Sunday 26 September 2010
Out of the dust
In June of this year I wrote a piece marking the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, high among the greats of modern American literature. At the time another blogger suggested that there might be some similarities here with themes earlier examined in the work of William Faulkner. After a little exploration we both agreed that there were possible parallels between To Kill a Mockingbird and Intruder in the Dust, a novel published in 1948. I agreed to read this with a view to discovering if there was.
First of all, my apologies to Ike Jakson, the blogger who brought this book to my attention. I bought it soon after - I even took it to Central America with me as part of my holiday reading – but I got sidetracked along the way, ambushed by other demands and other writers! Second, I would like to thank him for raising this, otherwise I might have bypassed not just this novel but Faulkner altogether.
The thing is first impressions are really important with me; if writers do not engage me almost immediately I’m likely to shunt them off to a sideline, there to remain neglected, possibly indefinitely. In my late teens I read Soldier’s Pay, Faulkner’s first novel, published in 1926, which left me dissatisfied and unimpressed. I may never have read any more. But now I’ve finished Intruder in the Dust, a reading and a discovery.
Is there any comparison with To Kill a Mockingbird? Yes, on a superficial level, there certainly is. Both are set against the background of the segregated American South, the South where black people existed on the margins of society, and even there on sufferance. They are both about black men accused of crimes they did not commit. Much of the observation is from the point of view of a young person and the accused are both aided by lawyers of commendable virtue and liberal instinct. Towards the end of chapter ten of Faulkner’s novel the sheriff complains about the racket a nearby bird is making, interrupting his rest and doubtless filling his head with murderous thoughts, thoughts of killing a mockingbird!
I have no doubt at all that Harper Lee read this book and I feel sure that she would acknowledge its influence, but beyond the general themes of racial tension and potential injustice there is much more that divides than unites the two books. To Kill a Mockingbird is really the story of Atticus Finch, the paternalistic lawyer, a sort of American Cicero. Intruder in the Dust isn’t really the story of anyone, or if it is it’s the story of Lucas Beauchamp, the elderly black man accused of killing one Vinson Gowrie, the scion of a local hillbilly clan. Beauchamp is a particularly memorable character, stiff, proud, himself almost senatorial in bearing, a man who refuses to “act like a nigger”, as his defenders complain.
At once simpler and yet more complex than To Kill a Mockingbird, Faulkner’s novel is in essence a mystery thriller. Beauchamp’s defence is clear: in jail and threatened with a particularly horrible form of lynching from the outraged hillbillies (fortunately for him the crime was committed late on a Saturday and decent folks don’t lynch other folks, even niggers, on a Sunday) he says that it was not his pistol that was used to kill Vinson. The only way this can be proved is for the body to be dug up in secret, a task he ‘delegates’ to sixteen year old Charles Mallison, the nephew of the lawyer, whose life he once saved from a freezing river. Mallison, despite the danger of the mission, agrees to act, assisted by a reluctant black teenager and the elderly Miss Habersham, a name I simply refuse to believe is not a nod in passing to Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham from Great Expectations! No matter; like her near namesake she is also a highly memorable character.
There is an interesting ambiguity in Faulkner’s book on the question of race relations that is unlikely to appeal to modern sensibilities. He’s against the entrenched racism of his native South but he is also proud of a Southern tradition, of a Confederate tradition, hostile to the interference of outsiders, of ‘moral carpetbaggers’ from the North, an expression, incidentally, that I just invented! The problem of the ‘nigger’ is their problem and they should be left to solve it themselves in a gradual, undemonstrative and paternal fashion. History does not work like that; history did not work like that.
Intruder in the Dust is really quite a simple story, as I have said, no more than a mystery thriller (I’m not going to tell you who killed Vinson, just that it wasn’t Lucas!) But then there is the language, the style and the literary presentation. I had fun looking over other reviews because this book one of those rare love-or-hate additions to the literary cannon, a book that cannot be passed with indifference.
The ‘hate’, if that’s really the right word, can be put down most often to confusion and incomprehension. Intruder in the Dust, you see, is a stream of consciousness novel, though whose consciousness is being streamed is not always easy to tell! Some of the sentences are prodigiously long, going on for pages. But I quickly picked up on the cadence and the poetic rhythms, the rise and fall of words.
I just love this sort of thing, the kind of playfulness with language I so much admire in James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and, above all, in Malcolm Lowry, for me the greatest English novelist of the twentieth century. Here is an example from Faulkner taken quite at random, in full flow from mid-passage;
…strolling timeless and in no haste since they were going nowhere since the May night itself was their destination and they carried that with them walking in it and (stock-auction day) even a few belated cars and trucks whose occupants had stayed in for the picture show too or to visit and take supper with kin or friends and now at last dispersing nightward sleepward tomorrow-ward about the dark mile-compassing land…
Yes, for me this is poetry in prose, a form of writing based on a love of words for the sake of words. I enjoyed this book in some ways more than I enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird. Much more than that, I have enjoyed discovering Faulkner anew, knowing ahead of me lie such books as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom! Absalom! and Light in August, the great landmarks of his literary life.