Posted in Fiction

William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

It’s remarkable and odd and completely real how determined the Bundren family is to get Addie, their dead wife and mother, buried in Jefferson, Mississippi – a journey of at least a few days depending on what types of hell or high water they might encounter.

They come to a turn in the road with a sign pointing to New Hope. The Bundrens, in their mule-driven wagon and coffin in tow; however, role right on by – literally and probably metaphorically. They will “endure” all the way to Jefferson.

The Bundrens tend to not see (or smell) themselves the way others see (or smell) them. In spite of each member of the family having their own wishes and desires and interests and in spite of various secrets and dysfunctions, they all have the same determination in regards to getting Addie buried. There’s not a lot of love – or at least what would traditionally be considered love – between them. This determination is probably the closest they will come. Cash has his tools, Jewel has his horse, Dewey Dell – the daughter – has a heart-breaking secret, Vardaman has his fish. I’m not sure what Darl has but he eventually ends up in “Jackson” which is where Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury ends up.

And Anse, the father, has his additional motives for the journey, that leads to the novel’s shockingly funny ending.

As I’m finding out in reading Faulkner, he uses numerous points of view. Each of the family members take turns telling the story including Addie. It’s also interesting that in the middle of one character’s narration, another character will interrupt via italics. A film version was made by James Franco in 2013 that utilizes (and also clarifies) this technique very well.

And then there’s the actual writing itself – the way words are put together:

The breeze was setting up from the barn, so we put her under the apple tree, where the moonlight can dapple the apple tree upon the long slumbering flanks within which now and then she talks in little trickling bursts of secret and murmurous bubbling. I took Vardaman to listen. When we came up the cat leaped down from it and flicked away with silver claw and silver eye into the shadow.

This novel is ranking up there as a favorite and Faulkner continues to intrigue me. But I feel like there’s so much more to learn.

Posted in Fiction

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury

William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury is a mystery of sorts, an unveiling, a slow surprise culminating in a heart-breaking, breath-taking scene. Dilsey, the Compson family’s African American servant woman takes the mentally disabled Benjy Compson’s head in her lap to comfort his crying:

“We’s down to worse’n dis, ef folks jes knowed,” she said. “You’s de Lawd’s chile, anyway. En I be His’n too, fo long…

Benjy doesn’t understand or remember the unraveling of his family but the sorrow, longing and loss are his to feel and his to express in the sound (and the fury, I suppose) of his crying.

I don’t think I’ve come across a scene that could represent more the Biblical phrase “the least of these”. In his final section, Faulkner delivers short vignettes that tell the continual disappearance of the Compson family but he finally describes Dilsey and her family with simply “They endured.”

Hope? Maybe a glimmer.

The Sound and the Fury is not an easy book to read. It’s been on my shelf for over three decades and I’ve only now had the patience to get through it. Even now, I had to consciously suspend my desire for certainty in order to keep going. But I did and it was worth it. Once finished, perhaps the reader has “endured”, too.

Posted in Fiction

William Faulkner’s Light In August

Light in August

Hope is a funny thing in literature. It can come in the form of a Pollyanna-type looking through rose-colored glasses singing “keep on the sunny side of life”. Or it can come in the form of a small glimmer in an otherwise dark story as in William Faulkner’s Light In August. Hope is barely there – but it’s still hope:

“I don’t think that the old lady had any hope of saving him when she came, any actual hope. I believe that all she wanted was that he die ‘decent,’ as she put it. Decently hung by a Force, a principle; not burned or hacked or dragged dead by a Thing.”

“She just didn’t hope. Didn’t know how to begin to hope. I imagine that after thirty years the machinery for hoping requires more than twenty four hours to get started, to get into motion again.”

“I don’t think that the hoping machine had got started then, either. I don’t think that it ever did start until that baby was born out there this morning, born right in her face…”

One of the images of hope that has stayed with me is that of Lena Groves, pregnant, unwed, walking for weeks on end from Alabama to Jefferson, Mississippi in the hope of finding the father of her baby who had left “to find work” and not returned to her. During her travels, she tends to draw people to her even if the societal norms of the time might say otherwise. They want to help her as she tells her story but they, and the reader, have an understanding that she’s probably not going to find the man she’s looking for. But she persistently puts one foot in front of the other all the way to Jefferson.

