Review: Absalom, Absalom!

William Faulkner is a novelist I had never read until now – perhaps because I grew up and was educated in the northeastern US.  Now that I have read Absalom, Absalom! I can understand why Faulkner is considered one of the greatest American writers of the 19th century.

Faulkner was born in Mississippi in 1897, was raised by a black nanny, lived most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi, and attended the University of Mississipi (Ol’e Miss).  His family, upper-middle class; his mother was a literature buff who read to him and introduced him to the classics.  Friends and extended family often told tales of the Old South, the Civil War, slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan.  Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and his last novel, The Reivers (1962) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998.  Faulkner died in 1962 after the fall from a horse.

William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom! (the title relates to the return of the central character’s son, Charles; Absalom, according to the Jewish bible, was the third son of King David.  A handsome, high-living man, Absalom killed his older half-brother for the rape of their sister) is set in the early to middle 19th century, mostly in Mississippi.  The central character, Thomas Sutpen, a rough, ungentlemanly fellow, appears in a small Mississippi town with 20 slaves and considerable funds of suspect origin.  He acquires 100 square miles of property 12 miles outside the town, builds an enormous mansion, grows cotton, marries the town shopkeeper’s daughter, and has a son, Henry, and a daughter, Judith.  Sutpen had married the daughter of a Haitian sugar planter, who bore him a son whom he named, Charles Bon.  When Sutpen discovered that his new wife has negro blood, he pays to have the marriage annulled under obscure circumstances.  In his mid-twenties, Charles Bon suddenly appears at the U of Miss. where Henry is attending and the two become friends, though Henry does not learn Charles’ identity until later, when Charles begins to realise who his father is.  Henry and his mother begin to promote the marriage of Judith to Charles.  Sutpen travels to New Orleans (where Charles first appeared) and learns who he is.  On his return, he tells Henry that Charles is his half-brother and the marriage will not be permitted.  Henry refuses to believe that Charles is his brother.  The Civil War intervenes.  Charles decides to break the impasse by marrying Judith, and Henry kills him.  Other deaths follow until there is no mansion and no living heirs to the Sutpen name.

This is an intriguing story, deeply coloured with the culture of the Old South.  Falkner’s story-telling technique is quite oblique: he makes use of different narrators to illuminate parts of the story that they know first-hand, have heard from others, or suspect, so that the reader is able to gradually pick up the thread.  This technique creates a sense of mystery, uncertainty and ambiguity about a story which was nearly a century old.  Faulkner’s writing is a poetic, erudite, stream of consciousness by the narrator, particularly when the subject is what a character is thinking or feeling; not infrequently, these dissections of a character’s motives can go on for two pages or more, and they are not easy to read, because they lack fluency and are full of parenthetical statements.  Sentences can go on for half a page.  Nonetheless, a careful reader will, at thinking and feeling levels, understand the character.  There is almost no dialogue in the novel; nearlyh all is revealed by the narrators.  Interestingly, the narrators never set the scenes: what the town, the battlefield, the mansion looked like.

The characters are all clearly drawn.  I found it somewhat surprising that all of the female characters were presented as passive.  One gets a clear sense of what life was like in the Old South, particularly before the Civil War, from the point of view of the wealthy few, the middle class and the slaves and poor whites. The slaves themselves had various classes.  As a literally minded person, I found it difficult to accept that Thomas Sutpen could have acquired the wealth he had as the overseer of a Haitian sugar plantation: something is missing.  Similarly, it is doubtful that Sutpen, 20 unskilled slaves and a French architect could have built the huge, elaborate mansion ‘Sutpen’s Hundred’.

Absalom,Absalom! is not an easy read, but it should not be overlooked if one is interested in distinctive American writing – particularly about the Old South.

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