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When the Clock Stops

ISSUE:  Winter 2008

The first person I knew who had actually written a book was Robert Russell. His memoir, To Catch an Angel: Adventures in the World I Cannot See, was published in 1962 and was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, included in the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books series, and translated into fifteen languages. It was also reprinted in a sixty-cent paperback edition, which I still own, festooned with testimonials about this “tough,” “brave,” “inspiring” blind man.

Russell was chairman of the English Department at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when I arrived as a freshman in the fall of 1965. Each year, he was provided with student readers, and before classes began the college’s financial aid office sent me to meet him. On the way, I stopped at the bookstore to leaf through To Catch an Angel and prepare myself to encounter a living writer. I remember the excitement of holding the book, seeing his photo, then closing my eyes and running my fingers around the edges to imagine how he felt when it first arrived.

Blinded at the age of five by a splintering croquet mallet, Russell had gone from being, as he wrote, “a citizen of the night” to being a graduate of Yale University; he had even been a varsity wrestler there. Assertive, resourceful, resilient, along the way he had learned to read and to navigate a world of obstacles, survived a bull attack, ridden a bicycle, and come to appreciate “the sounds, the smells, the taste and the feel of nature.” He completed his doctoral work at University of Oxford, where he courted and married Elisabeth Shaw, sister of the British actor Robert Shaw, who played the blond assassin in From Russia with Love. Russell had been teaching at Franklin and Marshall since 1955.

I was eighteen when we met, and I had just spent the summer in bed, recovering from mononucleosis. Stuck there, I had done enough concentrated reading, for the first time in my life, to learn that I needed eyeglasses. The reading had been typically haphazard: Ian Fleming’s The Man with the Golden Gun, Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, all sickbed gifts from my aunt Evelyn; a few Hardy Boys novels; Joe Garagiola’s Baseball Is a Funny Game; Harvey Cox’s The Secular City and B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two, both assigned by Franklin and Marshall for freshmen orientation week. The only classics I had read, as of September 1965, were those required in high school, Silas Marner, Great Expectations, The Return of the Native, Romeo and Juliet.

Now, still weak, anxious to impress Russell, barely balanced between awe and fear, I found him, covered in pipe ash, rocking back in his office chair. He instructed me to sit beside his desk, handed over a sheet of paper, and said, “Read this letter to me, would you?”

A few minutes later, I was hired as his reader, a job I held through the next four years. Squeezed into a side chair between his desk and door, I read student papers aloud, pausing so he could type comments. I read personal correspondence and departmental memos, magazine and newspaper articles, galleys of his 1967 novel, An Act of Loving. Pacing my words to match his keystrokes, I read passages from poems or essays as he typed them in braille. After a few months, in those days before audio books were widely available, he occasionally asked me to record novels or extended selections of poetry onto tape.

Those recording assignments liberated me from regular working hours, since I no longer had to be in Russell’s presence to do my job. Using for my studio a vacant storage room near his office, and working with his enormous reel-to-reel machine, I read works of literature in a way few young, would-be authors get to. In isolated and timeless periods of reading aloud, I learned how language flowed or failed to flow, how breath acted as a hidden punctuation within the rhythm of prose. Vocalizing prose showed me that dialogue could establish character and move narrative, that a writer could reproduce the sound and texture of thought, the private music of subjective reality. It forced me to enter into and differentiate characters, to inhabit voice and bring out what is normally silent when one reads to oneself. It exposed me to the delicate dynamics of scene construction, enabling me to sense—with my body—when things went on a little too long, when a moment went awry.

I was reading with my mouth and tongue and throat, not just my eyes, learning that good writing fills the body with its rhythm, moves through the reader with its own tempo. Sometimes I found myself gesticulating, twisting my torso, rising on my toes, shaking my head for emphasis. Fully immersed, I was experiencing stories or poems in the old way, orally, passing them along as a conduit between author and audience.

*  *  *  *  

“Let’s try this one,” Russell said, handing me a maroon paperback stained by spilled coffee. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was about to change my life. Russell stood in his office doorway, smiling encouragement. “Take your time with it.”

I remember drifting toward the storage room and stopping outside its door to flip through pages that had no paragraph breaks, or contained blocks of italic print, or looked like notebook entries with no punctuation. I didnt know which way until I heard the pistol I didnt know where I didnt think he and you running off slipping . . . The book’s cover, bare except for title, author, and coffee stains, gave no hint of what the novel was about.

I had recently read my first Faulkner work, “A Rose for Emily,” the macabre tale of an elderly woman who kept a man’s rotting corpse in her bed, leaving his remains to be discovered by townspeople after her death. What I could not forget was the dusty pillow beside this ghastly body, with its indentation holding “a long strand of iron-gray hair,” and “the thin, acrid pall” in the “room decked and furnished as for a bridal.” Great, I figured, now I have to read a whole book of this stuff out loud. How would I know when to take a breath?

