Vintage Audio: William Faulkner Reads From As I Lay Dying


William Faulkn­er wrote his sev­enth nov­el As I Lay Dying in the last months of 1929, almost imme­di­ate­ly after anoth­er stream-of-con­scious­ness mas­ter­piece, The Sound and the Fury. Like the Shake­speare­an title of that work, As I Lay Dying’s title, which comes from Homer’s Odyssey, indi­cates the lit­er­ary ambi­tions of its author. Only thir­ty-two at the time of its writ­ing, Faulkn­er com­posed the nov­el in eight weeks (six by his account­ing) while work­ing nights at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mississippi’s pow­er plant, decid­ing in advance that he would stake his entire rep­u­ta­tion as a writer on the book: “Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first words, I knew what the last word would be… Before I began I said, I am going to write a book by which, at a pinch, I can stand or fall if I nev­er touch ink again.” His pas­sion­ate con­vic­tion is evi­dent in the orig­i­nal manuscript—the first and only draft—which reveals “an ease in cre­ation unlike his oth­er nov­els.”

Per­haps the most nar­ra­tive­ly straight­for­ward of William Faulkner’s Yok­na­p­ataw­pha novels—set in a fic­tion­al Mis­sis­sip­pi region based on his own home coun­ty of Lafayette— As I Lay Dying tells the sto­ry of the Bun­drens, a poor white fam­i­ly on a per­ilous jour­ney to hon­or their matri­arch Addie’s request for a bur­ial in the town of Jef­fer­son. Despite the seem­ing sim­plic­i­ty of its plot, the book’s style is incred­i­bly com­plex, told from the per­spec­tive of fif­teen dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters in rough-hewn coun­try dialect and arrest­ing lyri­cal fugues. It is the novel’s “coarse lan­guage and dialect,” that is “exact­ly Faulkner’s project,” writes Tin House edi­tor Rob Spill­man: “Faulkn­er, a Mis­sis­sip­pi high school dropout, made it his mis­sion to cap­ture the emo­tion­al lives of the rur­al poor, unflinch­ing­ly writ­ing about race, gen­der, sex­u­al­i­ty, and pow­er.” Through the pow­er of his lan­guage and—in the words of Robert Penn Warren—the “range of effect, philo­soph­i­cal weight, orig­i­nal­i­ty of style, vari­ety of char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, humor, and trag­ic inten­si­ty,” the South­ern nov­el­ist ele­vat­ed his hum­ble sub­jects to tru­ly myth­ic sta­tus.

Thanks to Harper­Collins, you can lis­ten to Faulkn­er him­self read from his mas­ter­piece: .au file (4.4 Mb), .gsm file (0.9 Mb), .ra file (0.5 Mb). You’ll have to lis­ten care­ful­ly to hear the author’s soft south­ern drawl, which gets lost at times in the poor qual­i­ty record­ing. As you do, fol­low along with the text in Google Books. Faulkn­er reads from the twelfth chap­ter, told by Darl, Addie’s sec­ond old­est son, a sen­si­tive, poet­ic thinker who nar­rates nine­teen of the novel’s 59 chap­ters (and who James Fran­co plays in his film adap­ta­tion of the book). In this pas­sage, Darl observes his mother’s death, and each fam­i­ly member’s imme­di­ate reac­tion, from sis­ter Dewey Dell’s dra­mat­ic expres­sions of grief, to old­er broth­er Cash’s tac­i­turn response and father Anse’s trag­ic-com­ic insen­si­tiv­i­ty: “God’s will be done…. Now I can get them teeth.”

To hear much more of Faulkner’s voice, vis­it Faulkn­er at Vir­ginia: An Audio Archive, which cat­a­logs and stores dig­i­tal audio of the author’s lec­tures, read­ings, and ques­tion and answer ses­sions dur­ing his tenure as writer in res­i­dence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia in 1957–58. In one par­tic­u­lar ses­sion with a group of engi­neer­ing school stu­dents, Faulkn­er gives us a clue for how we might approach his work, which can seem so strange to those unfa­mil­iar with the his­to­ry, cus­toms, and speech pat­terns of the Amer­i­can Deep South. Each of us, he says, “reads into the—the books, things the writer did­n’t put in there, in the terms that—that his and the writer’s expe­ri­ence could not pos­si­bly be iden­ti­cal. That there are things the writer might think is in that book, which the read­er does­n’t find for the same rea­son that—that no two expe­ri­ences can be iden­ti­cal, but every­one reads accord­ing to—to his own—own lights, his own expe­ri­ence, his own obser­va­tion, imag­i­na­tion, and expe­ri­ence.” For all of their provin­cial pecu­liar­i­ties, the Bundren’s epic strug­gle with the grief and pain of loss has uni­ver­sal reach and res­o­nance.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William Faulkn­er Names His Best Nov­el, And the First Faulkn­er Nov­el You Should Read

William Faulkn­er Reads His Nobel Prize Speech

Sev­en Tips From William Faulkn­er on How to Write Fic­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • geo whets says:

    now if only I could make this God damn f.…ing thing play I could die a hap­py man. bull shit tech­nol­o­gy !

  • Greg Gladysal says:

    I’m hav­ing a tad bit of dif­fi­cul­ty get­ting this one to play myself. Philip K Dick, F Scott Fitzger­ald & Arthur Conan Doyle all seem to play with­out a hitch. But not Faulkn­er.

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