Sunday, 15 April 2012

Battered Penguins XIX

I went to university in Australia where the system is - at least in the Arts faculties, (if any still exist) - that you start off with four subjects in your first year and then go on to do three each year after that, ideally making those three into majors, (that is, consecutive units of the same subject), or even double majors, leading to a degree on its own or to a fourth honours year, in which you write a thesis.

Unfortunately, the first year I started university, I arrived late, because I'd been travelling and lost track of the time. As a result, I wasn't allowed to study the languages I wanted to study, because I'd already missed too many lessons to ever catch up, so instead I enrolled in English 1A and 1B and Latin and something else I've forgotten. English 1A covered late 19th century and early 20th century literature - lots of DH Lawrence, James Joyce, Yeats, Auden, TS Eliot, JM Synge, George Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad and a mass of American stuff, (2A, the subject you would take in the subsequent year, should you decide to continue with English, went backwards to the 18th century and 3A back again to the 16th and 17th century - don't ask me why). English 1B started with a book I thought I remembered was called The Medieval English Lyric but I think may actually have been The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse and, concomitantly, Piers Plowman (the B text?).

Sadly, English 1B was my downfall. If languages were going to be hard to catch up on then English 1B was impossible. On my fourth or fifth day, I was faced with the task of writing an essay on the medieval English lyric and I was stuck. I realise, looking at them now, that I was being idiotic. They are actually rather beautiful and I could probably think of lots of things to write in an essay about them if I had to today, but at the time I struggled to think of anything at all to say, apart from pointing out the obvious fact that all the anonymous writers of the form seemed to be very, very fond of alliteration. So I filled up several pages with this observation, articulated in a variety of ways, and interspersed my dreary text with the dazzling additional perception - rhyme was something they seemed pretty keen on as well.

A week or two later, I, along with the seven or so other students who had elected to take English 1B, (probably for equally uninspired reasons as my own), shuffled into our weekly tutorial on the subject. The tubby man who had been given the task of bringing the good news about the medieval English lyric to the heathen of the ACT bounded in after us, his plastic leather jacket creaking, his black ribbed poloneck straining across his well-fed form, his extra chins, inadequately disguised by his sparse beard, spilling over the top.

'Could we have a chat about your essay after class', he muttered to me as he hurried by me. I nodded and crumpled into a chair at the back of the room. My thoughts roared about in more of a disorganised frenzy than ever - and they are not particularly orderly even at the best of times. I'd never failed at anything before. I'd never been asked for a discreet chat after any class. I couldn't bear the thought of being alone with that horrid man, discussing my manifold inadequacies.

I came to an instant decision. 'Excuse me', I said, putting up my hand, (I was not long out of school at the time and hadn't quite rid myself of such habits), 'I have to leave.' Then I got up and hurried from the room. I made my way from there straight to the Dean's office where I withdrew from the university. Then I went home, packed and went to the railway station, where I caught a train to Sydney (something that would be impossible today). I had an old friend who was living in Bondi. I moved into her place - taking no notice of the fact that she hadn't invited me and didn't much want me sleeping on her sofa. The next day I hunted through the classified ads in the Sydney Morning Herald and before you could say knife I had found a job as a motorbike courier (there's actually a longer story there, with a few twists and turns, but none of us have got all day, so I'll save those for some other time.)

As it turned out motorbike couriering was rather a pleasant way to spend one's life - and not badly paid either. All was going well and I was beginning to envisage a two-wheeled lifetime career stretching out before me. However, just as the beginning of the academic year came round again, unprecedented storms hit Sydney. All of a sudden, the job transformed into something really rather horrible, involving an awful lot of wading about in Pitt Street dragging a conked out motorbike through knee deep tropical rainwater. Viewed from that perspective, the prospect of sitting around reading books in warm,dry university libraries began to look rather appealing. Once again, I acted quickly. Before you could unfurl an umbrella, in fact, I was back at the university. But this time I didn't enrol in English 1B.

