This week’s post will talk about the storyline of As I Lay Dying and try to put it in the greater context of the rural South of Faulkner’s time.
Despite Faulkner’s early preoccupation with the poor of the rural South, he wasn’t of them. His great-grandfather was a Confederate colonel and politician, his grandfather a Mississippi lawyer who owned a railroad. His family’s well-off status allowed him to leave home and indulge as a soldier-of-fortune type—a Canadian pilot during the time of WWI. Later, he took classes at the University of Mississippi-Oxford and worked at the local post office there. But neither preoccupation held his interest. A voracious reader, he finally turned to writing.
As I Lay Dying was one of his earlier novels, and is a proto-model for some of the South’s literary techniques we’ll make a swipe at next week. In capsule fashion, the book is about the death of a woman, Addie Bundren, and her husband and children’s attempts to take her across Faulkner’s fictional and fabled Yoknapatawpha County to her original home at Jefferson, the county seat. It’s believed the county is modeled after Mississippi’s Lafayette County, in the state’s north center. Oh, and Lafayette’s most significant burg is the university town of Oxford.
This is red clay country – a locale of rolling hills, where nothing much will grow except pines. Much of this country – similarly to the northwest corner of Louisiana, where I grew up—had been settled by pioneering types who managed to homestead a few acres and scratch a living from it. This wasn’t plantation country, peopled through the South’s pre-Civil war slavery. These were poor whites – uneducated, often (and here I want to resist the term as a Southern cliché) inbred. The Bundren family was clearly created from such stock. It’s easy to caricature such people, and throughout the story Faulkner’s tale teeters at the edge of mockery. Father Anse, determined to fulfill his wife’s wishes to be buried in Jefferson, enlists the help of Cash, Darl, Vardaman, Jewel, and daughter Dewey Dell. Cash labored prior to Addie’s death to build an admirable coffin by hand from good wood. When her life ends, the children place her coffined remains on a wagon and rattle off toward Jefferson. Along the way, trouble meets them at every hand.
But why, you might ask, did they decide to truck her off during a time of great rain, with most bridges swept away by swollen rivers? Certainly their neighbors wondered why the family couldn’t have foregone Addie’s wishes – given these conditions – and given her a more convenient burial close by.
One clue to Addie’s wishes comes from a chapter in the voice of a lady friend of Addie’s, who implies that Addie has had an extra-marital dalliance—and that Jewel is the child of that sweat.
At any rate, persistence trumps smarts, and the Bundrens become trapped between home and Jefferson. Without bridges, they decide to brave nature and cross the Yoknapatawpha River on their own. Once again, the adventure turns against them. The river rampages, taking away the mules pulling their wagon. Only through a quirk of literary fate does Jewel save Addie’s be-coffined remains. In the watery scuffle, Cash’s leg is broken. But finally, the family makes it across the river and trudges on toward Jefferson.
On the way, they stop at a farm owned by another family, the Gillespies. That family greets the Bundrens hospitably and offers to let them spend the night there. The Bundrens accept and store Addie’s coffin stored in the barn for the night. But during the wee hours, a fire breaks out. Fortunately, Addie’s body is saved once more.
Finally the Bundrens reach Jefferson. Anse borrows shovels from a “duck-shaped woman,” and Addie is finally laid to rest.
But this isn’t to be a story-book ending. Dewey Dell is pregnant; she goes looking for a Jefferson pharmacist, presumably to buy a drug that will cause miscarriage. Instead, she’s in for more pre-marital sex, because Anse has talked her out of the ten dollars she planned to use to pay the pharmacist. And, to bring the Bundren family full circle, Anse returns from town with the “duck-shaped woman,” whom he introduces as the new Mrs. Bundren.
After some thought, I think Faulkner intended his readers to see the Bundrens as morally and mentally dim. The author doesn't intend to let the reader off that easily however; his story here is a morality play of a grander type. We’ll touch on that next week.
I know, I know – I said I was finished with the Eastern Front. But people keep turning up books that add a little more icing to this terrible cake. In this case, the miscreant was my wife. And as it turns out, she’s gifted me with a very interesting piece of that history.