The darkness that encompasses this novel revolves around Joe Christmas, born of mixed race and cast off as an orphan never fitting in with anyone. He tends to repel the people he meets. Faulkner brilliantly manipulates time to let the reader know the crime Christmas commits before it occurs in the narrative which makes the scene of Christmas “mounting the stairs” over and over again (same scene, several tellings) all that more terrifying. Faulkner also lets the reader know Joe Christmas’s horrible childhood and while this allows the reader to see the result and the horror of the times in which Christmas had to grow up and its influence on him, Faulkner doesn’t seem to allow for much sympathy for Christmas, himself.

If Faulkner does present any sympathy toward Christmas, it’s through his grandmother Mrs Hines who is referred to in the quotations above. When she discovers Joe is her grandson, the reader feels her sympathy and her love for Joe.  In a form of redemption, Mrs. Hines gets to be at the birth of Lena’s baby. The birth of Lena’s baby promotes that small amount of hope, that ability to see a new life in the midst of such darkness.

When I read this book in my senior high school English class (which was thirty-six years ago), I remember discussing the title. According to my teacher, the term “light” was a southern farming term meaning “pregnant”. And while pregnancy has a significant place in the plot, this passage stood out toward the end:

In the lambent suspension of August into which night is about to fully come, it seems to engender and surround itself with a faint glow like a halo. The halo is full of faces.

At least based on this one passage, light in terms of the opposite of darkness doesn’t seem that far-fetched as a meaning behind the title. It’s also not uncommon for the theme of hope to be represented by light especially in contrast with darkness. I realize, though, titles can have more than one meaning. It’s interesting that Lena is also described as traveling light in the sense of traveling pregnant and traveling on foot with very little baggage. Light, as in the opposite of heavy or as in pregnancy and new life, might also represent hope as well.

I haven’t even gotten to Faulkner’s use of point of view or the characters of Byron Bunch and the Reverend Gail Hightower. I may need a separate post about them.

In some ways it’s intimidating to talk about Faulkner. I know very little about him and his work but I know that this was definitely the right time for me to re-read this story.  Any insight out there would be greatly enjoyed and greatly appreciated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Fiction

Visions of Gerard by Jack Kerouac

Visions of Gerard

In the ocean  there is a Spring, deep and verdurous we cant estimate, so I sing the surface one, the Spring that makes us feel so sad and fair, and morning air brings nostalgic cigarette smoke from holy hopey smokers – When hats are whipped and finally succumb, coats flap and run their stories out, and vests disappear, and shirtsleeves are hoisted of a sudden afternoon April 26 and the ballgame is on – The time when all the earth is black with sap – No end to what you could say about Spring, and in that locked-in New England Spring is a big event, long coming, short staying, it flows by as fast as a flooded river…

When I first read Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road (one of a few novels I’ve read three times), I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to read everything he wrote. That still hasn’t happened but I found his slim novel Visions of Gerard on my shelf not too long ago in a place where I could have easily forgotten about it. I read it again and of course am glad I did.

Departing from his other writings, Visions of Gerard tells the story of a very young boy looking up to his slightly older brother Gerard. The narrator’s remembrances of Gerard come in cloudy memories that can be perfectly described with Kerouac’s jingle-jangle prose. The younger brother sees Gerard as part saint and part sage with a combination of his Catholic upbringing and what appears to be a dabbling in Zen Buddhism as he became an adult.

And flowing underneath this philosophy, like the river in the quotation above, is a love for Gerard that the narrator still feels years later.

For those who don’t find Kerouac’s jazzed-up drug-induced adventures appealing, I would recommend trying this novel to get a feel for his writing and style.

 

Posted in Fiction

Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt

“This is a land lying in destruction, physical and spiritual. If the twisted railroads and the burned cities and the fields covered with the bones of dead men – if that were all, we could soon rise out of the destruction. But the hate that burns in old scars, and the thirst for revenge that has distorted men until they should be in straitjackets rather than in high office – these are the things that may make peace a sorry thing…”

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that was marketed toward children but I’ve always thought that a good story is a good story and Irene Hunt’s 1964 novel Across Five Aprils fits that bill. It reminds me some of Esther Forbe’s novel Johnny Tremain if only because it’s a well told story about a young boy caught up in American history.

Jethro Creighton is nine years old in April of 1861 living in southern Illinois. He’s the youngest child of a large family. He has older brothers and relatives leaving to fight with the Union Army. He also has an older brother, one to which he is especially close, that leaves to fight with the Rebel Army.

