The Siege of Krishnapur, by J G Farrell, 1973

I found myself becoming increasingly troubled by J G Farrell’s Booker prize winning ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’. It is not a bad novel, but it has some serious flaws. It is based on the Indian Mutiny of 1857/8. In India this conflict is known as the Indian rebellion, but Siegeyou would not know that from reading this novel. The narrative perspective is entirely from the point of view of the ‘plucky’ British settlers. The Indian people who appear in the novel are either cannon fodder, mown down in their thousands by the plucky British defenders, or ridiculous caricatures, such as the entirely dumb ‘Prime Minister’. Even the Sikhs who loyally refuse to join the rebellion are given non-speaking parts and diminutive nicknames.

I wonder – did it ever occur to Farrell that the Indian people might have had a different perspective on events from the British characters, and that giving a voice to one of them might have been an interesting counterpoint to the stubbornly imperialist perspective otherwise offered? I am sure that anyone wanting to defend the novel will say that Farrell is comically pointing out the absurdities of Empire. Quite why this was necessary in the 1970’s is a moot point, but the fact that the British behaved ridiccarry onulously in the Raj, keeping up the croquet on the lawn, tea parties, and cucumber sandwiches while the natives rebelled isn’t particularly original funny – Carry on Up the Khyber made the same point far more succinctly five years earlier.

Let’s call this what it is – racism.  A novel set in the time of the British Empire in which all the non-British characters are marginalised and ridiculed wouldn’t find a publisher these days, would it? The novel made me wonder whether you can actually write a novel in which all of the predominant characters share a colonialist mindset, and use these attitudes and situations to challenge and undermine that perspective? In other words, how do you write a novel about racism without being racist? That’s a very broad question, but I would expect to see racist attitudes challenged robustly – which doesn’t really happen here – and some progression in the characters’ attitudes on the issues, which again is missing. In the novel’s final chapter set several years after the siege, there is no indication that the protagonists have come to realise they bore some responsibility for the uprising and the deaths that followed.

I am sure Farrell tried to make the novel a serious discussion about Empire. Many of the British characters are sympathetic and well-meaning, but misguided. There are some heavy-handed points made about the Great Exhibition of 1851, a few years before the novel’s setting. The senior British official organising the defence of the besieged community is known as ‘The Collector’, and while this title refers to the collection of taxes, it also refers to his hobby of collecting small technical devices from the Exhibition. These all eventually end up forming part of the barricades or are broken down to be remade into ammunition – so much for the value of civilisation in such a backward country.

There were a number of other features of the novel that caused me concern. The women characters are mainly there for decorative purposes, to provide wives and babies. There is a regular and rather uncomfortable series of references to the women’s sexual attractiveness, their smell, and even the effect the siege has on the plumpness of their bodies. In one bizarre scene a woman strips naked to escape a plague of insects that has descended on her, covering her head to toe, and two of the officers scrape the insects off her body using the hard-back covers torn from a Bible. They are bemused by her pubic hair, not knowing whether to scrape that off as well! This scene was I am sure intended to be funny, but my sense of humour failed me. Not only was it distasteful, but the clubbingly heavy-handed point being made – she is a “fallen” woman being redeemed of her sexual misconduct by the literal application of the Bible – made me groan.

And….the plot is slight – the siege becomes a game of survival, but there is never any doubt that it will eventually be relieved. Several characters are set up with potentially interesting story lines, which are not followed up. A lengthy debate about the causes of cholera is obviously well-researched, but utterly pointless given we now know who was right and who was wrong. But despite all these reservations, I didn’t hate this novel. It was well constructed and skips along with just enough pace to sustain the otherwise static narrative.

I know I am in a small minority in this one – novel’s don’t win the Booker without any merit, let alone be shortlisted for the Booker of Bookers.  So the question is, what am I missing?

