The American writer William Faulkner was a pioneer of the stream-of-consciousness writing style. His Yoknapatawpha County stories (based on his home county of Lafayette, Mississippi) are rooted in the culture and vernacular of the Deep South, unfamiliar to most readers at the time. The series begins with Faulkner’s fifth novel, the brilliant and dark As I Lay Dying. Its title taken from Homer’s The Odyssey, it is also a tale about a challenging journey that contemplates the raw reality of human existence.
A poor family
As I Lay Dying tells the story of Addie Bundren and her sons Cash, Darl, Jewel and Vardaman, her daughter, Dewey Dell, and Addie’s lazy and selfish husband, Anse. They live in a poor cotton farming community in 1920s Mississippi. Knowing that she is dying, Addie asks to be buried in her hometown, Jefferson. Told through fifteen distinct viewpoints, the story opens with Darl approaching home and admiring his brother, Cash:
“... a good carpenter, Cash is. He holds the two planks on the trestle, fitted along the edges in a quarter of the finished box. He kneels and squints along the edge of them, then he lowers them and takes up the adze. A good carpenter. Addie Bundren could not want a better box to lie in. It will give her confidence and comfort.”
“[...] è un bravo falegname, Cash. Tiene le due «assi sul treppiede a combaciare di taglio e formare un quarto della cassa finita. Si mette in ginocchio e allinea l’occhio al filo delle assi, poi le mette giù e prende l’ascia. Un bravo falegname. Addie Bundren non potrebbe desiderarne una migliore, di casse, migliore per giacervi dentro. Le darà fiducia e le sarà di conforto.”
DIFFICULT AND DANGEROUS
Faulkner describes a remote, deeply conservative South (in which he himself lived) where individual liberty takes second place to family, religion and community. After Addie’s death, the family loads her coffin onto a wagon and sets off on the forty-mile journey. Heavy rain makes their journey difficult and dangerous, as Anse describes:
“It’s a hard country on man; it’s hard [...] We drove all the rest of the day and got to Samson’s at dust-dark and then that bridge was gone, too. They hadn’t never seen the river so high and it’s not done raining yet.”
“È una terra dura, per un uomo; dura. [...] Siamo andati avanti per tutta la giornata e siamo arrivati da Samson che era quasi buio, e anche quel ponte era partito. Non avevano mai visto il fiume così alto, e ancora non aveva neanche piovuto.”
The journey reveals much about the dysfunctional Bundren family. The stories of each character are slowly revealed like the layers of an onion, including the deepest secret of Addie herself, as she approaches her end:
“My father said that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead. I knew at last what he meant and that he could not have known what he meant himself, because a man cannot know anything about cleaning up the house afterward. And so I have cleaned my house.”
“Mio padre diceva che la ragione per cui si vive è per prepararsi a restare morti. Finalmente avevo capito quello che intendeva dire, e che neppure lui poteva sapere quello che intendeva dire perché uno, dopo, che ne sa di come mettere in ordine la propria casa. E così misi in ordine la mia casa.”
Anse manipulates his family and the people who offer them help, stealing money from his own children to buy himself a set of false teeth. As the story moves to its shocking conclusion, the half-starved family reach the point of exhaustion. But, after nine long days they finally approach the town:
“From the crest of a hill, as we get into the wagon again, we can see the smoke low and flat, seemingly unmoving in the unwinded afternoon.
‘Is that it, Darl?’ Vardaman says. ‘Is that Jefferson?’ He too has lost flesh; like ours, his face has an expression strained, dreamy and gaunt.
‘Yes,’ I say.”
“Dal colmo di una salita, mentre rimontiamo sul carro, vediamo il fumo basso e piatto che sembra immobile nel pomeriggio senza vento.
«È quella, Darl?» dice Vardaman. «È quella Jefferson?». Anche lui ha perso peso; come i nostri, anche il suo viso ha un’espressione tesa, sognante e sparuta.
TOUR DE FORCE
Following the critical success of The Sound and the Fury (1929), Faulkner’s ambition, he said, was to write a “tour de force”. He succeeded with As I Lay Dying, but it took the commercial success of Sanctuary (1931) for literary acclaim to translate into commercial success. Faulkner, who remained true to his principles as a modernist writer, was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature ”for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.” He died in 1962.