Politics, a president who is tremendously loved and tremendously hated, a media spinning events in drastically different ways, military generals nobody can quite understand, and lots and lots of opinions by just about everyone: this is the world Jethro lives in, the world Jethro works in and plays in.

We only hear of battles through letters written to Jethro or his other family members. This gives an interesting perspective because in many ways, Jethro’s life is the same as it has always been – helping on the farm, going to school, and making the occasional trip to Newton or Olney, the nearest towns. But the war makes permanent and drastic changes.

A minor but important character is Ross Milton, the editor of the small town Newton newspaper. Hunt makes him out to be the noble journalist seeking out the truth and trying to help Jethro understand it in the midst of so much fact-spinning and opinion-spouting. At the end of the novel, five Aprils later as the title implies, Milton gives Jethro his take on what the nation will now be like in the conversation I quoted above. He doesn’t paint Jethro a very rosy picture – but perhaps the most honest one he can find.

 

 

Posted in Fiction

The Red Badge of Courage

He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks, an existence of soft and eternal peace

Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.

My English teacher during my senior year in high school chastised my class for never having read Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage calling us a “literary desert”.

So I immediately went out and read it.

No, just kidding. It’s funny the things we remember from high school which for me was several decades ago. Call me rebellious but I have just now read it.

Was it worth the wait? Maybe.

What I found surprising and quite interesting was how much internal thought the reader gets from the protagonist Henry Fleming a Union soldier in the American Civil War. And this thought goes back and forth between cowardice and bravery, between pride and humility. If I had to pick a theme for the novel it might be shame. Fleming deserts his company during battle but makes his way back. His fear of being found out presents itself in many forms not least of which is when he finally proves himself in another battle.

Based on the ending of the novel which I quoted above, the reader gets the feeling that Fleming conquers both his fear and his shame.

What are your thoughts? Did he conquer his shame? Does he deserve the peace that he seems to eventually find? Or have you just not read it yet like me for so many years?

 

 

Posted in Fiction

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

It only took me three days to read Leif Enger’s third novel Virgil Wander. I read his other two which are also pictured above while I was taking a break from blogging. I’ll try to write something about them soon. All of them are great but Virgil takes the prize for favorite.

When the title character accidentally drives into Lake Superior and is then rescued, he gets what might be called a new lease on life. In fact, he refers to himself before the accident as “the previous tenant”.  It’s not so much a drastic change as a subtle one, but its a change nonetheless. The “previous” Virgil probably wouldn’t have invited a kite-flying Norwegian stranger to share his apartment – but the new one does.

Virgil runs the local movie house in Greenstone, Minnesota on the banks of Lake Superior where the movies he shows are still on reels of film as opposed to digital. He lets on that he is a failed theology student who “ran out of God”. His change after his baptism of sorts is more one of perspective. All the bad things about his situation are still there. He just sees them in a different light. Nor does he shy away from them anymore.

Somewhat of a loner, Virgil still lives within his community but now he is more willing to get involved with people with the help of his new kite-flying friend. Toward the end, he has the thought that “your tribe is always bigger than you think.”

This novel reminds me in some ways of Wendell Berry’s stories of Port William, Kentucky, especially Jayber Crow, I’m curious if Enger intends to write more about the folks in Greenstone. I’d love to hear about them.

There is also something slightly personal about the novel in that I lived in Hibbing, Minnesota for a brief time when I was growing up. Located on the Mesabi Iron Range, Hibbing isn’t far away from where Greenstone is fictionally (I think) located. It’s mentioned briefly in the novel as a place where someone’s sister is from. It also happens to be the birthplace of Robert Zimmerman who later became known as Bob Dylan. In the novel there is a running joke about how Greenstone’s mayor, Lydia, keeps a correspondence with Dylan who always turns down her request to headline at Greenstone’s annual festival “Hard Luck Days” (great name!). But then this happens at the end of the novel:

Last spring Bob Dylan overcame his wariness and played our Main Street stage. I missed it, but Lydia went with a lemon pie, and ate it with Dylan after the show. She reports he said little, but his eyes were expressive. He called the pie “better than the Nobel.”