The first thing I should mention – should anyone out there want to research this era: Pleshakov states in his Epilogue on this book that the era of Glasnost is apparently over. The current batch of Soviet apparatchiks have been closing down the research coffers in Russia, apparently feeling that items revealed over the past fifteen years about WWII in academic publications and the more accessible biographies of Soviet personages haven’t cast a favorable light on the Soviet Union. And Stalin’s Folly is one of them.
Pleshakov, at the time of this book’s publication, was a visiting professor at Mount Holyoke College, and one wonders whether he’ll wind up in a gulag should he return to Russia. Other Eastern Front memoirs I’ve read allude to flagrant cowardice by soldiers and airmen on the Soviet side, but Pleshakov paints even generals in this light. Of course, the higher placed military people were subject to censure, sometimes execution by Stalin, should they not perform to his exacting standards. And this effect on the military in Pleshakov’s theme in portraying the first ten days of the German-Soviet war.
Joseph Stalin or the vozhd, or boss, as he was known by his intimates, steadfastly refused to believe, in the days leading up to Germany’s attack on June 22, 1941, that Germany would dare wage war on the U.S.S.R. They haven’t the resources, he thought, to fight Britain and the U.S. in the west, then begin a second major front in the east. He refused to believe German reconnaissance flights over Soviet territory in the run-up were ominous, not even reports of a German plane landing near Moscow to gain an up-close view of the city. Even when the attacks began, Stalin refused to counter them, thinking the attacks were a mistake. Given his non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, he didn’t want to antagonize Hitler, despite attacks all along the lengthy Soviet borders that clearly spelled war. He sent the eventual hero of the Soviet-German war, Georgy Zhukov, packing when he continued to insist on the German threat. And Stalin did all he could to keep Semyon Timoshenko and Zhukov separated, fearing they would depose him.
Ironically, Pleshakov reveals here that Stalin had developed extensive plans for a preemptive attack on Germany, but believed it would be unnecessary until 1942 or 43.
Pleshakov’s scholarship here is outstanding, and his ability to mix vignettes of lowly soldiers and ordinary citizens into the military/political drama in a suspenseful way as the war builds is, in my mind, unparalleled in such historical work. This book reads like well-crafted fiction, partly because of Stalin’s near-unbelievable behavior, but largely because of Pleshakov’s apparent skills as a writer. Representing the first ten days of this war in a work such as this is an arbitrary matter, but it works to depict the sorry state of the Soviet military and the lunacy of Stalin against the supremely prepared German war juggernaut. That the Soviets eventually turned the war around – with Stalin remaining at the helm – is a testament to the Russian soul and to the military’s ability to adapt to German warfare, and to the derangement of Stalin’s leadership.
Coming Next – I enjoy throwing in a classic once in a while, so for the next two weeks – with your indulgence – I’ll post on one of the more accessible of William Faulkner’s novels, As I Lay Dying.
When one reads a novel narrated by a peripheral character whose job it is to reveal another, more luminous personality, the tendency is to compare it to The Great Gatsby and its narrator Nick Carraway. In the case of Guterson’s new book, The Other, that comparison quickly becomes an unfair one.
Neil Countryman, from a blue collar family, becomes Carraway here, and Countryman’s high school pal, John William Barry, the Gatsby variant, is from a well off, troubled family. But after this promising intro, the Gatsby comparison dies on the vine. The novel is at first a coming-of-age novel of the sixties and seventies, as the boys vie in their schools’ 880-yard races, take drugs, drink, play pranks, and date. John William becomes something of a high school and college radical, and one would think he’d be fighting girls off with a stick. But his moody mind is elsewhere.
He and Neil begin to explore the virgin forests of the Northwest, taking great risks in this raw terrain. And more and more, John William begins to withdraw from family, school, friends—all normal society. He even tries to push Neil away, but Countryman is too devoted a friend, even following John William into the deep woods to hack out a cave his moody friend plans to live in.