But I soon found myself entering another world altogether. Faulkner’s novel of the Compson family’s grim implosion—its four trapped, tormented siblings lost to mental impairment, suicide, sexual confusion and manipulation, class and financial obsession—was even more desperate, dark, and tortured than “A Rose for Emily.” It was full of a similar yearning for lost, impossible love, though on a vaster scale, a Southern Gothic tale densely packed with intimate horror. But The Sound and the Fury was also deeply interior, with its story’s disconnected, overlapping details being released from inside the minds of its characters rather than revealed in an orderly manner by some outside source. And the minds encountered in the novel’s first two sections—those of brothers Benjy Compson, who is severely retarded, and Quentin, who is about to commit suicide—are so shattered that their stories, their narrative flow, could only be shattered as well.

I had never seen anything like Faulkner’s way of telling a story, and I could not approach reading this material aloud as though it were a conventional narrative. By page three, the action was already too broken for the story to make sense in the usual way. Events happening in the present transformed into events happening decades in the past, and then into events happening at still another moment in time, with characters appearing in the middle of scenes in which they did not belong.

I needed to slow down and understand, before reading aloud, how each sentence followed the next. No glossing over a passage, no skipping; I had to comprehend and deliver the language in a way that silent reading sometimes did not require. I read a page, experimenting with pauses and breath and tone, working with accent to accommodate Faulkner’s use of dialect, then rewound the tape and tried again. My goal was a smooth presentation for Russell, without the sound of the tape being stopped and started as I struggled with the narrative.

There were voices—a chorus of voices—to distinguish, and levels of feeling to express that were somehow tied to the language of each character. Benjy’s thoughts, for instance, appeared to be hopelessly fragmented: his section of the novel proceeded without apparent logic, sense of time, or focus in space. It seemed to lack any narrative development, moving instead in loops of imagery and repeated phrases, full of discordance, of disarray, like an endlessly swirling kaleidoscope. Getting his jacket snagged on a fence nail as he watched golfers in action did not simply make Benjy remember an earlier moment in his life when he had gotten snagged and was freed by his sister, Caddy, and it did not shift him back in time, but essentially made the earlier experience happen again, right then. He could not remember, he could not associate; he just was there, in past and present both. Faulkner had created a remarkable approximation of a consciousness lacking a functional memory system, capturing the experience of mental limitation, the sense of being where time was no longer real. It was also very hard to read.

But while Benjy’s thoughts lacked cohesion, Faulkner’s structural principles and the flow of his language actually began to make sense. Italics helped signal some of the shifts in time. In their absence, a character’s name might cue such shifts instead. Caddy, for example, was not in the novel’s present action, while a slave named Versh was central to it, and thus their appearances could orient the reader in time.

Of course, Faulkner occasionally undercut these cues. There are two characters named Quentin, one who died in 1910 and another who is alive in the present 1928 setting. There are also two Jason Compsons: the father and the eldest son. But context allowed a reader to place the moment; once grasped, distinguishing signals were easy enough to hold on to.

Certain phrases, such as Caddy smelled like trees, became vital markers of feeling. Moments of bleak beauty, such as Benjy’s confusion of the senses when he is near Caddy, became emotional climaxes, as when Benjy squats in the dark, holding his sister’s slipper: I couldn’t see it, but my hands saw it, and I could hear it getting night, and my hands saw the slipper but I couldn’t see myself, but my hands could see the slipper, and I squatted there, hearing it getting dark.

By learning how to give voice to Benjy’s section, I learned what it was like to be Benjy as Faulkner conceived of him. This intimacy with character was a remarkable element, and new to me as a reader, and I loved it. It was as though Benjy were inside my own head.

When I reached the novel’s second section, the account of Quentin Compson’s final day as he prepares to kill himself, I felt more comfortable with the strangeness of Faulkner’s process. He was not going to make it easy for a reader, but he was going to reward the attention being paid. He was less interested in the story itself—the tale of the Compsons’ fall, the loss of wealth and status in the community, the siblings’ descent into madness, rebellion, thievery, and mutual emotional savagery—than in the workings of the characters’ minds as these events took place. His novel was essentially about consciousness, the mind thinking in language, and Faulkner was striving to remove everything that distracted a reader from immediate and intimate access to another human being. My reading, I felt, had to do the same thing. Nothing had engaged me like this before.

