Funerary matters, mutters, meters


In a letter of 19 October 1972 to William Maxwell, following the death of his stepmother, Sylvia Townsend Warner asked: ‘Did you quarrel at the funeral? I rather wish you had, for I’m sure that when you quarrel you do, you quarrel like a tarantula. Nothing can make a funeral satisfactory: the person one wants to meet at it is underground.’[1]

What a resource funerals are to the writer! Leopold Bloom at Paddy Dignam’s in Joyce’s Ulysses, Hamlet at Ophelia’s, Beowulf, the ancient Greeks. Weddings are too, of course, but the central business there is proleptic rather than retrospective. Funerals, though: a collision or at least a gathering of memories, regrets, resentments, fragments of conversation, a blurring and slurring of times, places, still and moving images, words thought or spoken, intended or achieved, compliments and curses, intimacies, betrayals.

William Faulkner spends most of As I Lay Dying’s fifty-nine chapters on the hazardous business of actually getting Addie Bundren’s body to Jefferson, where she wanted to be buried. That forced hiatus has its effects, not least olfactory ones. William the Conqueror’s funeral was so delayed, Peter Vansittart reports, that ‘his over-corpulent body suddenly exploded’.[2]

‘How convenient a good old traditional funeral is!’ Simone de Beauvoir reflects in the closing pages of The Prime of Life. ‘The dead man vanishes into the grave, and his death goes with him. You drop earth on him, you walk away, and that’s the end of it; if you like, you can return from time to time and shed tears over the spot where death is pinned down. You know where to find it.’ She was thinking of her young friend Bourla, a victim of the Nazis, and of two young women she knew who also vanished without trace into the camps, their faces ‘never erased from my memory: they symbolized millions of others besides.’[3]


As for funeral-related stories – Guy Davenport told of the funeral of Charles Olson, a poet of famously large stature. Allen Ginsberg, then, intoning kaddish but apparently unsure of some of the words, ‘stepped in his confusion on the pedal that would lower the outsized coffin into the grave. A soft whirr, the coffin tilted, lurched, and stuck before Ginsberg could leap away from the pedal.’ It transpired that the coffin was wedged ‘neither in nor out of the grave.’ Splendidly, Davenport’s footnote reads: ‘This account, I’m told, is not wholly accurate. I had it from Stan Brakhage, who had it secondhand. I leave it as an example of the kind of folklore about himself that Olson inspired and encouraged.’[4] In fact, a letter from William Corbett, published in the minutes of the Charles Olson Society in June 1998, recalled Corbett’s own attendance at the funeral and Ginsberg’s rendition of kaddish, but continued: ‘The officiating minister who strode up to conduct the burial seemed spooked by the congregation of long hairs some of whom were bearded. He hurriedly waved his silver instruments over the coffin. In doing so, he stumbled and hit the pedal that was to lower the coffin. He quickly took his foot away, and the coffin lurched, tilted sideways and stuck.’[5]

Arthur Ransome remembered the funeral of Peter Kropotkin, whom he had last seen some three years earlier. ‘Then, as now, my attention was caught by his nose, so finely cut, so proud, the very index of the old fighter’s character.’ And of the disciples, he wrote: ‘There were some who had imitated his hair, some who had grown beards like his, but not one had a nose worth looking at.’[6] Clearly, a man with an eye for a nose.

And after the funeral? The wake, the celebrations, the drinks, snacks, exchanges, jokes, stories, occasional tactful silences. Or:

            mule praises, brays,
Windshake of sailshaped ears, muffle-toed tap
Tap happily of one peg in the thick
Grave’s foot, blinds down the lids, the teeth in black,
The spittled eyes, the salt ponds in the sleeves,
Morning smack of the spade that wakes up sleep[7]

And after Harry Lime’s second funeral, in the closing sequence of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, there is that celebrated, sustained shot of Anna’s long walk past the waiting Holly Martins, favouring him with neither glance nor pause, all to the plangent soundtrack of Anton Karas’s zither.