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, 2015

I turned to Paul Beatty’s ‘The Sellout’ as some light relief after the torture that was ‘The Golden Bowl’. You can tell how bad things have got when a Booker Prize winner constitutes light relief. But it was. ‘The Sellout’ works best as an extended stand up routine – at times angry, often lyrical, usually very funny, challenging, and fast paced enough to ensure that the jokes that don’t work are quickly left behind and you are onto to the next. The Sellout

The narrator, “Me”, opens the narrative in the United States Supreme Court, where a case against him is being heard. The majority of the novel explains how the case occurred (i.e. in flashback). The narrator comes from and lives in the ‘agrarian ghetto’ of Dickens, a suburb or ghetto of Los Angeles.  He is raised by his sociologist father, who uses him as the subject of some bizarre social and racial experiments, which are hard to distinguish from child abuse (“I wasn’t fed; I was presented with lukewarm appetitive stimuli. I wasn’t punished, but broken of my unconditioned reflexes. I wasn’t loved, but brought up in an atmosphere of calculated intimacy and intense levels of commitment“). After his father is casually gunned down by the police and he inherits the family small holding, and his father’s taste for outrageous racial experiments.

The central conceit of the novel is launched when the narrator re-introduces slavery and segregation to Dickens. The segregation of bus passengers along racial lines is widely welcomed by the passengers, who are almost exclusively black in any event. Emboldened by the unlikely success of this initial experiment the narrator segregates the local all-black school, by renting a vacant lot opposite and advertising a soon-to-be-opened all-white college. Attendance and grades at the existing school quickly begin to improve. Further inventive ways of segregating an all-black community continue until the law intervenes.

This rather bald summary may make it look as if Beatty’s satire is unsubtle, if not reactionary. Is he suggesting that the position of some black people in America have not improved since the end of slavery and the struggles of the civil rights movement? The narrator is very clear that is not the point being made, however much it may appear to be the case. The Republican argument that more black children grew up with two parents during the days of slavery than they do today is comprehensively destroyed. But equally the advances in civil rights and representation since those days, such as the election of a black President, are not something that the angry voice of the novel takes for granted, or considers enough.

I’m so fucking tired of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books? That’s why black literature sucks!”

The election of the most reactionary President since I have no idea has underlined the novel’s argument that we are not yet living in a post-racial world.

While being a complex and nuanced discussion of race in America today, the novel is not for the lily-livered. The language is full-on, as above, and the n-word is used throughout the text. Some of the jokes miss their mark, such as

“Foy was no Tree of Knowledge, at most he was a Bush of Opinion”

or are predictable
“If New York is the City That Never Sleeps, then Los Angeles is the City That’s Always Passed Out on the Couch.
But these are exceptions, and virtually every page has one or more great lines, such as this description of a character “listing hard to the right like a drunken seaman with an inner ear infection” or this joke about the meaning of the word bi-monthly: “The meetings consisted mostly of the members who showed up every other week arguing with the ones who came every other month about what exactly “bimonthly” means.”
I enjoyed ‘The Sellout’. I can’t say whether it was a worthy winner of the Booker, because I haven’t read all the other short-listed novels, and I wasn’t on the jury anyway, but this is a book that will make you think, and I can’t praise it more highly than that.

“A cartload of apes and ivory” – Rebecca West on ‘The Golden Bowl’

‘The Golden Bowl’ certainly divides opinion. Reading some online reviews I came across a wonderful demolition of the novel by the awesome Rebecca West. I make no apologies for quoting at length from her analysis – West never pulls her punches and has a magnificent turn of phrase.rebecca west

She opens by calling the novel “an ugly and incompletely invented story about some people who are sexually mad.” (“Completely invented” may harm her argument, as inventiveness is usually seen as a strength in a novelist, but this is passionate rhetoric, not measured argument) This gets straight to the point – sex drives the behaviour of the novel’s central characters, (however obliquely James may disguise his sexual references), and leads them to behave out of character. West knew all about how this could happen to even the most aristocratic people.

Her plot summary savages the novel’s central characters;

“Adam Verver, an American millionaire, buys an Italian prince for his daughter Maggie, and in her turn she arranges a marriage between her father and Charlotte, her school friend, because she thinks he may be lonely without her.

This is fair comment – at its heart, the marriage between Amerigo and Maggie is based upon Maggie’s ability, through her father, to pay off the Prince’s many debts. James is clear (or as clear as anything is in this novel) that the marriage is a contractual and commercial agreement.

West’s critique of James’s writing style is equally robust. She writes of his

“sentences which sprawl over the pages of ‘The Golden Bowl’ with such an effect of rank vegetable growth that one feels that if one took cuttings of them one could raise a library in the garden.”

