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Absalom, Absalom

There is something about the Southern male writer. I think of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. Something about the way they weave a tale that takes you into the very bowels of the South. You feel the heat and the humidity, you feel the oppressive history weighing you down, tempering every thought, every word uttered.

Truly, if there can be said to be the consummate Southern writer, it might well be William Faulkner, and no better vehicle can be found than Absalom, Absalom.

It is a difficult novel to read. I’m told this book holds the record for the longest sentence in literature, although I would have thought Proust might have had that “honor.” The book is told in a confusing style, moreover, with stops and starts, and the storyteller changing, often with no alert.

I would not like to write like this myself, but as I writer, I can appreciate the skill and plain genius of his ability. His use of metaphor and adjective in ways that astound, leave one believing that they are truly there. I have no doubt that a trip to Mississippi and to those old homes would look familiar to the first time visitor and one would feel rather at home.

The story is not so shocking by today’s standards, though perhaps it was when Faulkner wrote it in 1936. Thomas Sutpen born dirt poor, rises to wealth and seeks to attain recognition as the owner of the largest plantation in the county. He comes originally from Virginia, makes his way to Haiti where he grows rich, picks up a wife, deserts her and his son (although leaving her well off) and ends up in Mississippi, where he buys the largest chunk of land thereabouts, marries the daughter of a middle-class merchant, and fathers two children, a boy and girl.

The boy goes off to college and meets Charles Bon, who is in reality Sutpen’s son. He brings him home and a romance ensues between Charles and Judith, Sutpen’s daughter. Sutpen tries to end the relationship by telling his  eldest son Henry, but doesn’t inform him until near the end of the war that there is another impediment other than incest to the marriage. Bon’s mother was partially of African descent, something Sutpen had not known when he married her.

Sutpen has fathered another child, a girl by one of his slaves and she  (Clytie) ends the story, burning down the house and killing herself and Henry. Henry has been gone for years after having killed Bon who was returning to marry Judith even though he knew the truth. There are a few other twists and turns, but that is the basic story.

It is told through the voices of Rosa Coldfield, sister-in-law to Sutpen and a victim of him as well, and Quentin and his father (Quentin’s grandfather was friends with Sutpen and learned much of the story). Occasionally Shreve, Quentin’s roommate at college chimes in with his theories.

One of the difficulties is that none of the speakers has full knowledge of all the events. As the novel proceeds you begin to piece together the story, and even at the end, some things are still unclear. Moreover, each speaker has their own motives and theories which color their version of the events.

It becomes apparent that this is not really a difficulty, so much as it explains the South. The history lives on in the lives of those recipients of the day, and each retells it in their own way, for their own purposes. History is not a defined thing we learn, but is ever ebbing and flowing, changing, shifting, and being even intentionally revised to meet the needs of those who carry it forth.

Racism is raw and in your face. There is the strong suggestion that Henry was willing to see his sister marry a half-brother, until he found out that that half-brother had something like 1/16th African blood. Then he determined to stop it.

I suppose at the end, one is left with the idea that truth is of little import in Southern life as Faulkner saw it. The story was essential and it was shaped and molded as needed. As such Absalom, Absalom tells us much about the idea of myth and how myth is created and transmitted down through the generations.

There is also the strong reflection here of the story of Absalom, King David’s son, with the son rebelling (Henry) and then the murder of half-brother in the bible for rape of the sister, wherein here we have a courtship.

It is well worth reading certainly for its extraordinary prose.

You can read this online here.


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