William Faulkner, ‘As I Lay Dying’: a review

Penguin edition of 'As I Lay Dying' used for this review

Penguin edition of ‘As I Lay Dying’ used for this review

Faulkner wrote  As I Lay Dying in six weeks while working nights at a power plant.  It was his seventh novel, published in 1930 when he was 33 (he died in 1962, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949).  It was recently filmed by James Franco.

Set in his usual mythical Yoknapatawpha County, based on his own Mississippi habitat, it’s a novel which Faulkner himself described immodestly but justifiably as a ‘tour de force’.  It tells the story of the Bundren family’s difficult quest to carry the body of matriarch Addie to her people’s home cemetery at Jefferson, some 30 miles north of the Bundren farm.  Neighbours think this is a crazy scheme, but ‘pa’ Anse insists he’d promised his wife that her dying wish would be fulfilled.

The coffin, made by Addie’s eldest son Cash, is carried on a wagon drawn by mules, but the journey is beset by disasters: the mules drown attempting to cross the swollen river, Cash breaks the leg he’d broken once before, and other mishaps keep occurring.

The plot has numerous twists and revelations, such as the illegitimacy of the third son, Jewel, and his biological father’s slightly hypocritical tussle with ‘Satan’ in trying to salve his conscience when he hears Addie is dying; the behaviour of the second son, Darl, who narrates many of the novel’s opening sections, becomes increasingly erratic, and after a particularly destructive act he’s callously committed to an asylum by the rest of the family.  The other major storyline involves the fact that Dewey Dell, at 17 the second youngest of the Bundren children, has fallen pregnant; in naively trying to get an abortion from a pharmacy she’s tricked by the assistant there into having sex with him.  She doesn’t get the abortion, and her selfish father takes the money her lover had given her and uses it to buy some false teeth.

Being too poor to buy shovels with which to bury his wife, Anse borrows some when he arrives at Jefferson, with the corpse of Addie by this time smelling so badly the people they pass are repelled and horrified.  After burying Addie and disappearing overnight, Anse presents to his children his new wife: the woman from whom he’d borrowed the shovels.

In summary the novel perhaps sounds unpromising.  It’s the style, structure and refracted, dreamlike narrative voices that make it so compelling.  In 59 short sections – some only a few words long (‘My mother is a fish’: Vardaman) – 15 different narrators relate their thoughts and perceptions in stream-of-consciousness interior monologues.  By narrating the same events from different perspectives, Faulkner is able to show how human minds work and intimate thoughts and emotions reveal themselves.  The quest structure invites all kinds of interpretation: is it an allegory, a sort of Southern Gothic Pilgrim’s Progress?  Why do buzzards, fish, fire and floods feature so prominently?

The rich deep-South patois of the characters takes some getting used to (‘It was nigh to midnight and it had set in to rain when he woke us.  It had been a misdoubtful night, with the storm making’, begins one of Tull’s chapters).  So does the looping, oblique narrative: often the significance of a chapter only becomes apparent pages later – but this is part of the fabric of the novel, and central to its appeal.  It’s strangely humorous, despite the dark themes.  Each narrator’s voice is deeply idiosyncratic and presented as ultra-free indirect thought; for example here’s the fractured childish syntax and elliptical voice of Vardaman, the youngest Bundren boy, aged about eight:

Bananas are gone, eaten.  Gone.  When it runs on the track shines again…I said God made me.  I did not said to God to made me in the country.  If He can make the train, why can’t He make them all in the town because flour and sugar and coffee.

Vardaman is obsessed with trains (as well as fish).  Older characters’ voices seem to blend in with Faulkner’s own erudite style, possibly revealing the influence of James Joyce and other modernists; here’s Darl:

How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant; echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls.  Cash broke his leg and now the sawdust is running out.  He is bleeding to death is Cash.

Read As I Lay Dying for an extraordinary experience.

William Faulkner (1897-1962)

William Faulkner (1897-1962)

(This article was first published as ‘Book Review: “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner on Blogcritics, Sat. July 27, 2013)

Furtive ferrets

The ferret – Mustela putorius furo – is a quadruped, weasel-like mammal belonging to the family Mustelidae.