But this is not simply a question of name-calling – West has a serious critique to present. Her point is that the plot of the novel, and the behaviour of the primary characters, is utterly unrealistic. The characters

are presented … as vibrating exquisitely to every fine chord of life, as thinking about each other with the anxious subtlety of lovers, as so steeped in a sense of one another that they invent a sea of poetic phrases, beautiful images, discerning metaphors that break on the reader’s mind like the unceasing surf.

But

when one tries to discover from the recorded speeches of these people whether there was no palliation of their ugly circumstances one finds that the dialogue, usually so compact a raft for the conveyance of the meaning of Mr James’ novels, has been smashed up on this sea of phrases and drifts in, a plank at a time, on the copious flood….

To cap it all these people are not even human, for their thoughts concerning their relationships are so impassioned and so elaborate that they can never have had either energy or time for the consideration of anything else in the world. A race of creatures so inveterately specialist as Maggie Verver could never have attained man’s mastery over environment, but would still be specialising on the cocoa-nut or some such simple form of diet.”

I can’t argue with this, nor express it better – I doubt anyone could.

West goes on to claim to have identified why James’s writing style at the end of his life become so ornate and complex; the explanation she offers certainly has a ring of plausibility to it:

“in these later days, Mr James … began by dictating a short draft which, even in the case of such a cartload of apes and ivory as The Golden Bowl, might be no longer than thirty thousand words. Then he would take this draft in his hand and would dictate it all over again with what he intended to be enlightening additions, but which, since the mere act of talking set all his family on to something quite different from the art of letters, made it less and less of a novel. …

Always it was good, rambling talk, although fissured now and then with an old man’s lapses into tiresomeness, when he split hairs until there were no longer any hairs to split and his mental gesture became merely the making of agitated passes over a complete baldness…

Here and there the prose achieves a beauty of its own; but it is no longer the beauty of a living thing, but rather the “made” beauty which bases its claims to admiration chiefly on its ingenuity, like those crystal clocks with jewelled works and figures moving as the hours chimed, which were the glory of mediæval palaces.”

“A cartload of apes and ivory” has instantly become my all-time favourite phrase for a good bad novel!

 

Unreadable novels, with specific reference to ‘The Golden Bowl’ by Henry James, 1904

What makes a novel unreadable? We all have our own breaking points – I may have just have found mine. This post explores the features of ‘The Golden Bowl’ that are making it, for me, almost unreadable.

  1. Sentence structure

He found it convenient, oddly, even for his relation with himself—though not unmindful that there might still, as time went on, be others, including a more intimate degree of that one, that would seek, possibly with violence, the larger or the finer issue—which was it?—of the vernacular.James

Here’s another example from the same novel:

‘The things, or many of them, that had made Mr. Verver what he was seemed practically to bring a charge of waste against the other things that, with the other people known to the young man, had failed of such a result.”

I am sure it is possible to parse these sentences, particularly with the benefit of the surrounding context, but this level of complexity made reading chapter after chapter of such prose exhausting.

2. Paragraphs

What makes some novels harder to read than others is often a matter of personal taste. For me, paragraphs are one such feature. Paragraphs are like decent broadband or clean tap water – something we usually take for granted, but boy we don’t half miss them when they aren’t there. ‘The Golden Bowl’ has some paragraphs, but far fewer than it needs. Reading page after page of text uninterrupted by a paragraph break, indeed uninterrupted by a change of thought or pause for breath, can be tiring and tiresome.

3. Subordinate clauses and qualifiers

Another question of personal taste involves the use of subordinate clauses and qualifiers. There’s nothing wrong with these in the right place, but James seems unable to write a single sentence without, as it were, a subordinate clause. In most cases they serve little purpose, as in the previous sentence. Take it out and the meaning is unchanged. Was this just a habit, a feature of his literary style that he found it hard to shake off, or was something more complex going on? I am usually keen to give authors the benefit of the doubt and assume that they will have noticed when they are doing something that might annoy the reader, and that they have good reason to do so. I assumed on that basis that James was using this style to tell us something about the equivocating, ambivalent character of Prince Amerigo:

“His own estimate, he saw ways, at one time or another of dealing with; but theirs, sooner or later, say what they might, would put him to the practical proof.”

Granted, each of the subordinate clauses here change the sense of the sentence subtly, qualifying the meaning in various ways. But wouldn’t the sense be just as clear written as:

“He saw ways of dealing with his own estimate, but theirs would put him to the practical proof.”

