28 May 2014

"My mother is a fish"

English majors will recognize the title of this post as an enigmatic statement by the child Vardaman in Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying."  I was impressed by the movie, which most modern viewers will not like, because of its unremittingly grim presentation (faithfully reflecting the book).  There is no happy ending, or even any feel-good scenes.  This is the book you read when you're feeling sorry for yourself and need to realize your life is not as dreadful as many others.  And that may be why Franco's movie was never released in theaters, but instead went straight to DVD.

After seeing the movie, I decided to reread the book, which I first encountered about 50 years ago.  Herewith some snippets and tidbits:

Re the source of the book's title, Faulkner cited Agamemnon's speech to Odysseus: "As I lay dying the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes for me as I descended into Hades." (266)

This is the first of Faulkner's books to refer to Yoknapatawpha County.  Mississippi's Lafayette County, where he spent most of his life, "is bounded on the south by the Yocona River.  Some early maps transliterated the river's Chickasaw  name as Yockney-Patafa.  According to Faulkner, it meant 'water runs slow through flat land.'" (267)

"It was nigh toward daybreak when we drove the last nail and toted it [the coffin] into the house... at last they put her into it and nailed it down so he couldn't open the widow on her no more.  And the next morning they found him in his shirt tail, laying asleep on the floor like a felled steer, and the top of the box bored clean full of holes and Cash's new auger broke off in the last one.  When they taken the lid off they found that two of them had bored on into her face." (73) (this detail omitted from the movie version)

Cora speaks to Addie before Addie's death:
"There is your sin.  And your punishment too.  Jewel is your punishment.  But where is your salvation?  And life is short enough," I said, "to win eternal grace in.  And God is a jealous God.  It is His to judge and to mete; not yours."

I know," she said.  "I-----" Then she stopped, and I said,

"Know what?"

"Nothing," she said.  "He is my cross and he will be my salvation.  He will save me from the water and from the fire.  Even though I have laid down my life, he will save me."

"How do you know, without you open your heart to Him and lift your voice in His praise?" I said.  Then I realised that she did not mean God.  I realised that out of the vanity of her heart she had spoken sacrilege.  And I went down on my knees right there.  I begged her to kneel and open her heart and cast from it the devil of vanity and cast herself upon the mercy of the Lord.  But she wouldn't.  She just sat there, lost in her vanity and her pride, that had closed her heart to God and set that selfish mortal boy in His place... (168).
"Pa helps himself and pushes the dish on.  But he does not begin to eat.  His hands are halfclosed on either side of his plate, his head bowed a little, his awry hair standing into the lamplight.  He looks like right after the mail hits the steer and it no longer alive and dont yet know that it is dead." (61)

"We go on, the wagon creaking, the mud whispering on the wheels.  Vernon still stands there.  He watches Jewel as he passes, the horse moving with a light, high-kneed driving gait, three hundred yards back.  We go on, with a motion so soporific, so dreamlike as to be uninferant of progress, as though time and not space were decreasing between us and it." (107)

"The sun, an hour above the horizon, is poised like a bloody egg upon a crest of thunderheads; the light has turned copper: in the eye portentous, in the nose sulphurous, smelling of lightning." (40)

(addressing a horse): "Eat," he says.  "Get the goddamn stuff out of sight while you got a chance, you pussel-gutted bastard." (13)  (referring to the country doctor): “When Peabody comes, they will have to use the rope. He has pussel-gutted himself eating cold greens.” (40) When asked about the phrase in 1957, Faulkner said he had heard it all his life and it meant someone that is bloated (with a citation to an Alabama author's use of the word "puzzle-gutted.")  Despite all my years working with rural Kentuckians, I have never heard that phrase.  I wonder if ultimately it is derived from a corruption of "pustule" for a swelling.


  1. Rats, 'Stan, this is just a week late! A crossword clue a week ago in a newspaper asked the name of the author of the novel which contained this very sentence "My mother is a fish". I didn't know, and although I could've cheated and found out on the internet, I didn't. I just had to wait for your posting of this topic right here and there is the answer!

    1. Sounds like a fairly advanced crossword. Or was it perhaps one of the British-style cryptic puzzles?

  2. My Father and brother used the term "pussel gut" all the time. I havent heard or thought of the term in 40 years. I was called that all the time by my mean ol' brother.


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