A ferret

A ferret

Derived from the Latin ‘fur’, meaning ‘thief’ – hence the cognates ‘furtive’, from ‘furta’, ‘theft’, as in Patrick Geary’s superb study of the trade in stolen holy relics, Furta Sacra – the name raises some questions: presumably it’s the animal’s ferrety manner of flushing out rabbits from their burrows and killing them.  And of course there’s the metaphorical expression ‘to ferret [something] out’, which has connotations of furtive, crafty, insidious and determined behaviour, characteristic of the animal.

According to Wikipedia, ‘When excited, they may perform a routine commonly referred to as the weasel war dance, characterized by a frenzied series of sideways hops and bumping into things. Despite its zeal, this is not aggressive but is a joyful invitation to play. It is often accompanied by a soft clucking noise, commonly referred to as dooking’.



On Aeschylus and tortoises

Bust of Aeschylus

Bust of Aeschylus

Many years ago I found myself teaching English in a secondary school in Bedfordshire.   I was required to teach Classical Myths (not sure why), and the story of the unfortunate death of Aeschylus (c. 525 BC – c. 456 BC) came up.  It always resonated with me that the father of Greek tragedy (most famous for his trilogy of plays about the family of Agamemnon, king of Argos, The Oresteia) was killed by a tortoise, dropped on him from a great height by a bird of prey that had mistaken his bald pate for a rock on which it intended to smash open the tortoise shell; recently I came across the story again on a great site called Interesting Literature.  I was unable for technological reasons to post a comment there, so here it is, slightly expanded.

On a website called QI Forum someone with the name ‘Flash’ posted a link to this, from Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book X, Chapter 3: ‘The Different Kinds of Eagles’; in this early encyclopaedia published c. 79 AD Pliny cites six different kinds of eagle, and has this to say about the third kind, which he calls ‘morphnos’ (which signifies ‘black’ in Greek):

The third is the morphnos, which Homer also calls the “perenos,” while others, again, call it the “plangus” and the “anataria;” it is the second in size and strength, and dwells in the vicinity of lakes… This eagle has the instinct to break the shell of the tortoise by letting it fall from aloft, a circumstance which caused the death of the poet Æschylus. An oracle, it is said, had predicted his death on that day by the fall of a house, upon which he took the precaution of trusting himself only under the canopy of the heavens.

Naturalis Historia, 1669 edition, title page. The title reads: "Volume I of the Natural History of Gaius Plinius Secundus."

Naturalis Historia, 1669 edition, title page. The title reads: “Volume I of the Natural History of Gaius Plinius Secundus.”

It was always my understanding that the bird in question was a lammergeyer (or lammergeier) vulture, aka bearded or lamb vulture, Gypaetus barbatus, formerly known as ‘ossifrage’ – bonebreaker – because of its learned skill of dropping animal bones from a great height to smash them on the rocks below in order to get at the marrow.  (By the way the herb saxifrage gets its name from its alleged medicinal ability to cure kidney stones; its name signifies ‘stonebreaker’.)

Lammergeier vulture

Lammergeier vulture

Its closest living relative today is the Egyptian vulture.  Pliny’s vagueness about the families of vultures and eagles is reflected in the reference in some versions of the story of the death of Aeschylus to the bird which drops the tortoise (or turtle, when repeated by Americans) as an eagle.

Lammergeyers  live high above the tree line, over 2000 metres up, and subsist almost entirely on the marrow extracted from smashed bones of dead animals that they’ve scavenged as carrion; they tend not to eat flesh,  so unless the tortoise was already dead, it seems unlikely that this bird would have dropped a live one in order to smash its carapace with a view to eating its flesh.

The Pliny story seems to have been invented to make an ironic literary point about fate (a variation on the Oedipus legend about the futility of trying to avoid one’s destiny).

The story doesn’t reveal what happened to the tortoise…



Book Review: Oliver Sacks, ‘The Mind’s Eye’

Dr Oliver Sacks

Dr Oliver Sacks

‘To what extent are we the authors, the creators, of our own experiences?  How much are these predetermined by the brains or senses we are born with, and to what extent do we shape brains through experience?’

Dr Oliver Sacks is Professor of neurology at NYU school of medicine, and author of ten previous books of case studies of his patients before The Mind’s Eye was published in 2010, the most famous being The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985) and Awakenings (1973) – which was made into an Academy Award-nominated film in 1990.

His field is the nature of the human mind and brain.  His genius is for writing about his patients’ problems in short essays that read like stories by Chekhov (another clinician).  His compassion and empathy are palpable, and we rarely feel he’s intrusive or exploitative of the people he writes about.

