Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

In Which I Attempt To Read Faulkner

Every so often I'll get to feeling guilty about some gap in my literary education and set out to fill it. One of these persistent gaps relates to Southern writers, and so some time ago, an interminable time ago, indeed, a time that stretches back, it seems, even to 1864 and before, to those long hot afternoons filled with the scent of wisterias and endless resentments of the sort like unto those between Cain and Abel, except that in that case it was at least clear from whence the resentment sprang, whereas the resentments of Yoknapatawpha County are shrouded in grime and darkness as the globe of a front porch light, encrusted with the bodies of insects and the dust and detritus of the years since some man, or woman even, attempted to dispel the hot darkness of the southern night be installing electricity in the house which was never designed for such a thing, which indeed rejected the very idea of such an illumination with all the strength of its soul, if it had a soul, and seemed with active malice to darken and engrime those objects of unnatural light which had been so futily imposed upon it, at such a time, that is, I began to read Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!.

I would not want, of course, to scare other readers away from such a course. Absalom, Absalom! does move along in its way -- which is to say that that the underlying plot is interesting, and if you can manage to get through the first 170 pages of this 300 page book, it starts to pick up the pace a bit and give you some promise that you will actually find out what exactly it is that happened forty and sixty and seventy years before the primary frame of 1910 that has everyone feeling so Gothic.

I did finish, and I'm more or less glad that I did, though I don't think I'll be attempting any more Faulkner or other writers of the South for a while -- and even finishing this one eventually required that I take the extreme measure of not starting any other books until I finished it, since I knew that if I did it would all be over.



Kate said...

I had much the same reaction to Absalom, Absalom. Others have since commented that if I wanted to read Faulkner, I should have started with a different work. I dunno.

I will always love Faulkner though for delivering one of the best Nobel speeches ever.

Amy said...

I also have sort of a running mental literary gap list and I've been working mine as well. (Faulkner is on it - you didn't scare me though. Well not too much.)

Southern writers I've tackled before - O'Connor of course who scares and delights me and makes me wish for a Catholic lit professor neighbor, and Walker Percy which was not exactly easy.

The Diary of Anne Frank was on my gap list - can you even believe that? Thank you public high school. But I read it this year. I've also checked off just this month Graham Green's The End of the Affair - quite good.

And currently I'm reading Mark Twain's Joan of Arc. It is delightful!

mrsdarwin said...

I ran your first paragraph through the "I write like..." analyzer, and it said you write like Kurt Vonnegut.

Anthony said...

I'm not so sure about the "I write like" analyser - I put Genesis 1 (KJV, line numbers removed) in, and it said that was like Kurt Vonnegut.

Anonymous said...

You should have read Confederacy of Dunces instead.

Barb said...

I remember reading Faulkner's "Light in August" in high school. However, since it's been 36 years and I was only 16, all I can remember is that I thought it was depressing...

mrsdarwin said...

I myself have a sneaking fondness for Absalom Absalom, but I've barely been able to slog through any other Faulkner. I did read The Sound and the Fury,but I only remember it darkly, as through as glass.

CMinor said...

Unfortunately, you just missed this year's Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at Ole Miss, but if you polish up that first paragraph you could try submitting it to next year's Faux Faulkner Contest!

Steven said...

Dear Darwin,

Absalom, Abasalom! is among the great works of the twentieth century and certainly among Faulkner's most difficult. Even The Sound and the Fury is easier to read. The book rewards the intensity and focus of the reader and it is not a work lightly undertaken. But I have rarely read a more profoundly moving and profoundly (at once) sad and uproarious work. It is difficult, tangled, and intertangled since the Quentin Compson of the book is the same Quentin who is in The Sound and the Fury.

Additionally, it is a diptych with The Unvanquished occupying the other, easier half.

It is easy to imitate Faulkner at his most convoluted, but difficult to imitate him at his most intense--and this work combines both. A pure and simple masterpiece of Southern Literature and of American Literature. I can't think of an American work of the 20th century that can compare.

And you do yourself a disservice if you take Faulkner as the sole representative of the South. I would suggest Flannery O'Connor as a palate cleanser followed by a bracing jolt of Walker Percy--particularly Love in the Ruins or The Thanatos Syndrome.

But I agree, it is an intense work and one that requires single minded concentration to best. But the richness of it still enthralls me as I think back to the last time I read it. Perhaps once I've cone with The Ambassadors and Ulysses, I will return to Absalom, Absalom!



Darwin said...


Though I make a bit light of it all, I should say that I did find the central themes and the tragic arc of Sutpen's story fascinating -- that is why I did in fact stick it out through Miss Rosa's endless discursion, and was able to shelve my annoyance that all the white characters talked exactly like Faulkner. And I have to admit also that the at times nearly impenetrable style did complement the twisted and layered nature of the story.

I did find it very hard to take the style at times, though. There was a point where I put it down and exclaimed, "Now we get Charles' Bon's letter, and he writes in Faulkner's prose style as well. This doesn't sound remotely like a letter Bon would write!"

Which isn't to say that it isn't great literature. I'll be the first to admit I'm pretty woeful when it comes to modern lit. (For instance, I've never been able to get more than twenty pages into Ulysses.)

I will doubtless give Percy and O'Connor a chance one of these days, though. I just need to read some solid 19th century novels or mid-century Brit-lit first.

Steven said...

Dear Darwin,

I must admit that versimilitude is not a Faulkner forte. He makes no real attempt to represent characters individually, having arrived at the notion--one with which I much agree, that the stream of thought below the surface is much the same in anyone capable of thought--that thoughts that sit below the the level of words (the way, in fact this story is told) are all a wash anyway.

But you make good points. I would just suggest, since you're willing to move back a bit in time, that you regard his nearest American predecessor Henry James. You might take a stab at _The Golden Bowl_--a true nineteenth century novel written at the beginning of the twentieth, and a worthy predecessor of Faulknerian style if not obsession.