Sunday, March 23, 2008

Some thoughts on Faulkner and McCarthy.

By the calendar it's spring and the sun captures the panorama of the of the street in a flash as though spring were more than a promise, sunflash and shadow---shadow made all the deeper by light bursting from passing clouds, retreating again to leave us in winter light, sunflash and shadow--the essence of March.

Another six weeks and it will be spring verging on summer, six weeks of accelerated time, two more books to cover, the magnolias come and gone, papers to grade, azalea and dogwood in bloom, final exams to prepare, trees in full leaf--the world from brown and gray to blue and green green green.

Too little time to read on my own. I wanted very much to write about a favorite Primo Levi story, Man's Friend, from a 1990 New Yorker. I have a dozen or so issues set aside with stories I treasure--like Shirley Hazzard's In These Islands--another one from 1990--but Man's Friend has gone missing. I searched and searched, and the more I searched the more I was set on this one story, and when I couldn't find it, not my printed copy, not on the web (New Yorker archives from that far back are available only on a CD of New Yorkers going back to Adam ha-rishon) ... I didn't have the heart for anything else. Like a two year old child, who, once set on chocolate, prefers misery and tantrums to ice cream of any other flavor.

I have to finish AS I LAY DYING before class on Tuesday (haven't taught it in several years). After at least five complete readings of the Faulkner and much scanning and note taking in preparation for classes, delighted at how fresh it still is, and struck by just how thoroughly steeped in Faulkner the early Cormac McCarthy--SUTREE in particular, and how he has distilled and concentrated his style over the years, with dialog the major instrument of change. The flowing, darkly ecstatic visionary voice has retreated, sorted itself out, disengaged from his characters--until that third person narrator has faded to a background voice-over in THE ROAD, and dialog itself carries the narrative. Faulkner's characters are always haunted by some larger voice, as though they carry it within them as a presence that swells and breaks, like the prophets seized by the spirit. This to me is the essence of Faulkner--what seems to be what he is always working toward, searching for--language breaking into Being, a becoming of a third presence--over the characters, over the voice of the author--taking hold, taking charge of the work.

Read again this passage from the first chapter in Vardaman's voice. The child, having been present at the death of his mother, runs from the house crying in confusion, believing Peabody, the doctor attending Addie Bundrun has killed her. He strikes out in a furious assault at Peabody's team, of horses, driving them away. Retreating into the the barn, he tries to calm himself when he sees his brother, Cash, approaching. The language up to this point has been that of a profoundly ignorant, possibly deranged or retarded child, spoken words in quotation marks, followed by internal monolog. He is speaking of the smells and sounds of the barn, the presence of the horse he has been abusing. The internal monolog suddenly breaks loose and soars in rhetoric and vocabulary to nothing that could possibly come out of a child, as though possessed by some greater power.

It is dark. I can hear wood, silence: I know them. But not living sounds, not even him. It is as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components--snuffings and stampings; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a coordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret and familiar, an is different from my is. I see him dissolve--legs, a rolling eye, a gaudy splotching like cold flames--and float upon the dark in fading solution; all one yet neither; all either yet none. I can see hearing coil toward him, caressing, shaping his hard shape--fetlock, hip, shoulder and head; smell and sound. I am not afraid.

(and then, referring to the fish he has caught and cleaned...a return to the mind of the child)

"Cooked and et. Cooked and et"

Transformation--anticipating what can hardly be taken as anything less than transubstantiation... My mother is a fish. My mother is a fish.

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