Speaking Volumes: As I Lay Dying

August 16, 1996

Richard Francis on William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying .

In my sixth-form days I would go to W. H. Smith's in Crewe most Saturdays to buy a book. The selection was not large, but since I had read hardly anything it was big enough for me. I loved the grey, or red and grey, livery of the Penguin Modern Classics and the sense they gave me of tuning into a wider world.

One of them was William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. It cost three shillings and sixpence, and the cover showed Addie Bundren lying the wrong way round in her coffin, plus, for reasons that are not quite clear, the feet of all the other characters in a row. I took several things from the novel that have been of continuing value.

The first is that humour can, ironically, incorporate the horrible, the grotesque and the tragic. The second is that a novel does not need to have a central character but can take as its subject the interrelationships of a group. The elimination of the hero also frees the author to concentrate on mundane people and situations (though it has to be said that the Mississippi mundane is a bit different from the Crewe variety). This relates to the third. Faulkner demonstrates that stream of consciousness is not the prerogative of refined and educated sensibilities (which it tends to be in late James and Woolf, and to an extent in Joyce): if it is the nature of consciousness to stream it must stream for everyone. In reality this flow is not necessarily verbal, of course, but Faulkner gleefully gets round the problem by supplying any words his characters may not have to hand.

I took something else from the book, too. Discovering the richness of literature is a mixed experience for someone who wants to be a writer himself. The great dead and the successful living do not leave you much room for manoeuvre. But reading American literature takes away the threat of unequal competition. As Shaw is alleged to have said, England and America are separated by a common language. The result is that you can allow yourself to be influenced without feeling pre-empted. I moved from Faulkner to Whitman and Melville; when I read English at university I squeezed as many American texts in as the syllabus would allow; I wrote my PhD in the field of American intellectual history, and I have taught American literature ever since.

All this sounds very deliberate and strategic, but I am rationalising after the event. The extent to which the organising of one's influences is unconscious can perhaps be shown by my experience with my most recent novel, Taking Apart the Poco Poco.

I decided to write a book that was very close to home. It is set in the suburb of Stockport where I live, in a house very like my own; and it deals with a family of four that also resembles mine in that its members give the impression of leading normal existences (I hasten to add it is not like mine in other respects). The book is built on one of the sort of experiences you do not have to travel far to find, so it came as a bit of a surprise when one of my colleagues suggested the influence of As I Lay Dying.

Sure enough the features I have attributed to that book are all present in my novel too, as well as I can create them. There is even a parallel to Faulkner's experiment with the irrational. He had the dead Addie Bundren making an impossible contribution to the story; I have a dog, Raymond, as one of theconsciousnesses being explored. But I do not have to feel embarrassed by the comparison: the Atlantic Ocean keeps Faulkner's genius at a safe distance, and prevents his influence from being overwhelming.

Richard Francis is senior lecturer in American literature and creative writing at Manchester University, where he is convenor of the MA in novel writing.

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