In The Mind’s Eye his specific topic is vision and perception.  ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite’, wrote William Blake in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”.  Here in seven case studies Sacks explores how we see, how our brains make sense of the images relayed there, and how astonishingly resilient, versatile and flexible our brains are when something goes wrong with our visual systems, either through disease or other trauma.

Of particular interest here are Sacks’ patients who were gifted artistically.  There’s the concert pianist Lillian Kallir, whose agnosia caused her to lose the ability to read musical scores, even to recognise objects or representations of them.  In a remarkably sensitive chapter Sacks shows how she developed the compensating capacity to memorise musical pieces and reinterpret them without a score; he argues that although our anatomy is vulnerable to disease and damage, we’ve evolved the resilience to tap into other areas of the brain when parts of it which govern visual perception are impaired and re-learn or activate other ways of coping with deficits.

That’s what makes these studies so exhilarating; we feel desperately sorry for the sufferers Sacks describes, like the novelist Howard Engel, who suffered a stroke and lost the ability to read (strangely he could still write), but uplifted by their courage and resilience.  Engel learned new ways of producing texts.  His problems never went away, he said, ‘but I became cleverer at solving them’.

What gives this book a more personal, deeply poignant edge is the sections in which Sacks relates his own visual problems.  He suffers from acute face blindness: he fails to recognise people he knows well.  Sacks’ self-deprecating wit is often evident: he describes a scene when he turned to his reflection in a restaurant window to groom his beard, only to find that the distinguished face he took for his own was that of a fellow diner, dismayed to see Sacks staring fixedly at him and smoothing his beard.

When Sacks is diagnosed with cancer in his right eye he loses stereoptic vision, which leads him into a fascinating exploration of how we make sense in our cerebral cortexes of the images they receive, trustworthy or not.   Sacks’ humanity and empathy for the sufferings of others, so evident in the rest of this book (and his other works) becomes here a raw, visceral terror.  Now he’s on the other side of the clinician’s desk he reveals his own frailties and abject fear of death, ageing and dissolution.  These sections are almost unbearable to read in the nakedness of his portrayal of the human condition: we are all ‘bare, fork’d animals’.

But the reader comes away from this book feeling exalted rather than depressed.  Sacks contemplates with honesty the spectre of mortality; his gaze doesn’t flinch, even when he feels existential panic.  It’s that moral gaze, the perception of what it is to be human, rather than a neurologist’s analysis of synaptic processes, that raises this book into the levels of literature.

For example, there’s the blind man who lost even the memory of vision, but he acquiesced with ‘joy’ to his condition.  ‘Blindness became for him “a dark, paradoxical gift”.  This was not just “compensation”, he emphasized, but a whole new order, a new mode of human being.’

Science fact is surely stranger and more hallucinatory in the visions it provides than science fiction.


[This piece originally appeared at the Blogcritics site on July 13.]

Acoustic Endeavors play bluegrass at Fincastle Winery & their album ‘On a Farm’

A slightly different version of this piece was published by Blogcritics on Mon. Jul. 8, 2013

My wife, G, and two friends called R were on a road trip from New York city to Miami Beach; en route we stayed at the charming Fincastle Winery b&b just outside Roanoke VA.

Fincastle W houseThe winery house where we stayed

The Fincastle Winery logo from their website

The Fincastle Winery logo from their website

Playing in the natural amphitheatre of the field below the parcels of chardonnay vines was the local bluegrass band Acoustic Endeavors.

ac endv band pic 2

Much of their set consisted of a selection from  their album On a Farm, which has 14 self-penned songs and two instrumentals (by Warren Amberson, guitars, mandolin, bass and lead vocals, and Kelly Green, guitar, vocals).  Their gig kicked off with the wistful but catchy “Hills of Home” (‘I’ve been living on the other side of happiness for way too long’ Warren sings, ‘right where Virginia kisses Tennessee’).  It’s a heartfelt song about the trials of being in a band, always on the road and far from home and loved ones. The long, looping lines blend perfectly with the solo instrumentals and vocal harmonies.

The haunting “Tennessee Iris” reworks similar sentiments to those in Wordsworth’s Lucy poems: a boy grows up in the hills of Roan County, ‘young and carefree’, falls for Iris, whose beauty is the same as the flower’s; she returns his love, but when he’s made his fortune and searches for her he’s told ‘In the cold winter winds she had died’.