I did enrol in English 1A though. And, despite the fact that the professor of the department gave precisely the same opening lecture - word for word - on Yeats as he had done at the beginning of the year before, I stuck it out until the end of the year. I then dropped English and continued on with the subjects I really wanted to do.

Which brings me (at last) to the subject of this post - William Faulkner. He was one of the major figures on the English 1A syllabus. As part of the course, we were supposed to read The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. This was in addition to numerous other novels, plays, wads of poetry and so forth by numerous other authors. Which should be a cue for me to bewail the state of current Australian university first year courses, where a large number of videos are shown and excerpts from one or other of the Norton Anthologies of English Literature are usually as much the students are expected to actually read.

It would be a cue, were it not for the fact that I somehow managed to get through English 1A, presumably answering exam questions, (and the fact that I can't even remember what I did answer questions on is pretty damning in itself), on Faulkner, without ever getting past page five of The Sound and the Fury and not even getting that far with the others. So I don't think I can really start crying foul about dropping standards - possibly the students of today, if they actually get right through their relevant Norton Anthology, are rather better read than I was - I mean, it's not really enough just to have various texts sitting on one's shelf.

And I have had the Faulkners sitting on my various shelves ever since my first year of university. And what is more I have at last read The Sound and the Fury. It's taken about 35 years but I have finally got around to it, which just goes to show that you should never throw things out - particularly books.

Of course, after such a long wait, one would expect that the thing would have to be an anti-climax. But one would expect wrong. The Sound and the Fury is absolutely great. I loved it. It is brilliant. It is a major work of art - but you don't need me to tell you that. What particularly pleases me is that I think it's probably a good thing I left it so long. I very much doubt that I would have appreciated it when I was 17. In fact, I know I wouldn't have, because that is the reason I gave up on it. I was in the midst of invulnerable youth. Somehow, the very idea of a mentally defective narrator seemed peculiarly depressing when one was hail and hearty and happy and young, whereas once one is decrepit somehow one can put up with anything.

Mind you the book is only told to begin with by an idiot (to use his younger brother Jason's description of him). The idiot, who is called Benjy, has an older brother who gives us the second part, and a younger brother, (the aforementioned Jason), who gives us the third. The final part is told more or less from the point of view of the old servant, Dilsey, but not in her voice. Each section gives us the narrative of a different day in the life of a Southern family, (although, due to Benjy's odd sense of time, the first section drifts about in time a lot), who have black servants, who they do not really recognise as humans, (Jason, in fact, refers to them routinely as 'niggers'), despite the fact that one of them at least - Dilsey - is by far the finest human being in the book.

I cannot say that I completely understood the book, but this is, oddly, not a criticism, (at least, not of the book). The stream of consciousness Faulkner employs in the first two sections does not provide a clear story thread, but it does create a vivid glimpse of chaotic individual reality, which I found more interesting and affecting than a conventional plot-driven tale. In addition, the lack of clarity in the narrative stream is mirrored by the fact that the figure of Caddie, who stands at the centre of all the characters' lives, barely appears within the narrative and remains an almost total enigma. Caddie is beloved by two of her brothers, Benjy and Quentin and hated by her other brother, Jason - but then he hates almost the entire world.

One of the major aspects that sustains the reader's interest is the fact that Faulkner writes extraordinarily lyrically. I know that 'lyrical' is often a polite way of saying that someone's writing is mannered, mincing, dull, ghastly and pretentious, but, in fact, the prose in this book really is quite breathtakingly beautiful, (and why is it that I feel embarrassed to be so gushingly positive, as if the Pseuds' Corner police will be down on me any minute like the proverbial ton of bricks?) To illustrate the kind of thing I mean, I find upon opening the book at random this lovely phrase - "Trees leaned over the wall, sprayed with sunlight" - which demonstrates Faulkner's gift for choosing the single word that transfoms, (in this case, 'sprayed'). Moving a few pages further on, I find this sentence in which Faulkner describes a defeated Jason 'sitting quietly behind the wheel of a small car, with his invisible life ravelled out about him like a wornout sock.'