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Fiction

Ernest Hemingway: Up in Michigan

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 16

4♦ 4♦ 4♦ 4♦ 4♦ 4♦ 4♦ 4♦

If any story deserves a TRIGGER WARNING for somebody who has been the victim of sexual assault, it would be Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Up in Michigan”. I had heard from time to time that this story could be disturbing and controversial. And I would have to agree now that I’ve read it.

I’ve been an admirer of Hemingway’s work for a long time so I admit I don’t really know what to do with this story. I can’t really recommend it and it’s difficult to defend it. If someone is studying Hemingway’s work in depth, they could use this story as the epitome (and I use that term in a negative sense) of Hemingway’s hyper-masculine male and subservient female.

Yes, I could point to some of Hemingway’s major novels in which he has some very strong female characters and not-so-strong male characters but I feel it could be interpreted as defending this story so maybe I’ll save that for another post.

I read this story when I selected the Four of Diamonds for Week 16 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

Posted in Fiction

In The Beginning by Chaim Potok

In the Beginning

“A shallow mind is a sin against God…A man who does not struggle is a fool.”

Many of Chaim Potok’s novels revolve around a relationship between a father and a son – a relationship usually in conflict.

That’s no different in his novel In the Beginning; however, in Potok’s other novels the father and son usually have more in common than different even when the son moves away from some of the traditions the father holds dear. In the case of In the Beginning, though, a very young David Lurie realizes he might be considered polar opposite to his father Max.

Max Lurie is a doer. He prides himself on his strength. He led a small band of Jewish men in fighting against the Cossacks in Poland when many of his faith refused to fight. He saved most of these men’s families and brought them to the United States to start a new life in Brooklyn continuing to work to bring more from Europe during the 1920’s.

Young David is sickly and weak by most standards. He has a huge mind, constantly asking questions and constantly reading books. He doesn’t always know how to relate to people – even those of his own faith who teach at his Jewish school. As a child, he walks alone in the park pretending and dreaming that he is his father fighting the Cossacks and saving his community in Poland.

The conflict of the father and son isn’t simply cerebral. It goes straight to the heart of who each person is. When a grown David tells his father he will be studying the Bible at a secular college with secular students and professors using secular methods and ideas, Max has difficulty accepting David’s plan. At the same time, Max knows that he can’t stop David and even if he could, it wouldn’t be right. This is where Max becomes more similar to Danny Saunders’ father in The Chosen or Asher Lev’s father in My Name is Asher LevMax shows a willingness and knows the necessity in maintaining a relationship with his son – as different as they might be.

As with all of Potok’s novels, In the Beginning proceeds with a slow tender pace in revealing the protagonist’s coming of age as they struggle to find their own way.  And finding their own way never seems to require a complete abandonment of their faith.

Posted in Fiction

The “hidden lives” of Middlemarch

It’s taken me quite a while to get through George Eliot’s Middlemarch. But I don’t think I’ve ever struggled through a novel only to be so taken by the ending – especially the very last words:

…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.

The idea that people must do great things to change the world is put to rest by the stories Eliot tells in her novel. The residents of Middlemarch, of which there are many, live their lives and dream their dreams. Some hold on to the status quo with dear life while others bend the rules and go against the grain of tradition. With Eliot’s final words, she brilliantly shows us that the small decisions and the little acts of those in which we are unaware help shape and mold the world into a different place – one that is better for all of us.

middlemarch

Each character in Eliot’s novel becomes the important one – the protagonist – during the sections of the narrative in which they are involved. How intimate Eliot can make these characters is remarkable. Perhaps it’s easiest to consider Dorothea Brooke the true heroine. She’s the one that goes against the wishes of her husband and the general traditions of her family. She’s the one that grows from a timid girl to a strong woman willing to make needed sacrifices not just for her own happiness but for the happiness of others, too.

Eliot also can paint conversations between individuals as well as anyone. As readers, we get both the outwardly spoken thoughts and and the hidden unspoken ones all at the same time. The several conversations between Dorothea and Will Ladislaw leading up to their final decision are beautifully written and puts the reader in a wonderful suspense waiting to see what might happen.

While this probably isn’t my favorite of Eliot’s novels (of the ones that I’ve read anyway), I’m glad I read it. If I was going to recommend an Eliot novel with which someone might start, it would be Silas MarnerIt has all of Eliot’s wonderful writing – but it’s not as long. And I still intend to read Daniel Deronda, another Eliot novel on my shelf that is on the lengthier side. It just might be a little while before I decide to tackle it.