Obviously, the two eventually grow apart, despite Neil’s constant attention to John William’s new lifestyle. Neil marries and he and wife Jamie begin a family, eventually adopting an affluent bohemian, California-style life.
Then John William dies. The rest of the novel, as Neil and Jamie age, concerns Neil’s efforts in coming to grips with his guilt over leaving John William alone in the woods. Exacerbating this, J.W. has left his pal a few hundred million dollars in his will.
I won’t reveal what Guterson intends as surprise revelations about the Barry family, things that obviously led J.W. to the woods and an eventual death there. But it’s only in the last fifty pages or so that Guterson’s story grows meat on its bones.
Guterson's writing has always been uneven, but here, he seems to be going out of his way to deliberately create a literary put-on with The Other, and I don’t know why. In a late passage, Neil, an aspiring writer, reveals some agent and editorial comments about his writing as pretentious and insipid, these reminding too much of Guterson’s own writing in some parts of this book. Put-ons are okay in such writing, I suppose, but in this case—if that’s what Guterson’s up to—the effort is too self-conscious to work.
As first stated, I wanted to see the story—with Neil as the first person peripheral point of view—orchestrated in the manner of Gatsby, which is unfair. There should be any number of ways of using Neil to “discover” his friend. But the plot Guterson chooses leaves John William seeming like he’s a cheap, Elvis-on-velvet painting of a sixties character, with Neil fumbling about as his friend without any reason to remain close to the moody hermit.
The result is, to my mind, a rather effete story peopled with prissy characters. As always, though, Guterson is at his best when casting his characters in the grander context of the damp, somber nature of the Northwest woods. In the chapters in which they spend time together in the forest, Guterson’s Steinbeck-esque ability with mood is compelling.
The most fascinating thing about my current writing project (the exploits of Stuka Pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel on WWII's Eastern Front), is the need to immerse myself in the emotions of soldiers on the bitter, losing end of World War II’s total war. The concept of total war leaves no room for dignity – one group of nations is the supreme victor, dictating the nature of a future life to a defeated nation. Rudel’s depictions of this ending are stoic, gritty, determined to forestall such reality. In The Final Hours, however, German pilot Steinhoff allows us to experience more of the emotional content of World War II Germany’s impending defeat, from Luftwaffe chief Göring to Luftwaffe pilots to SS troops, to confused, enraged civilians.
Toward the end of WWII, Steinhoff, a General in post-war Germany’s version of the Luftwaffe, teeters on the edge of mutiny as he and other pilots demand that Göring resign. Steinhoff is essentially fired, then ordered to train veteran pilots in flying the Luftwaffe's newfangled jets against daily waves of fighter-protected American and British bombers laying waste to German cities.
The jet fighter/bomber presaged modern air warfare. It was a German invention, along with aircraft missiles and a planned atomic bomb. These were developed as Germany began to be overwhelmed on its many war fronts, Hitler hoping for a miracle weapon to keep the Allies at bay.
Steinhoff’s depictions of the jet’s few forays into combat in the last months of the war seem almost comical – a modern military pilot would probably find their foibles tragic but hilarious. But Steinhoff's agenda here is to stand a final time against the Third Reich leaders’ view that the fighter plane arm of the Luftwaffe gave away the war, that jet fighters, not bombers, could have stopped the Allies’ carpet bombing.
Of the war memoirs I’ve read, this one is perhaps the best-written. The author, his editor and translator collude to give the reader tense dialogue and driven narrative. And flashback segments are handled as ably as a good fiction writer might.
Inevitably, however, the author can’t hide the ego behind the story. Whereas Rudel seems durable, driven but inventive, and able to go his own way amid boneheaded war decisions, Steinhoff and his friends seem less strong-willed; they seem to be excuse-mongering throughout. And they allow themselves to become victims of bureaucratic bungling that Rudel would never have tolerated. Still, Steinhoff’s version of this war’s end is as enthralling as the war’s overarching six-year panorama. Certainly, anyone interested in this portion of modern history, as well as armchair military wannabes, will find this book a good late-night read.