Here’s another example:

“But his actual situation under the head in question positively so little mattered to them that, having by that time lived deep into the sense of his advantage, he had kept no impression of the girl’s rejoinder”

You will either find sentences like this (from Chapter 2)  elegant and sophisticated, or clumsy and obscure:

“The spectator of whom they would thus well have been worthy might have read meanings of his own into the intensity of their communion—or indeed, even without meanings, have found his account, aesthetically, in some gratified play of our modern sense of type, so scantly to be distinguished from our modern sense of beauty.”

Undoubtedly writing like this has an impact – in my case the impact was to make me pause and reread the sentence to try to work out what was being said. But this is not a question of characterisation: James adopts this style throughout the novel – it is the only narrative voice.

These aspects of James’s prose have thus far made ‘The Golden Bowl’ one of the hardest novels I have tried to read since starting this blog.

That’s the case for the prosecution. The defence is that modernist novels aren’t supposed to be easy reads. In describing a situation or a statement of fact in a roundabout way, so that it takes time for the reader to grasp the meaning of what is being said, and in exploring the unspoken and half-conscious thought processes behind speech, James was inventing the distinguishing characteristics of modernism. Certainly there is much in this novel that ticks these boxes, and it is these more positive features of ‘The Golden Bowl’ that I will return to in my next post.

Finally, for the avoidance of any doubt, I am not giving up on this novel. I may not read it with the care and attention James seems to expect, but that is not the same as not reading it altogether.

1919, by John Dos Passos, 1932

‘1919’ is the second book in Dos Passos’s ‘USA’ trilogy. Which immediately begs the question, why read only the middle book in a trilogy? You wouldn’t read only ‘The Two Towers’, would you? I think there are several reasons why I am going to resist the temptation to read the rest of ‘USA’. Firstly, ‘1919’ (and only ‘1919’) was recommended by the Guardian’s list of 100 best novels written in English; second, having now read this novel, to go back to the first volume seems a bit pointless; third1919, I just don’t have the appetite for another 800 pages of this trilogy. The novels are intended to stand alone and I am going to take the author at his word on this (even though many online reviews argue that reading the whole trilogy is the only way to properly appreciate its constituent parts).

At one time Dos Passos was ranked with the greats of American post-war literature – Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald. While their novels have stood the test of time, I don’t think the same can be said for Dos Passos. ‘1919’ has only two reviews on Amazon’s UK site, compared to over 2,000 for Gatsby, and 1,500 for The Grapes of Wrath (Faulkner, by comparison, is little reviewed – go figure). ‘1919’ uses many innovative techniques, and these are some of the most successful aspects of the novel. Chapters are introduced with short scraps of text from newspaper and magazine headlines, followed by stream of consciousness, camera-reel impressions of the events of the following chapter. Interspersed elsewhere are short pen pictures of a series of American political and military figures who played a part in the First World War, and the industrial struggles in the United States at about the same time. (The Los Angeles Review of Books described these sections of the novels as “disruptive bumps in the reader’s way (which) have no bearing on the story, but add Americana-flavored flamboyance to the proceedings”. (It’s worth reading the whole of this review which is a pretty magisterial take down of the trilogy, describing it as “The Great American Novel That Wasn’t”!)

The body of the novel is a more traditional narrative telling the stories of five principal characters. Although these characters are Americans, the war takes them all to Europe, when the bulk of the novel’s events occur. Despite America’s extensive involvement in the war, none of the characters are involved directly in the conflict, serving as merchant seamen, ambulance drivers, or working with the Red Cross. There is a relentlessness about these stories – things happen, then something else happens, then yet more events; with troubled love affairs acting as the inevitable punctuation to another round of meetings, dinners, drinks, journeys back and forth between Rome and Paris, and so on. Because I didn’t care about these characters – possibly because I had not read about them in the first volume – I found these parts of the novel tiresome.

As an invocation of what it was like to be an American in Europe in 1917-1919 – privileged, largely immune from the conflict, endlessly bumping into one another – I am sure this is a faithful portrait. But apart from the tediousness of the primary narrative, there were other aspects of the novel which jarred. The condescending attitude towards Europeans often found in American popular culture crops up here far too often. Also prevalent is a racist (the n-word is used freely), anti-semitic, misogynist bundle of nasty prejudices which are given full rein and go completely unchallenged, despite Dos Passos’s apparent left wing ideals. As a small concession to this reactionary tide the novel closes with a historically arguable portrait of an attack on American Trade Unionists (the Centralia massacre) which is very sympathetic to the IWW (the international Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies).

