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Monday, May 24, 2021

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner


I bought my copy of Absalom, Absalom! when I was in high school (which is about 18 years ago now). I was just getting interested in building up a personal library of classics, but I didn't really know where to start. My knowledge of literature was in its infancy, and all I had to go on was name recognition of certain authors and an appreciation for the handful of books we read in class. I decided to do some research and looked up a list of classics. The list I found was organized alphabetically by title, and this book was at the top of it. So that's how Absalom, Absalom! came to sit on my shelf. Obviously, I didn't end up reading it at the time and I've carried it from home to home over the years.

In the years since then, I have learned much more about different genres, time periods, and authors. I've learned enough to know that William Faulkner is probably not a good match for me. However, when I was making my Classics Club list, I decided to give this book a try since I had hung onto it for so long and because Faulkner is one of the most famous authors I've never read anything from. Reluctantly, I finally picked it up this week.

The plot of the novel follows the rise and fall of the Sutpens, a wealthy family living in Mississippi during the Civil War era. It's patriarch, Thomas Sutpen, arrived in the town of Jefferson prior to the war with a group of slaves, an architect, and almost no money in his pocket. Through some shady dealings with a Native American, he manages to purchase a large parcel of land and works throughout the next several years to build an empire upon it. He becomes rich and successful and eventually marries a local woman named Ellen Coldfield. They have two children together named Henry and Judith. For a time, it seems that everything has worked out according to Sutpen's plan, but certain events from his past soon come back to haunt him. His own past decisions, the decisions of his children, the fall of the Confederacy, and his arrogant, reckless attempts to solve his problems eventually lead to the downfall of everything he had built.

This story is told entirely in flashbacks from a few different perspectives, with most of the story being told through Quentin Compson, a young man living in Jefferson several generations later. He hears the story of the Sutpen family mostly through his  father and grandfather and partially through Rosa Coldfield, a cousin of the Sutpen family who was actually there when events were unfolding. The narration is difficult to follow, told out of order, and not always accurate. There are several instances in which information is merely guessed at or speculated upon and presented as fact. In doing this, Faulkner is playing with history and commenting on how "truth" will vary depending on who is telling the story. All of the information the characters give is accurate to the best of their knowledge, but it is invariably colored by their own feelings, prejudices, and life experiences. As such, we never get the true version of the Sutpen story, but we get enough to understand the key events and main reasons for the family's failure. 

Faulkner's difficult writing style is well-known, and it is a true challenge to read this novel and actually understand it. He uses stream of consciousness to convey the story, with most of his sentences going on for half a page or more. There are very few paragraph breaks as well. The subject and speaker of the sentences changes frequently, often mid-sentence, making it difficult to keep track of who is talking and what they are talking about. I was able to understand the gist of it while I was reading, but I did find myself consistently turning to chapter summaries online, just to make sure I was interpreting everything correctly. It wasn't as bad as Ulysses to make sense of, but it wasn't a fun read either. I could see Faulkner's skill throughout the novel, and I did get the sense that he was doing something difficult and significant in his writing. I can appreciate his experimentation and uniqueness, but it was not enjoyable to read this. I had to put myself on a strict regimen of 50 pages a day, otherwise I knew I would never finish. I was not happy to pick it up each day. I did end up finishing the whole thing, but this is not the way I want to feel when I am reading for pleasure. Like I thought, Faulkner is not a good match for me.

The writing style was not the only thing that was difficult about Absalom, Absalom!  The subject matter was probably the ugliest I had read in any book. This is a story of cruelty, rape, incest, murder, and unbelievably intense racism. The n-word appears hundreds of times in this book--almost on every page. Children and slaves are molested.  Every revelation about the Sutpen family involves something horrifying, disgusting, or illegal. It was rough. 

Faulkner is a Southern writer from the 1930s. His story is set from the perspective of a family living in Mississippi during the Civil War. Of course, one would expect the characters to be racist and for the story to contain racist elements. It felt like more than that here though. Racism was so deeply imbued into every aspect of this novel that it felt impossible that Faulkner wouldn't have been deeply racist himself. I found an article that explored an interesting contrast that seems to pervade his writing--his characters are often racist and suffer for it. He seems to point to the failure of the South as coming from he cruelty of and callousness of the institution of slavery. However, at the same time, he was openly and unapologetically racist in his personal life. This opens up an important question for me: how much of this can I excuse? I'm finding myself less and less able to stomach these kinds of attitudes in my classics as I get older. With so much out there to read, is it worth it to spend my time on a story like Absalom, Absalom! purely to experience the writing style? For me, I don't think it is. 

I'm troubled by the idea that Faulkner is so highly regarded. He is one of the United States' most celebrated authors. He's won the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, and the National Book Award. Even now, the Goodreads reviews on this novel are glowing, calling Faulkner a genius. Most of the ones I skimmed through sidestep the content of the novel and focus on its construction. What must it feel like for a person of color to read one of his works or even just to see his books so highly regarded? Do we throw all decency and respect for each other out of the window to honor a writing style? I know this issue probably requires a more nuanced view, but I just can't do it. This will be my last Faulkner novel. At least now I know what he's about and I can say I gave him a try. He's unequivocally not for me.

Challenge Tally

Classics Club (#86 on my list): 93/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2021: 26

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