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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

“I’m still defeated by the conundrum of God. But I have the devil clear…Not seeing whole.”

I find this quote from the British writer John Fowles applicable for what I am asking of members in an experimental book club. Last Thursday eleven of us met at the Rappahannock Community College campus in Kilmarnock, Virginia. We sat in the conference room at a long table in comfortable chairs to discuss out first two “paired” novels of ten for 2023. The participants, all intelligent women born between 1941 and 1949, held pens over paper or notebooks and took dictation of “Gail’s book club mantra.” The words were these:

The nature of our limited ego-consciousness stands in the way of our seeing how much stories can teach us about the limitations of our consciousness.

I went on to say that understanding William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and A.B. Yehoshua’s A Woman in Jerusalem is not about whether we liked or disliked the novels. This mantra is our reminder that “deadly unconscious subjectivity” in minds and hearts (not seeing whole) is what disallows circles of perception to expand in readers of literature.

On Thursday I mentioned Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley, a contemporary American writer. Smiley is fond of As I Lay Dying. In discussing Faulkner’s novel, she cited a Hasidic saying: “God created humans in order to tell stories.” Smiley went on to say, As I Lay Dying is not an easy novel to agree on.” We all agreed this was true! Faulkner seeks the reader’s ear and the reader’s complicity, but if the reader is not seduced, the reader quits. Which is why in January I sent out a letter about reading the novels at least twice.

This third novel by Faulkner was published in 1930. It has 59 segments (I hesitate to use chapters) and 15 or more voices. A central intelligence (CI) enacts a story that must be constructed in a reader’s mind as we blunder along on an archetypal journey from the Bundren farm to the mythical Jefferson, Mississippi. Jefferson is where Addie Bundren said she must be buried one day among “her people.” And the demand was made long before she quit life and took to her bed, which is where the novel begins.

The patriarch of the family is Anse, whose four children are Cash, Darl, Dewey Dell, and young Vardaman. There is also Jewel, the third son, whose father is Whitfield, a pastor, one of those dark secrets in this family’s life. I will make this claim and say the inhabitants of the mythical kingdom of Yoknapatawpha are alive everywhere in 2023 throughout the USA.

In his novel Faulkner conjoins the tragic and comic. The reader lives with the casket being made, then travels perilously with it. At novel’s end when Anse should be a wrinkled, deflated human being, he is flying high like a helium balloon. At last the rotting body of his wife has been buried and the buzzards have taken leave. Tragically the brilliant and strange Darl has been hauled away to a mental institution. Dewey Dell still faces her enlarging belly, though only Darl in the family knew about the pregnancy And stoical Cash might not be able to walk and build again. Yet the journey has ended. They are headed home. Anse has a set of teeth and a woman to replace the deceased Addie. Best of all, the new Mrs. Bundren has a gramophone. Sounds as if the novel is a farce. No, As I Lay Dying explores the corporeal, the spiritual, the mysteries of soul, a novel written by a prose-poet genius. This novel has made me want to return to Faulkner after a hiatus from his literature.

“I never imagined,” one book club member said, “when I began this book that I would end up loving and being moved by it.”

Lastly on this final Monday in February…A.B. Yehoshua would not have written A Woman in Jerusalem if he had not read As I Lay Dying. Both novels have journeys with a deceased mother in a casket. Both women possess a mysterious anima, one dark, one beautiful, and their souls affect everyone before and during the journeys to bury them. And reading the two novels in conjunction is a powerful literary experience.

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