Books About Death: Faulkner and Hemingway

You saw my last post, about my blacklog in writing book reviews. I chose to start with these two because they are both about death. There’s another connection, too. Call it something messed up in my brain, but I always confuse these two authors. I mean, in conversation, I will say something like, “I really like Faulkner’s A Farewell to Arms.” And when a question about Faulkner comes up on the TV quiz show, Jeopardy?, Hemingway pops into my mind right away. I can’t explain it – it just is. Somehow I have developed some association. I suppose grouping them together here doesn’t help me, either. But I digress…

As I Lay Dying (1930), by William Faulkner is #35 on The Modern Library List of Best English-Language Novels. One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is that Faulkner changed his modus operandi in writing this work, carefully planning and organizing the plot in detail before beginning the actual writing. Then, after completing the story, he did not edit any of what he had written. Not only did the author’s process experience such a change, but the style of the work is also unlike anything else Faulkner had previous completed. As I Lay Dying is written without a main narrator, but with fifteen characters telling parts of the story from their own individual points of view, each affected by their own past experiences, interpretations, and motivations. Over 59 segments (chapters), the story grows as the reader must follow everyone’s journey and construct the story for himself, sometimes making sense of conflicting thoughts among the various characters.

The fifteen characters include Addie Bundren – a matriarch who is near death, along with her family, neighbors, and acquaintances whom the Bundren family passes on its journey. This “journey” is the fulfillment of honoring Addie’s wish to be burying in a different city. Throughout the journey, the reader follows the various stream-of-consciousness monologues as the characters build a coffin, caravan the coffin cart by horse along a precarious path, struggle internally, and realize they their own identities are changing. Faulker expertly crafted this story so that the conversations that characters occasionally have with each other are short, uncomfortable, and frequently irrelevant to all of the rich internal monologue those same characters are experiencing. After all, Addie Bundren famously said that words are “just words,” always falling short of the thoughts and emotions they are meant to contain. As readers, we see beautifully how this can be so true.

This book might also make you reflect on the similarities of death and childbearing, and it might make you question whether Faulkner meant to portray this poor, Southern society in a positive or negative light.

Some quotations to ponder:

“Words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at. . . . Motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not.”  – Addie Bundren

“Sometimes I think it ain’t none of us pure crazy and ain’t none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it ain’t so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.” – Cash Bundren, explaining that sanity is a relative term

“Life was created in the valleys. It blew up into the hills on the old terrors, the old lusts, the old despairs. That’s why you must walk up the hills so you can ride down.” – Darl Bundren

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The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1938) is a short story written by Ernest Hemingway. It is a memoir, of sorts, of Harry – an author who is on safari in Africa but is immobilized and dying a slow death from a gangrene infection.

Since Harry can’t by physically active, this is a time for him to be mentally active. He waits in pain, growing frustrated in self-pity and disillusionment while reflecting on his life. Harry has been a “writer,” but has lived a successful life by marrying wealthy women, not by actually writing.  This story is written partly in stream-of-consciousness, like As I Lay Dying. The plot alternates from Harry’s internal reflection of a life event, to an encounter with Helen, and back to past thoughts, and on and on.

This isn’t a spoiler, because I already told you this story is about death. One night while lying outside in his cot, reflecting, Harry feels that he is near death and describes it as though a hyena is running around his campsite. That night, he dreams that he is being rescued, seeing the Snows of Kilimanjaro beneath him, as the plane takes him home. Helen is startled by the strange cry of a hyena and finds Harry had died.

This is a story strong on regret and symbolism. Harry dies having lived through so many life events but has never appreciated them by  writing about them.  Near death, he blames Helen for distracting him from writing about the interesting people he has met throughout his life. He has always lived only for the moment and has never looked toward the future.

A very quick and thoughtful read.

Some quotations to ponder:

 “[Kilimanjaro]’s western summit is called the Masai ‘Ngaje Ngai’, the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”

“Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well he would never know, now.”

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