Strikingly though, it is the very aspect that put me off all those years ago, the figure of Benjy, that I now regard as one of the finest elements of this very fine book. Faulkner draws Benjy with enormous compassion but without any sentimentality, leading us to feel real fondness for this poor unloved soul and even endowing him with a kind of dignity in his steadfast mourning of his long gone sister. Apart from her, only Dilsey shows him any affection - but even she cannot reach him. Only reminders of his sister seem to bring him any real emotional sustenance. He hangs around the golf course that has been built on the piece of land near the house that was sold to pay for Caddie's wedding and his brother's Harvard education, in order to hear his sister's name spoken when the players call out 'Caddy'. When really upset the only thing that can calm him is a shoe that belonged to Caddie,  'a white satin slipper. It was yellow now, and cracked and soiled, and when they placed it into Ben's hand he hushed for a while.' It is Benjy that Faulkner chooses to close the book with, picturing him sitting in the back of a cart, on his way to visit the cemetery, "... his eyes ... empty and blue and serene again, as cornice and facade flowed smoothly once more from left to right; post and tree, window and doorway, and signboard, each in its ordered place.'

(In some editions, a later appendix by Faulkner has been attached to the text. While it does spell out for the reader pretty much exactly what has been going on, I think it does nothing to enhance the novel. In this context, a quotation from Harold Bloom that I came across the other day, while reading an article on US military reading lists, seems relevant. Supposedly, Bloom, in The Western Canon described the culture's seminal books as possessing "strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange" - Faulkner's work, I think, has that strangeness and unassimilable originality that Bloom refers to and his attempt to make his text less strange through his appendix is, if anything, counter-productive.)


  1. Looks like it's worth another try, then. In a not-too-distant English 1A reality, seems I also passed the required exams without ever fully grasping (ever reading?) the book. But this is an inspiring recommendation, especially:
    "Somehow, the very idea of a mentally defective narrator seemed peculiarly depressing when one was hail and hearty and happy and young, whereas once one is decrepit somehow one can put up with anything."

    1. Someone else commented on how nice it was to be able to withdraw when one felt like it. That year, of course, was free because I was on a Commonwealth Scholarship and the year after Whitlam made it free for everyone (probably might have been better to keep it free for those who got Commonwealth Scholarships rather than spreading it so wide and thus making it too expensive and ending up making it free for no-one. Practically everyone for whom a university degree might actually have been interesting got the Commonwealth thing anyway.)

  2. I really loved this posting. I can relate to so much of it, though not to being a courier pushing a bleeding [in more ways than one] motorcycle through floodwaters in the Big Smoke. Leaving aside your unfortunate brush with the medieval lyric [about which I know nothing at all] the good thing about English Lit classes as an undergrad was that I had to read books I would never have otherwise, and was much the better for it. For that reason, I read Light in August which I enjoyed greatly but know now I would have comprehended only faintly], but priorities like History Hons essays and girls stopped me reading your The Sound and the Fury. Now, unless it's available electronically, it's no use to me.

    The point I wanted to make is how fortunate I am not to have read some books till very late in the day, or their real meaning would have remained hidden. But you can't put off reading every book for that reason; it's the ones you read at an earlier stage in your life that inform your personality, even if you only half get what they're on about. Like The Brothers Karamazov at age 13. Yep.

    1. My husband is The Brothers Karamazov expert in this household. He wrote a thesis on it. I got so upset by the dream Raskolnikov has in Crime and Punishment about a horse being beaten to death that I've never really been able to reconcile with Dostoevsky - I admire him from a distance, (and one of the problems is that he writes so vividly - there is no escape into disbelief when you're reading his searing bits), like a nuclear power plant: an extraordinary achievement but possibly damaging.

    2. As someone who had a pony from the age of 5, I was always revolted by brutality to horses and other animals. My mother found me very distressed at age 8 or so one night by the death of the cab-horse Ginger in Black Beauty. I shudder to think that nine million horses were killed in World War 1 alone - that may have been only on our side.

      I probably skipped the page about Raskolnikov's dream, even though I read Crime and Punishment a few years later.

    3. I will never forget poor Ginger in Black Beauty.