Rules for Burying Your Mother

Darl Bundren, the one who they sent off to the insane asylum in Jackson, said this:

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that brought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because the wagon is was, and Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.

How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.

Darl’s brother Cash, the carpenter who crafted his mother’s coffin, said this:

I made it on the bevel.

1. There is more surface for the nails to
2. There is twice the gripping-surface to each seam.
3. The water will have to seep into it on a slant. Water moves easiest up and down or straight across.
4. In a house people are upright two thirds of the time. So the seams and joints are made up-and-down. Because the stress is up and down.
5. In a bed where people lie down all the time, the joints and seams are made sideways, because the stress is sideways.
6. Except.
7. A body is not square like a crosstie.
8. Animal magnetism.
9. The animal magnetism of a dead body makes the stress comes slanting, so the seams and joints of a coffin are made on the bevel.
10. You can see by an old grave that the earth sinks down on the bevel.
11. While in a natural hole it sinks by the center, the stress being up-and-down.
12. So I made it on the bevel.
13. It makes a neater job.

And Vardaman, the half-wit little brother of Darl and Cash, said this:

My mother is a fish.

▲ ▲

All this of course is from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I listened to it recently on a superb recording that I bought from audible.com. The production by Random House Audio included four actors (two men, two women) performing the fifteen different characters. The recording is superb. All of the performers really had a taste for Faulkner’s dialects as well as his understanding. I was blown away. This section I have quoted is just before (I believe, I took my library copy back) Addie Bundren dies and the Bundren family puts her in the box to carry her off to Jefferson. Darl, sort of a white trash savant who will be carted off to an insane asylum at the end of the novel for trying to burn up his mother’s coffin by setting fire to a barn, has been watching his brother make the coffin; Cash is the carpenter who methodically has put the coffin together; and Vardaman is the youngest brother who caught an enormous fish in the creek and with the audacity of a wise idiocy announces that his mother is that fish and not the shrunken woman about to become a corpse. I was driving down Texas Avenue on the way to work when I heard it. It was truly like listening to a wonderful poem. The language is so surprising and sure, so improvisational and true. I had to stop and make a note to myself to go get the book from the library and type it up for my journal. I just wanted to feel and see how it sounded in my own voice. And since I did that I felt I should put it on my blog.

Many times in the last ten years I have gone back and read or listened to novels that were important to me as a young man and found them wanting. Not Faulkner, not As I Lay Dying. The language is masterful. Earlier in the year I had listened to Cormac MacCarthy’s Blood Meridian, an author who is many times mentioned as the spiritual (if that is the right word) successor to Faulkner. That may or may not be true. But really, where MacCarthy seems so much about landscape and two or three characters in his dark books, Faulkner really gives the reader full-blooded characters where you get to know them all the way down to the hair on their toes. And so much comes from the character’s own mouth as he or she speaks about others. No one has done this so well in the English language since Shakespeare. And none have done it like that since.

By the way, since I am a publisher, two things to note--Faulkner said he wrote this novel in six weeks (eight weeks by some accounts) while he worked night shift stoking coal at a power plant. It was his fifth novel, and he thought of it as his “tour de force.” It arrived at the publishers with very minor changes required. I read somewhere that the first edition didn’t even sell 3,000 copies, the size of the first printing—the engine for selling books (still is, in fact, but in a much lesser degree) at the time a good reception from the Eastern establishment.

1 comment:

Halvard Johnson said...

I'm going to have to go back to some Faulkner too, Bobby. My last contact was via the movie *The Big Sleep*, hearing, I guess, some of WF's words coming out through the mouths of Bogie and his baby. WF was one of three writers credited on that flick.