his profound understanding of madness: ‘Sometimes I aint so sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way.’ Faulkner’s vital prose captures in a few phrases the life of his characters, such as Anse, who comes alive in all his niggardliness: ‘If He’d aimed for man to be always a-moving and going somewhere else, wouldn’t He have put him longways on his belly, like a snake? It stands to reason he would.’
William Faulkner, born the oldest of four sons of Murry and Maud Falkner (Faulkner later added the ‘u’) in New Albany, Mississippi, came from an illustrious Southern family whose fortunes had waned. His great-grandfather Colonel William Clark Falkner had fought in the Civil War, made a fortune from railways after the war and bought a plantation. He had also written the bestselling novel The White Rose of Memphis. Faulkner’s father eventually settled in Oxford, Mississippi, where he became the business manager at the University of Mississippi. Here Faulkner was able to indulge his passion for riding, shooting and hunting—and reading. Although he left school early, Faulkner was a voracious reader his whole life. He joined the British Royal Air Force in July 1918 and trained in Canada, but the war ended before he flew a plane. When he returned home he devoted himself to drawing and to writing poetry, and by 1925, when he travelled to Europe, had devoted himself to writing. In Europe Faulkner spent most of his time on the Left Bank in Paris, at the time the centre of Modernism, where he saw the paintings of Cezanne, Picasso and Braque. Faulkner, a talented drawer and painter, brings a Modernist painter’s eye to his writing: ‘The front, the conical facade with the square orifice of doorway broken only by the square squat shape of the coffin on the sawhorses like a cubistic bug, comes into relief.’
Faulkner’s first novel, Soldier’s Pay, was published in 1926, but he did not become established as a writer until the publication in October 1929 of The Sound and the Fury (which he’d written in despair and regardless of questions of commercial appeal). He found commercial success two years later with the publication in 1931 of the controversial, bestselling Sanctuary, about the rape of a college student. In 1929 Faulkner married his childhood sweetheart Estelle Oldham following her divorce from her first husband. Hoping to support his new family as a writer—Estelle already had two children and in 1933 had a daughter with Faulkner—Faulkner embarked on the novel he intended would be a tour de force, As I Lay Dying. In 1932 MGM offered Faulkner a job in Hollywood and, needing the money, in May 1932 he moved to Culver City, California, to work as a screenwriter. Like Picasso, Faulkner was extraordinarily productive and innovative in realising his vision—his creative output was enormous (including 19 novels) and he constantly experimented with form.
In 1949 Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his dignified and impassioned acceptance speech he spoke about the numbing post-war preoccupation with physical danger and the urgent need for writers to engage not with fear but the problems of the spirit, of the heart. Among other things he said:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man.