Saturday, July 28, 2012

Shifting Narrators, Shifting Pronouns

I happen to belong to a book group, which, after considerable deliberation and postponement, has finally decided to venture into the world of William Faulkner. Faulkner means a lot to me for a variety of reasons. When I was living in Israel, his texts were my primary link back to the power of the English language, both what it could express and how those thoughts could be expressed. More importantly, however, reading Faulkner has, for me, always been an invitation to research. Few (if any) of his texts allow for casual reading; and I find it impossible to read any of those texts without a pencil at hand. My reading of “The Bear” quickly descended into filling the margins until no room was left, after which I started constructing family trees on larger pieces of paper. It was only later that I discovered books (and now Web pages) that provide those family trees (with considerable annotation). These are helpful for post hoc consultation, but reading Faulkner is all about the sensemaking. If you do not figure these things out for yourself, you are missing out on the fundamental raison d’être for reading him in the first place.

One of my most treasured Faulkner volumes in The Portable Faulkner, edited by Malcolm Cowley for The Viking Press. This is part of a Viking series, each volume of which was intended to introduce an author to the reader by a judicious selection of texts determined and organized by the editor. Because all of Faulkner’s texts amount to an extended (and highly subjective) history of the South from the early nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, Cowley made the bold move of organizing his selections in the chronological order of that history, rather than according to the published volumes from which they were taken.

Two of our book group’s selections come from the earliest years of that history, “Wedding in the Rain” from Absalom, Absalom! and “Was,” the first story in Go Down, Moses. There is also a second story from Go Down, Moses, “The Old People.” I cannot remember the last time I read “Wedding in the Rain.” I only remember that I read it in the context of Cowley’s synopsis of Absalom, Absalom! (prepared for his Introduction to The Portable Faulkner); and, at the time, I was focused almost entirely on “reading for the plot” (as Peter Brooks put it in the title of his book). However, one of the things I got out of Brooks’ book is the way in which Faulkner plays fast and loose with who the narrator is as the narrative unfolds. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, even in “Wedding in the Rain,” one encounters a major shift in narrator about half way through the story.

Now I find I have to deal with an editorial decision that Cowley made with “Was.” It turns out that, because this is the first story in Go Down, Moses, it has a three-paragraph “overture” (with no periods, by the way) that introduces a few of the names that the reader will then encounter. Following those paragraphs, the second word of the story itself is “he;” and the reader alert to Faulkner’s ways immediately reacts by asking “Who is ‘he?’” For better or worse, Cowley decided to help out the reader in his inclusion of “Was” in The Portable Faulkner, first by dropping the “overture” (probably for being too intimidating) and then replacing the “he” with “Cass Edmonds” (not that the reader would have any idea who this is, but at least “he” has a name).

This is the sort of thing that starts my research antennae twitching. I have decided to read “Was” from the Go Down, Moses volume. It’s not that I do not appreciate Cowley’s help, but I do not want him to spoil the fun. After all, having read “Wedding in the Rain,” I know that the referent of “he” may change abruptly when I least expect it; and I would rather take that as a challenge to my own sensemaking, rather than let an informed editor clarify matters for me!

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