As an attempt to describe how a better world could have emerged from the ashes of the First World War ‘1919’ fails completely – it is desperately pessimistic. All strikes are defeated, all socialists are isolated and the Red Scare (which swept post-War America and is in many ways still underway) looks unstoppable. From 1932 Dos Passos’s defeatism is understandable, and probably explains his subsequent steady drift to the Republican right.

‘1919’ was the third from last novel in my current reading challenge. Next up is Henry James’s ‘The Golden Bowl’, leaving’ Ulysses’ to last.

‘Glory’, by Vladimir Nabokov, 1932

This semi-autobiographical early novel was written in the early 1930’s, but only translated into English in 1971, when Nabokov’s reputation as an author was secure. It did little to enhance it.

‘Glory’ follows the childhood and early life of Nabokov’s romantic protagonist, Martin Edelweiss, who escapes from the bloodshed of Nabokov Gloryrevolutionary Russia.to Switzerland and thence to England. In London he meets the Zilanov family, expatriate Russians like himself, and falls for their teenage daughter, Sonia. At Cambridge University he becomes friends with Darwin, a war hero and published author, now a fellow student. Cambridge is a period of restlessness for Martin – he finds it hard to settle on a field of academic study, or an occupation thereafter. His family is sufficiently wealthy for this to not be too much of a problem. A summer working as a farmhand in France does not quieten this restiveness. Slowly a plan forms in his mind – to return undercover to Soviet Russia. A search for glory will quieten his dissatisfaction with life. The precise purpose of this perilous journey is never articulated, and remains a mystery to Darwin even when Martin reveals his intended journey.

The novel closes on a consciously downbeat almost offhand tone – Martin leaves Darwin with some postcards for his mother to explain his absence, and sets off for Russia via Latvia. Darwin, although he argues with him, finds his plans ridiculous. Martin’s eventual fate is hinted at but never revealed, and the narrator even turns away from portraying the scene when Darwin explains what has happened to Martin’s mother.

‘Glory’ is an unsatisfying novel. If you come to this book having read the pyrotechnics of ‘Pale Fire’ or ‘Lolita’ you will be disappointed. As a stylist Nabokov is extraordinary, and in this respect ‘Glory’ can stand comparison with anything he wrote. He takes sentence construction and extended metaphor to the very limits of sustainability:

“Human thought, flying on the trapezes of the star-filled universe, with mathematics stretched beneath, was like an acrobat working with a net but suddenly noticing that in reality there is no net.”

Any further and this would read like parody. As it is the slight clumsiness at the end – “with a net but suddenly noticing that in reality there is no net” is the character’s, not the author’s awkwardness, and captures perfectly the gap between Martin’s perception of himself, as someone significant, and the reader’s understanding that he is something of a fantasist.

In his introduction to the English edition, written decades after the novel itself, Nabokov typically misleads and challenges the reader. He offers an interpretation of the novel in which:

 “(the fun of Glory) is to be sought in the echoing and linking of minor events in back-and-forth switches, which produce an illusion of impetus”.

This invites us to read the novel looking for intricacies of construction which are undoubtedly present, but which nevertheless fail to add much to the novel. Just because an author introduces a motif at the opening of a novel – here for example a path leading through a wood – and returns to it in a subsequent scene at the close, that in itself does little to enhance our appreciation, particularly if we have already had the author point out the device. There are undoubted traces in ‘Glory’ of the elusive genius that was to emerge in ‘Pale Fire’ (for example) but for all its skill and technique the former suffers from comparison with the later work.

One last point – apologies for the book cover illustration. I suspect the publishers were trying to cash in on Nabokov’s reputation as the author of ‘racy’ novels.