There’s a lot of death in these songs, as well as heartache, betrayal and desertion by lovers, which kind of goes with this country genre –“‘I Could Leave Here”, “Never Go Through This Again” and [you hurt me for the]”Last Time Today” are sung by Kelly and tell of feckless, heartless men and their inconstancy and infidelities.  But the bruised, resilient hearts of the women portrayed in the songs will surely mend and lessons will be learned.

Virginian women can be cruel, too: a farmer’s cheatin’ wife has left him to “Hoe This Row Alone,” caring for the children without her, nursing his broken heart.  But love isn’t always doomed. “To You I Wed” shows that married life can be harmonious and fulfilling. Men and women can face the ‘trials of life’ strengthened by love, ‘faithful and true’.  It’s a song of optimism, sung with spirit-lifting honesty, just about avoiding mawkishness.

Not on the CD was a jaunty, witty song about Virginia’s emblematic corn snake; as Kelly cheerfully pointed out when she announced they were going to play it, nobody dies in this song, and even the corn snake is alive at the end!

But ultimately it’s not really the lyrics that make this band and their album so endearing. The mix of sorrow and pain with occasional happiness and faith is conventional country music fare. It’s the musicianship and joy with which they play and sing, with banjo, guitars, bass and mandolin in their live set and an extra fiddle in the mix on the CD.

During the interval they came and visited with us (Southern idioms are catching) as we drank the excellent Fincastle chardonnay.

Fincastle W wines

The band were delighted to hear we were all the way from England and asked if we had any requests; we were equally delighted when they announced our presence and went on to play for us  the only covers they sang all night.  They rocked through Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Senor” (can’t make a Spanish tilde on this laptop I’m using while in the US).  This made us feel, as they say in those parts, ‘right welcome’.

Acoustic Endeavors CD On a Farm from Common Folk Productions 2005.

On a Farm CD cover

On a Farm CD cover



Bears of England, by Mick Jackson. A review.


Article first published as ‘The Bears of Cold, Cruel England’ in Blogcritics.

Bears of England cover

When my grandson  was staying with us last summer, six-year-old Jack spotted Bears of England and asked me to read to him from it.  He perched on the arm of my chair, eyes glazed as he listened, transfixed: he was both entranced and appalled.

The first story suggests a vaguely medieval period, set “in the days before electric light and oil lamps’, when ‘the night imposed its own abysmal tyranny, and daylight’s surrender was measured out in strict division”.  It was a time when malevolent nocturnal demons were believed to haunt the woods.  It was in the form of bears that such spirits were thought to find their most common incarnation.

This style is Victorian-archaic.  It’s hard to imagine many children today finding such language congenial; the book has been described as a “crossover”, appealing as much to adults as to kids.

Jack was intrigued by the drawings that liberally adorn the pages, by David Roberts.   The bears are elongated and slightly anthropomorphised, with viciously long claws, lugubrious faces and sad, sometimes menacing eyes.  They endorse and intensify the macabre tone of many of the stories, adding a frisson that’s more scary than whimsical, but also occasionally humorous.

The eight stories tell of the supposedly unwritten history of bears in England: the Sin-eating bears of the era of “Early English Man”; the cruelly treated Bears in Chains, suffering savagely inhumane treatment at the hands of humans.

The Circus Bears were also humiliated and abused, trained to perform tricks for a paying audience.  One group manages to escape, and uses tightrope-walking skills to cross the cables of the unfinished Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The Sewer Bears are said to have been employed like prisoners to clean the filthy drains beneath the streets of London.  Civilian Bears were rumoured to have lived among us like humans, working for a living by carrying “sides of beef on their shoulder around Smithfield Market”, or as an assistant in “a hardware shop in Rishton, Lancashire”.  Henry Huxley was a deep-sea diving bear.

The stories have bizarre charm, and are narrated with deadpan crispness that manages to offset the tendency towards tweeness.  When at the end of the book there’s a great bear exodus, and a muster on the Somerset Levels, there’s a sense of pleasure in their deliverance, and we rejoice in the anarchy that the London bears were able to create briefly in London, when for three days, in an Ursine Spring uprising, they turned the tables on their cruel human persecutors.

These tales resemble fables; the reversal of fortunes. If there is a moral, it would appear to be the message – we are invited to feel shame for the misery imposed on bears throughout our mutual history.  But I don’t think Jack was particularly interested in that; he’s just worried about the claws reaching out to grab his ankles when he walks over a drain in the street…

jackson clifton bears