**Note: The discussion/comment section of Sarah’s terrific post on “A Rose for Emily” will stay open! “A Rose for Emily” is available for download here; if you haven’t read it yet, or have and haven’t yet joined our conversation, know that we’ll remain eager to discuss it throughout the summer and beyond!**
The editors are so kind that they are no doubt right in thinking that nothing I have to say about the affairs of the universe would be interesting. But until they give me opportunity to write about matters that are not-me, the world must go on uninstructed and unreformed, and I can only do my best with the one small subject upon which I am allowed to discourse. (Helen Keller, The World I Live In, preface.)
As I begin As I Lay Dying, I notice the tense. Of course, everyone is tense because Addie Bundren is nearing her last breaths, and many of these characters are probably tense all the time, anyway. More so, though, I notice the present tense, in which so many of the voices are speaking to us. (To us? Is that preposition ‘to’ even relevant for the “speaking” they are doing?) I am only just beginning this absorbing story, but I already feel swept up by the tide of what’s happening. And I do feel it is happening. Cora, who doesn’t strike me as particularly insightful, does slip into an extended description in the past tense when describing “the sweetest thing I ever saw” (351*). Yet I wonder if she isn’t, in the present, romanticizing a just-past moment and already idealizing it from “that was sweet” to “that was the sweetest thing I ever saw.” And of course when Dewey Dell recalls “the first time me and Lafe picked on down the row,” she is, now, recollecting. But I’ll have to continue tracking the tense in which characters speak while the story progresses.
I will say, I feel swept up by it, and I feel that with each page we are moving forward, and time keeps on doing its thing, and as the moments pass we are getting insights into (what’s happening from) the minds of one character or another. If this is true, we can’t see the same moment from the perspectives of more than one character, at least not in the present tense. (Recollection is always possible down the line.)
Take the first section on/with/from Peabody, that interesting old man who made me think to begin this post with that insightful and biting remark from Helen Keller. Notice the way Anse speaks in Peabody’s section: “Hit was jest one thing and then another. […] That ere corn me and the boys was aiming’ to git up with, and Dewey Dell a-takin’ good keer of her, and folks comin’ in, a-offerin’ to help and sich, till I jest thought…” (369). Earlier, when we hear [via] Tull, Anse sounds more like this: “No man mislikes it more than me. […] She’ll want to get started right off. […] It’s far enough to Jefferson at best. […] She’s a-going. […] Her mind is set on it” (357). I’ll say, though I am only just beginning this work, that I am already amazing by Faulkner’s ability to tell a story through such a fragmented narrative framework that nevertheless feels so immediately coherent and whole, and that sweeps one up so swiftly. Anse, for example, sounds totally different to Tull’s ears than he does to Peabody, and yet he is so clearly the same person in the same situation. How did Faulkner do that? Anyway, there’s a striking and essential insight here about identity and relationship, but I’d rather read on awhile than suppose just yet what that insight is and how it’s given voice…
Fellow readers, as we begin As I Lay Dying, how do its cadences sound to each of our ears? how do its characters and voices and themes begin to resonate in our respective minds? what translations and transformations and recreations are we each performing and becoming in the act of reading? In a while we’ll have a post in which we can discuss the work as a whole, and surely specific scenes and events and themes can be discussed at greater length and detail once we’ve all finished the novel. In the meantime, why don’t we discuss impressions, conjectures, and so on? Or–as ever–whatever else strikes your fancy and calls, in your view, for discussion. (Who’s read it before? Who’s loving it? Who’s hating it? Who’s confused? Etc., etc., etc….)
[*I am using the Modern Library edition of The Sound and the Fury & As I Lay Dying, hence the high page numbers.]