Friday, June 6, 2014

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Fourth reading, I think. First read in 1960.

I well remember when I first read this 1936 novel; I was a freshman in college and I bought a used copy at my college bookstore. I had heard of Faulkner, of course, but I had never read any of his novels.

Boy, was I unprepared. I was overwhelmed by the flow of the language; I couldn't always figure out who was talking and even the narrator kept shifting on me; I was confused as new versions of the events kept popping up and assumed I had just missed something earlier; I couldn't even always figure out the "when" of the story, as time kept swinging back and forth. But I persevered, and when I finished I realized that I loved the novel in spite of being sure that I had missed some important clues that would explain the meaning of it all.

It was the language that captured me, probably because I am one of those who love words and their sounds and their rhythms and the way they can create a mood all by themselves. I really did not understand the novel intellectually, but I felt it -- the sense of impending inevitable doom, the darkness at the heart of the story, the guilt and tragedy of the South. And I realized that if I abandoned my expectations about conventional punctuation and grammar and linear plot and just let the words carry me along that the language actually sounded familiar to me. My grandmother told stories in exactly this way. Even today, my next-door neighbor from Tennessee talks to me in the same stream-of-consciousness fashion.

Subsequent readings have allowed me to better understand Faulkner's message, his themes, even the events portrayed. This is a novel that can be read more than once, with new revelations each time.

The novel tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, who appears out of obscurity in Mississippi in 1833 and carves an empire, "Sutpen's Hundred," out of virgin land (perhaps) stolen from the Indians who owned it, and sets about creating a dynasty. As storyteller after storyteller relates their understanding of the how and why of the failure of his grand design, the reader gradually learns (perhaps) the inescapable truth of the matter, and along with it, the reason for the inescapable defeat of the South.

For readers new to Faulkner, I would suggest entering his unique world with another book, perhaps The Reivers or
The Unvanquished, for they are closer to the conventional than his others. For those brave souls willing to jump into strange waters, I would recommend reading at least some of the book aloud to yourself. Story-telling is a lasting Southern tradition, and I believe Faulkner wrote this just as he would have told it orally.

For those familiar with Faulkner, I'm sure you are captivated already or you would not be considering reading this.

This novel contains one of my favorite lines: "It was a summer of wisteria." You must read the book to truly understand the significance.