Quentin, anguished by erotic longing for his sister and feeling himself a disappointment to his father (Jason had sold land to pay for Quentin’s Harvard education), is lost in a spiral of self-laceration that expresses itself in language at once flowery and bitter. His section of the novel begins in a haunted, stagy, nearly coherent recollection of receiving a watch from his father and listening to the old man’s cockamamy ruminations about time. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. But as this section’s June day in 1910 progresses, Quentin’s orderly thoughts tumble toward incoherence: recollections of loving his sister and grieving when she acted out with men, defending her against the slurs of their parents and older brother, trying to be the man his father wanted him to be. Those thoughts overwhelm his present action—the final tasks before he kills himself—so that the carefully constructed march of time breaks apart, memories and fears and confusions swamping Quentin figuratively as the waters of the river swamp him literally at the end. Pace quickens, punctuation slackens, past and present merge.

The secret to reading Benjy’s section was consistency of tone, since he was incapable of change or of understanding. The secret to reading Quentin’s was flux, constant and uncontrollable change as his emotions swarmed.

The heart of Quentin’s section is the long sequence I had noticed when first flipping through the novel, page after page of unpunctuated lines that looked like notebook entries and evoked, breathlessly, the core memories of Quentin’s last hours with Caddy. I had to find a way to articulate this writing to convey which passages were actual scenes and who was speaking in them, and which passages were Quentin’s thoughts. I wanted to capture the flow of Faulkner’s writing as it created Quentin’s chaotic consciousness, how the flow broke into froth and turbulence as it hit the rocks of his obsessions.

This was great practice for serious reading and, eventually, writing. Faulkner’s control of prose rhythm, his handling of structural elements, were even more evident when vocalized, when the reader had to enact the sort of textual details and clues that Faulkner’s experiments had eliminated.

By the time I read the third section of The Sound and the Fury—brother Jason Compson’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings laced with jealousy and rage—I knew enough about the events that infuriated him, and about Jason’s character, to make sense of his thoughts and actions. Faulkner had prepared his reader, trained his reader. Jason—plotting and fulminating, still angry because his dead brother had gotten a chance to attend Harvard nearly two decades earlier, still seeking revenge against the wayward sister he has not seen for many years, waiting for his chance to have his handicapped brother committed to an institution—felt vividly alive. I’m glad I haven’t got the sort of conscience I’ve got to nurse like a sick puppy all the time. And the novel’s fourth and final section, told in a traditional third-person voice from the point of view of the Compson’s aging black housekeeper, Dilsey, was as full of by-now-familiar family voices as the church service that Dilsey attends.

Faulkner remained committed, in the last section, to keeping the writer’s presence out of the way, but the text can be read with an ease that would have been impossible without the intimate connections of the previous three sections, the difficult dialect and subtle gradations of tone made familiar, the private references grasped, the behavior of its strange characters understood.

By the time I graduated, I had recorded all the selections of Victorian writers from The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors—forty pages of Carlyle, seventy-four pages of Browning, one hundred pages of Tennyson, and one hundred four pages of Arnold. I recorded three or four more novels but can only remember one, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, probably because reading it aloud drove me nuts.

Like The Sound and the Fury, Hesse’s novel was nonlinear and hallucinatory, held together by the voices of its damaged characters. It was about the mind at its most extreme. But the language—or its English translation—failed to suggest the consciousness of believable people. It did not altogether suit me to have the old gentleman avoid my questions and accusations in this sportive manner, and I looked at him reproachfully. Faulkner had spoiled me. What he required me to do as a reader had exposed the great possibilities for human contact within the acts of writing and reading.

In To Catch an Angel, Russell had written about the moment when literature first moved him deeply. He was a college sophomore, still recovering from the shock of his father’s death, when a literature teacher assigned “The Wife of Usher’s Well.” This Scottish ballad deals with the death at sea of a woman’s three sons who, in answer to her wish, miraculously return home for one night. When they must leave in the morning, one of the brothers says farewell to the scullery maid as well as to the mother, and Russell’s teacher asked the class why.

“To my surprise,” Russell wrote, “I suddenly found myself answering the question.” He understood that the servant “symbolized all the comfort and pleasure and security that home had meant” for the brother. He understood, too, the “longing for the familiar pattern of life at home,” and connected that longing with the loss of his father. “I understood then that this ballad was about people, real people, people who lived and felt as I did. . . . For the first time, I was deeply moved by a poem.”

Something similar happened to me in my storage-room studio, alone with the work Russell assigned. At peak moments, I was in the place Jason Compson described to his son Quentin: He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life. Great writing, I saw, could do this. It could stop time and thereby make time come to life, transporting the reader, as it must have transported the writer, to another dimension. It could break down the barriers between writer, reader, and characters, as Faulkner’s had done. Alone with the tape recorder and text, I began to sense what worked in writing and what did not, what might be possible, what a writer could aspire to achieve. Those times outside of time, when the clock stopped, have remained present for me throughout the last forty years.


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