Absalom, Absalom – William Faulkner

Book #622

Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (first published January 2013)


AASo I braved more Faulkner for my Mississippi read and was not sure at first that it was a good idea, but I have been converted. The Sound and the Fury will never truly be my friend, but one of its characters, the male Quentin who kills himself in his freshman year at Harvard, is still alive and well and telling a story of Southern life to his roommate from Alberta in Absalom, Absalom!, and I like him much better now. He and his roommate stay up all night discussing this complex tale of the Sutpen family, and by the time you realize you are in the Harvard dorm room, you are willing to stay up to hear the rest too. That doesn’t mean this is an easy read, but there is a beauty and tragedy to this tale that makes it compelling. Here is what I said about the book on Goodreads:

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that–a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them. There was a wistaria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away: and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.

That is the first paragraph of Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner – please note that the whole thing is just two sentences – and it was nearly enough to make me run screaming for something else from my bookshelf. My introductory psychology classes taught me that human working memory can hold on to 7 plus or minus 2 “chunks” of information before becoming overloaded. There is no way that Faulkner’s prose respects this limitation. And yet, by the end of this book (unlike with my last Faulkner experience), I had somehow become a huge fan anyway. Sick with the flu last night, I was desperately trying to keep my eyes open and make it to the end, not only of sentences, but of the whole book, because I really had been captured by this Shakespearean tragedy of a family saga set in Civil War era Mississippi. I have discovered that the strategy is to simply let the prose wash over you and not struggle too hard for meaning. Eventually the successive waves of narration begin to build a coherent narrative that is compelling. Faulkner also adds chronology and genealogy sections in the back that help provide scaffolding when you are lost, but also contain spoilers, so while I used them, I was a little ambivalent about doing so. I will say that despite understanding some basic facts that were not known to the characters for much of the book, I nonetheless found myself riveted as the plot unfolded, but I should also say that it took about a third to halfway into the book to feel this commitment to it. So stick with it, I think you will find it is worth it. At the start of this book, I was seriously considering giving up on further Faulkner, but now I look forward to future Faulkner novels with a pleasant anticipation.

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