(The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene)

At the end of William Faulkner’s ‘A Justice’, a story (containing a story told by Sam Fathers) told by Quentin Compson looking back at his young self, the children are riding back from the farm with their grandfather. Caddy and Jason have been fishing down at the creek. ‘Caddy had one fish, about the size of a chip, and she was wet to the waist.’ So there is a strong connection with what Faulkner described as the initial image of Caddy with wet and muddy drawers climbing the peach tree to look in through the window at her grandmother’s funeral, the germ of The Sound and the Fury – which began as a story, centred on Caddy, with the working title of ‘Twilight’. ‘A Justice’ too employs ‘one of the most persistent images’ in the writer’s mind, as Joseph Blotner explains: Quentin recognising his lack of sufficient knowledge to penetrate fully the mystery of what he sees and hears, comparing it to twilight. ‘I was just twelve then, and I would have to wait until I had passed on and through and beyond the suspension of twilight. Then I knew that I would know. But then Sam Fathers would be dead.’[8]

As for looking forward rather than back, try T. H. White, author of The Goshawk and The Once and Future King among many others, writing to his friend David Garnett on 19 December 1938 (the year in which The Sword in the Stone appeared), from The New Inn, Holbeach St Marks, Lincolnshire. ‘I don’t know the marsh a bit, and only have the tides in my head, but I go alone. Will you arrange the funeral when I am washed ashore? Stick some goose feathers up my arse and I will fly to my heavenly mansion. There, there. Enough.’[9]

Goose feathers, yes. He did enjoy his outdoor pursuits.


Notes

[1] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 242. See 44-45 for her account of T. F. Powys’s funeral.

[2] Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 44.

[3] Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 605, 535.

[4] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 80, 81.

[5] http://charlesolson.org/Files/Corbett.htm (accessed 18 October 2021)

[6] The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, edited with prologue and epilogue by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976), 299.

[7] ‘After the Funeral (In Memory of Ann Jones’: Dylan Thomas, The Poems, edited and introduced by Daniel Jones (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971), 136.

[8] William Faulkner, ‘A Justice’, in Collected Stories of William Faulkner (New York: Random House, 1950), 343-360; Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner: A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 566-569.

[9] David Garnett, editor, The White/ Garnett Letters (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), 37.

Light in December

Fog

(More fog than light over the river today)

‘Susan Hill. Kathleen Jamie. And you’re reading what?’
‘William Faulkner.’
‘Which one?’
‘I’m rereading Light in August.’
‘Why that one?’ the Librarian asks.
Ah.

Because it’s the next one in the Faulkner canon? Not exactly. Because one of the central characters is called Joe Christmas? No, not a factor. Because the festive season is an obvious point in the year at which to embrace a tale of violence, prejudice and racist murder? Not that. Because those things seem so consonant with our current malaise? Tempting but. . . Because it’s not Absalom! Absalom!? Almost.

Over the past year or two, I’ve reread several William Faulkner books. The early ones, Soldiers’ Pay (set in Georgia) and Mosquitoes (New Orleans) are interesting but it’s not until Flags in the Dust—a heavily edited and shortened version of which was published as Sartoris—that Faulkner unrolls his Yoknapatawpha territory: ‘Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Area, 2400 square miles. Population: Whites, 6298; Negroes, 9313. William Faulkner, sole owner and proprietor’, as he sets down the details on his map, often reprinted. Other rereading included the Collected Stories, Sanctuary – and The Sound and the Fury. Could that be as good as I remembered it? It could.

Yoknapatawpha.County

(http://www.gradesaver.com/short-stories-of-william-faulkner/study-guide/section14/, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29590820 )

Between other books and other writers, I slowly circled round towards Absalom! Absalom! again—the first long-ago reading was stunning but the second attempt, for some reason, fell at an early fence. This month, I wanted something meaty, one of the big ones, that wasn’t – just yet – Absalom! Absalom! So: Light in August.

Light in August has several plotlines that touch or clash at various points: the young Lena Grove’s search for the father of her unborn child, who has fled to Jefferson, changed his name and become the bootlegging partner of the abused, haunted and—probably—murderous Joe Christmas, who believes himself to be of mixed ancestry, though he passes for white. Lena will alter the lives of others, directly or indirectly: Byron Bunch, who is shaken out of his diminished life of risk avoidance and determined insignificance for love of her; and the (also haunted) disgraced Reverend Gail Hightower. Christmas has been pursuing an affair with Joanna Burden, whose abolitionist grandfather and half-brother were killed in an argument over African-American voting rights. And there is the aptly-named Percy Grimm, captain in the State national guard, who shoots Christmas and—while he is still alive—castrates him with a butcher’s knife. Faulkner made a point of stressing the date of the novel in which that character was created: 1932, ‘before I’d ever heard of Hitler’s Storm Troopers’.[1]

Cleanth Brooks questions the evidence for Christmas’s mixed-race origins offered by the text and concludes that there is no definitive case made; while Richard Gray comments that, ‘Faulkner has made sure that the question of Joe’s racial status can never be answered.’[2] But it’s the belief—of Christmas himself and others—that he is of mixed race which is decisive in the immediate and widespread assumption of his guilt of Miss Burden’s murder, though the novel is carefully less definite on the matter of that guilt.