 

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner, 1930

William Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’ tells the story of the death of Addie Bundren and her last journey to her hometown, Jefferson, Mississippi. The novel opens with the dying Addie watching her son Cash construct her coffin. The ominous sounds of his carpentry echo around the house, forming an aural backdrop to the family’s hushed conversations about their mother’s imminent death. The summer heat is oppressive, but the night after Addie dies the expected rainstorm breaks, washing out the bridges and fords that lay on the long road to Jefferson. Undetermined, infinitely stubborn, the family set out with Addie’s body on the back of the wagon. The journey is of biblical proportions, with the family having to overcome trials of fire and flood.  As I lay dying

‘As I Lay Dying’ is Faulkner’s masterpiece, a virtuoso epic that is one of the most extraordinary novels I have read in a very long time. The task of doing it justice in a review is daunting, so rather than trying to explore every aspect of its astonishing variety and sophistication I am going to focus on two related aspects of the novel – Faulkner’s use of narration techniques, and the more general issue of complexity: in other words, how does the novel tell its story?

The narrative voice in ‘As I Lay Dying’ is highly complex. Ostensibly, the novel is constructed from a sequence of “stream-of-consciousness monologues, in which the characters’ thoughts are presented in all their uncensored chaos, without the organizing presence of an objective narrator” (SparkNotes). But that’s only part of the story. Underneath the naturalistic voices of the characters is another, insistent authorial voice. The narrative switches between these voices so frequently and seamlessly that it is often easy to miss the transition.

Here’s an example. The narrator here is ten-year old Vardaman. He is distressed because of his mother’s death, and struggling to process his reactions:

“I can cry quiet now, feeling and hearing my tears. It is dark. I can hear wood, silence. I know them. But not living sounds, not even him. It is as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity into an unrelated scattering of components”.

The first sentences in this paragraph are short, child-like. Then in the sentence beginning “It is as though” another voice intrudes, and the repetition of the personal pronoun “him” is ambiguous – is this the “him” of the previous sentence, referring to one of Vardaman’s brothers that he can hear in the dark, or Vardaman himself. In other words this ultimate sentence can be read as being either by or about Vardaman. In any event, it uses a language and vocabulary that a ten-year old child would not be familiar with – it is another narrative voice.

Here’s another example from Darl, one of Vardaman’s older brothers:

“The horse moving with a light, high-kneed driving out…We go on with a motion so soporific, so dream-like, as to be uninferant of progress, as though time and not space were decreasing between us”.

Some critics have seen this change in voice, used throughout the novel, as an error. They have complained that Darl’s vocabulary, for example, is far more extensive than a Mississippi farm-hand would have known. I think it is reasonable to assume that these transitions are deliberate, which begs the question “So what’s going on?”

I can only describe the effect this technique had on me. The fragmented nature of the monologues causes the reader to concentrate to follow what is going on – no-one voice is telling us clearly what happens. Instead we slowly build up a picture of events from the thoughts and reactions of the characters. Some events are only referred to incidentally rather than directly described, and others are described from multiple, conflicting points of view. The characters’ back stories and the context of the family tragedy that unfolds has to be pieced together slowly. The presence of an ambiguous, unnamed authorial voice that intrudes into the narrative, using rich language and elaborate metaphor, gives an additional layer of complexity and opulence to the novel. The best explanation I can offer for this voice is that it is an articulation of the characters’ unconscious thoughts and feelings. This is why it invariably follows the initial, more straightforward thoughts.

The narrative voice can change within a sentence. This demands that the novel is read carefully. Another technique Faulkner uses to require this form of reading is his use of complexity.  ‘As I Lay Dying’ has an ostensibly simple structure. The storyline follows the family’s journey to Jefferson. There were however points during the narrative where I found it hard to be sure precisely what was going on. The ford-crossing scene is a good example. The family attempt to cross a flooded ford with two mules and a wagon carrying the coffin and body. The stormy waters knock them off their feet, and while the coffin is saved the mules drown, and Cash, one of Addie’s sons, breaks his leg. This scene is narrated by Darl in the present tense – “Carl and I sit in the wagon; Jewel sits the horse at the off-rear wheel”. His descriptions range from the straightforward, as in this example, to ornate, elaborate sentences we have come to expect from the elusive authorial narrator “Above the ceaseless surface they stand – trees, cane, vines – rootless, severed from the earth, spectral above a scene of immense yet circumscribed desolation”.

Darl gives the initial description of the crossing, which is followed by a past tense description from ten-year old Vardaman, and another past tense version from the Bundren’s neighbour, Vernon Tull. It is not until the narration switches back to Darl that we learn that in the accident Cash has at some point re-broken his leg, and lost all his tools, but that he has somehow rescued his mother’s coffin.

