Absalom, Absalom, by William Faulkner

In this astounding novel, we are given the story of Thomas Sutpen, a man who came out of the West Virginia mountains with nothing to his name, arriving in Yoknapatawpha County in 1833 to build a fortune and carve out a plantation, expecting to found a dynasty. We learn about him only indirectly, through the stories that are told to young Quentin Compson. About to leave for Harvard, Quentin endures the wisteria-scented heat of September listening to Miss Rosa Coldfield, whose sister married Sutpen and bore him two children, and his father, whose own father had been Sutpen's only friend. Once in the deadly cold of his Harvard dorm, Quentin and his roommate Shreve, a milk-fed Canadian encountering the twisted kudzu of the South for the first time, continue to try to wrestle the bits of story into a narrative that makes sense.

Each new fragment reveals and occludes the few bare facts, suggesting motives and rationales for everyone involved. New facts shift the pattern in a kaleidoscope whirl. Faulkner has said that no one character has the true story, but the reader can come to it. In last week's blog, I mentioned the impossibility of truly knowing someone's life. Here, where we do not hear from Sutpen himself, we find a mosaic assembled from what these others say about him which may turn out to be the most truthful way to get at the reality of another person and what is in his or her heart.

Faulkner describes language as “that meager and fragile thread . . . by which the little surface corners and edges of men's secret and solitary lives may be joined for an instant now and then before sinking back into the darkness where the spirit cried for the first time and was not heard and will cry for the last time and will not be heard then either.”

I believe this is true, that what binds us together is language and the stories that we tell.

It is almost impossible for me to read Faulkner with my writer's glasses on. This is my third time reading this particular novel, maybe my fourth. Each time (after the first) I thought Okay, now I'll really pay attention. And each time I've gotten swept up again in the dramatic flood of his language: a dizzying, poetic, mad rush of words. I binged on Faulkner as a teen, reading everything I could lay my hands on. I fell into his Yoknapatawpha County as into an alternate world and traced the lineages of the Compson, Sartoris and Snopes families through various novels and stories. I got drunk on his language, his sentences that went on and on yet made perfect sense and could not be any shorter.

Yet in an earlier reading, I managed to recognise that Sutpen is an avatar for the South, the old South of plantations and slavery that seceded from the U.S. and thus instigated the Civil War. Sutpen has that combination of hubris, courage, innocence, and greed; he believes that it is fine to use other people heartlessly in order to reach his own ends. And what trips him up is the fatal flaw that destroyed that South and continues to be the original sin that this country cannot get past.

And I'd marked what he said about women, as Rosa says: “I waited not for light but for that doom which we call female victory which is: endure and endure, without rhyme or reason or hope of reward—and then endure.”

In this reading I was taken with the structure of the book. Revelations are carefully meted out. The scene of Sutpen's son Henry in school with the dandy, Charles Bon, at the beginning is echoed by Quentin and Shreve at the end. Sutpen as a barefoot child is turned away from the front door of a mansion, setting in action his long quest, and then he himself turns a young man away—figuratively—by not acknowledging him as his son.

Or did he? I still don't know the truth of it. Yes, through all the bits and pieces I can see a narrative that makes sense, but I don't know that it is true. It is only what I'm told.

One thought on “Absalom, Absalom, by William Faulkner

  1. Faulkner’s works are without equal in our time.

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