But there are positive elements in the novel too, certainly in Faulkner’s view (as well as a good deal of comedy). In her 1956 interview with Faulkner for the Paris Review, Jean Stein Vanden Heuvel quoted to him Malcolm Cowley’s comment that Faulkner’s characters carried ‘a sense of submission to their fate’. Faulkner responded that Lena Grove, the young pregnant woman in search of the man who has abandoned her, ‘coped pretty well with hers. It didn’t really matter to her in her destiny whether her man was Lucas Burch or not. It was her destiny to have a husband and children and she knew it, and so she went out and attended to it without asking help from anyone. She was the captain of her soul.’ Lena was, Faulkner commented, ‘never for one moment confused, frightened, alarmed. She did not even know that she didn’t need pity.’[3]

Light-in-August

(The fire at the Burden house, visible at multiple points throughout the novel)

Rereading Light in August after a hefty number of years, I found much of it familiar, some of it unremembered, and elements I must have been faintly aware of that came into sharper focus. Lena’s simplicity, endurance and quiet determination provide a steadying ballast to the novel but it clearly required other elements, which are sometimes reminiscent of Greek tragedy: the substantial role of the chorus, in varying forms and guises, the strong current of inevitable crisis and catharsis. There is the remarkable—and frightening—speed of narrative in the chapter where Grimm pursues and kills Christmas, by that stage as inescapable, as inexorable as fate. There are echoes too in the stories of both Lena and the strongly contrasted character of Joe Christmas. On the opening page of the book, Lena is thinking: ‘although I have not been quite a month on the road I am already in Mississippi, further from home than I have ever been before. I am now further from Doane’s Mill than I have been since I was twelve years old’; while later, two-thirds of the way through the novel, Christmas is once more in Mottstown, on a street that he remembers from childhood: ‘It had been a paved street, where going should be fast. It had made a circle and he is still inside of it. Though during the last seven days he has had no paved street, yet he has travelled further than in all the thirty years before. And yet he is still inside the circle.’[4]

Faulkner may not have loved Lena as intensely as he did The Sound and the Fury’s Caddy Compson but she is nevertheless drawn with great warmth and sympathy—though, as has been pointed out, views of her are always exteriorised, she is consistently observed and discussed and evaluated through the prism of male speech and male gaze. Faulkner began the book, he said, ‘knowing no more about it than a young woman, pregnant, walking along a strange country road’,[5] and it can hardly have been irrelevant to that initial vision that, earlier in the year of the novel’s composition, his wife had given birth to a daughter that lived only nine days.[6]

william-faulkner-billie-holiday-1956

(Faulkner with Billie Holiday, 1956)
https://bibliolore.org/2017/09/25/faulkner-and-blues/

I still find, as I do with D. H. Lawrence’s novels, passages that become clotted or overburdened by Faulkner’s compound words, ‘dreamrecovering’, ‘shadowdappled’, ‘diamondsurfaced’. The novel is full of voices yet sometimes the telling lurches into language that fractures the plausibility of oral commentary. Faulkner, as David Minter remarks, ‘remained insistent, even abrupt, in mingling the colloquial and the elevated’.[7] But, as with Lawrence, such blemishes are finally, in the scale of the whole, just scraps of chaff on the granary floor.

A little later in his Paris Review interview, in a variation on Requiem for a Nun’s famous line, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’, Faulkner commented: ‘The fact that I have moved my characters around in time successfully, at least in my own estimation, proves to me my own theory that time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as was—only is. If was existed there would be no grief or sorrow.’[8]

‘Now the final copper light of afternoon fades; now the street beyond the low maples and the low signboard is prepared and empty, framed by the study window like a stage’ (Light in August 744). Light, yes. Kathleen Jamie writes: ‘The wind lifts the grasses and moves the thin branches of the leafless trees and the sun shines on them, in one movement, so light and air are as one, two aspects of the same entity.’[9]

And yes, she is writing of a day in February but – I’m reading it in December.

 
Notes

[1] Faulkner in the University (1957), 41, quoted by Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 60.

[2] Brooks, William Faulkner, 49-51; Richard Gray, The Life of William Faulkner (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 184.

[3] James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate, editors, Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980), 253.

[4] Faulkner, Light in August (1932), in Novels 1930-1935, edited by Noel Polk and Joseph Blotner, (New York: Library of America, 1985), 401, 650.

[5] Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner: A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 703.

[6] Gray, Life, 177.

[7] David Minter, William Faulkner: His Life and Work (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 50.

[8] Lion in the Garden, 255.

[9] Kathleen Jamie, ‘Light’, in Sightlines (London: Sort Of Books, 2012), 91.