The reader is able to follow what broadly happens – the crossing is perilous, a log smashes into the wagon, and the sons fall into the water. But some of the detail is elusive, and only emerges in the later descriptions. Darl’s present tense narration puts the reader directly onto the ford with the characters, struggling with the rising waters, scared, shouting but unable to make themselves heard. This is why the description is chaotic – to capture the sense of confusion and fear that the characters are feeling.

Darl is at the heart of the novel, narrating a third of all chapters, including the one describing his mother’s last moments, even though he is not present for these scenes. In post-publication interviews Faulkner insisted on Darl’s insanity but the textual evidence for this is limited – even his act of arson can be seen as a pragmatic response to the problems the family has faced in reaching Jefferson. In his last chapter Darl’s voice has progressed from present first person narrative to third person past tense – on other words he describes his actions as if he was another person observing them.

I have never really understood the stock reaction to a wonderful book – that the reader reached the last page, only to turn back to the beginning and start again. If I had just enjoyed a steak the last thing I would want is another steak straight away (some ice-cream, maybe?). But with ‘As I Lay Dying’ this phrase began to make sense – I really did want to re-read the novel and enjoy the skill with which it is constructed all over again, and to appreciate the subtle nuances and detail with a fresh pair of eyes.

‘As I Lay Dying’ is the 96th novel in my reading challenge. I have four left: ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce, ‘The Golden Bowl’ by Henry James, ‘1919’ by John Dos Passos, and ‘Tristram Shandy’ by Laurence Sterne. I haven’t got a particular reading order in mind – any suggestions?

The Dangers of Background Reading

When I am preparing a review post for this blog I will often do some background reading on the novel in question. This can include:

  • reviews on Goodreads, Amazon (got to love the one star reviews!) and of course other blogs
  • the introduction to the text, and often the blurb as well
  • the novel and author’s Wikipedia page
  • anywhere else that these reads take me – for example if the novel has a historical  setting I will often read more about that.

But, and this is critical, I always do this reading after I have read the novel itself, never readingbefore. The reason for this rule is simple – I want to keep my reaction to the novel as authentic and genuine as possible. Reading about the novel before the novel itself will have an impact on that initial reaction. Apart from the obvious risk of spoilers, I have found that reading other people’s impressions of a novel can affect my own. That impression might be slight, but it will be in the back of my mind as I read, getting in the way of my own personal reaction. I don’t think there’s a danger of me being swamped by these perspectives – there’s no point in telling you what other people think about ‘Ulysses’  or ‘The Golden Bowl’, you can read there articles/essays/books yourself.

I appreciate I am making reading a novel sound like an experience that needs to be kept pure and unsullied by prior exposure to someone else’s ideas. I don’t think reading a critical response to a novel before the novel itself will necessarily ruin one’s appreciation of the narrative – it may even enhance it. But my preference is to try to make my own judgment first, then test them out with the rest of the world before committing my thoughts to paper.

A good example of where pre-reading can affect one’s reaction to a novel happened to me recently. I foolishly looked at John Sutherland’s otherwise valuable guide to “500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities”, ‘How to be Well Read’. Sutherland’s review of ‘As I Lay Dying’ says:

“It’s a bleak novel. One puts it down with relief, but with a certain gratitude for having read it”.

No spoilers, and a slightly ambiguous judgment, but this precis shaped my approach to the novel even though I did not want it to. I led  me to expect harrowing scenes of depression-era rural America, like ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ without the laughs, and unsurprisingly that was what I found. So to an extent my impressions were John Sutherland’s, not my own raw, unfiltered thoughts and feelings. Who knows – if I had read this novel before the summary, I might have found it light-hearted or comic. Unlikely of course, but I deprived myself of the opportunity to find out. There have been novels where my reaction went against the tide of critical opinion – I found Patrick Suskind’s ‘Perfume’ highly offensive for example, whereas everyone else seemed to love it.

If you are reading in an academic context, ignore this advice. Background reading is essential, and it doesn’t matter a great deal when you do it. Reading a plot summary might make it easier to follow the novel’s storyline, differentiate characters, look at for key plot points, skim the boring bits, and so on. But for this blog, I am going to continue to maintain by “book first” rule.

What’s your approach – do you pre-read?