Reprint: A Faulkner Diptych

A series in which I treat The Unvanquished (as fine and simple an introduction to the main lines of Faulkner as one could hope for) and Absalom, Absalom! (a book that rose almost to the heights of Ulysses in my estimation).

The Unvanquished
Having already begun the inextricably intertwined premier book of this civil war diptych (Absalom, Absalom), gives some perspective on this work of William Faulkner. This is, by far and away one of the most accessible of Faulkner's works. While there are some subtleties and complexities in the prose, the stream of consciousness approach is filtered through the mind of a highly educated adult, even in the early parts of the book which are told from the point of view of a child between the ages of 10 and 12.

The novel originated as a chain of short stories published during the time Faulkner was writing Absalom, Absalom, and people more knowledgeable about Faulkner as a writer and a person might say that this book is, in a sense, a inner response of Faulkner to the harsh portrayal of the south found in Absalom, Absalom. In The Unvanquished, the South comes out looking fairly good--not admirable in all respects and bearing the brunt of the responsibility for the horrors of the war. The main character, Colonel John Sartoris is, in some ways, the Civil War equivalent of a Mrs. Jellyby--his attention focused completely outwards toward the war and his own accomplishments within it, things at home are left to run more or less on their own, with the disastrous results which often follow when anyone shirks their primary responsibilities.

By turns poignant, touching, sad, hilarious, and horrifying (often within a ten-page stretch), the novel charts the progress of Bayard Sartoris (son of John), Marengo (his friend/brother/slave/servant), Granny, and a host of other characters familiar to those who have dipped into Faulkner's world before. We meet the ancestors of Quentin Compson, even if only peripherally, Colonel Tom Sutpen, and Ab Snopes, progenitor of the generally useless Snopes clan. In the trajectory of the stories we are able to compare and contrast the fates of Grumby (a man responsible for one major moment in the book) and Redmond (the man responsible for another, similar major moment in the book.)

The last chapter, "The Odor of Verbena," is often read as a separate short story and is a moving account of the real coming of age of Bayard Sartoris, made more powerful here by its juxtaposition with the story of Bayard, Ringo, and Grumby.

To get a sense of scope, in this one book, we learn about the Sack of Vicksburg and vicinity, the exodus of the Mississippi slave population with predictably disastrous results, Granny's mule trading--in which she confiscates, sells back, and reconfiscates a number of United States Army Mules through clever forgeries of an original licit document, Drusilla's stint in the Army in Virginia with Colonel Sartoris, her forced marriage to said Colonel as a result of the suspicious minds of the neighbors, and John and Drusilla's interference in the first (monumentally ill-conceived) reconstruction elections, Granny's assistance and support of the poor of Yoknapatawpha County, the utter destruction of the countryside as the Union troops withdraw from Mississippi, and a legion of other events. Most importantly one learns that, in Drusilla's words, verbena is the only scent that can overpower the smell of horses and courage.

The book is short, easy to read (for Faulkner), and powerful. It is the "up side" (and not much of one) of Faulkner's vision of the Civil War South. It provides an insight into how one can still find something to respect despite the fact that the war was fought for all the wrong reasons and for far longer than it need have done. (This point leads to a very interesting turn around in the course of the book in which at one point Bayard sees the wisdom of women as supporting and pushing the war effort forward, and toward the end sees that same wisdom as having given up on the war effort years before the men realized that they should have done so.) Read in juxtaposition with Absalom, Absalom it provides the positive print to the negative that is exposed in the latter work.

But the most powerful thing to come out of the book isn't about the South at all--it is about people struggling to be human and humane in the face of tremendous obstacles, difficulties, misunderstandings, and completely correct understandings. It is about the courage to defy expectations or fulfill them and how, where moral certainty is lacking, the circumstances must help us understand, how our circumstances help us feel the way to the (often incorrect) conclusion. It is a story about how we understand and fail to understand one another and how we can, despite ourselves and our surroundings, learn to understand each other better.

By all means, pick this up and read it. Faulkner is not so difficult as we might have come to believe from premature exposure in high-school or college. He is by no means easy and light reading; however, reading his prose is both a challenge and a deep pleasure and delight. It is a break from post-modernist brokenness and escapist fictional flights (against which, I should note, I have no gripe). Do yourself a favor and read it--not because it is good and classic and expected, but because it is enjoyable in a way that few other things are. There is here the enjoyment of accomplishment (having read Faulkner) and the enjoyment of a good set of stories well told, full of sound and fury, and yet signifying much. The tale told by an idiot is best saved for a time when one has become more acquainted with Faulkner by way of more accessible works.

Compare and Contrast
A couple of days ago, I gave an excerpt from The Unvanquished which serves well to set against this excerpt from Absalom, Absalom!.
from Abasalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

it was a summer of wistaria. The twilight was full of it and the smell of his father's cigar as they sat on the front gallery after supper until it would be time for Quentin to start, while in the deep shaggy lawn below the veranda the fireflies flew and drifted in soft random--the odor, the scent, which five months later Mr Compson's letter would carry up from Mississippi and over the long iron New England snow and into Quentin's sitting-room at Harvard. It was a day of listening too--the listening, the hearing in 1909 even yet mostly that which he already knew since he had been born in and still breathed the same air in which the church bells had rung on that Sunday morning in 1833 (and, on Sundays, heard even one of the original three bells in the same steeple where descendants of the same pigeons strutted and crooned or wheeled in short courses resembling soft fluid paint-smears on the soft sumer sky); a Sunday morning in June with the bells ringing peaceful and peremptory and a little cacophonous--the denominations in concord though not in tune--and the ladies and children, and house negroes to carry the parasols and flywhisks, and even a few men (the ladies moving in hoops among the miniature broadcloth of little boys and the pantalettes of little girls, in the skirts of the time when ladies did not walk but floated) when the other men sitting with their feet on the railing of the Holston House gallery looked up, and there the stranger was. He was already halfway across the square when they saw him, on a big hard-ridden roan horse, man and beast looking as though they had been created out of thin air and set down in the bright summer sabbath sunshine in the middle of a tired foxtrot--face and horse that none of them had ever seen before, name that none of them had ever heard, and origin and purpose which some of them were never to learn. So that in the next four weeks (Jefferson was a village then: the Holston House, the courthouse, six stores, a blacksmith and livery stable, a saloon frequented by drovers and peddlers, three churches and perhaps thirty residences) the stranger's name went back and forth among the places of business and of idleness and among the residences in steady strophe and antistrophe: Sutpen. Sutpen. Sutpen. Sutpen
One long paragraph, and still only half the length of the normal "period" of motion in the book. What is wonderful is the mechanism whereby we are moved from the here and now present of the novel (1909) into the world of 1833 and the beginning of the saga of Thomas Sutpen in the village of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County. We move from the present smell of wistaria into the future (five months later) and then smoothly into the past in one long singing, rolling phrase.

The sentences are not difficult, but they are like Latin--before the real sense of each becomes clear, the entire sentence must be taken in and disassembled and the constituent parts placed in proper relation to one another. It is, undeniably, work. And yet it is a work that has such a fine pay-off--one comes to know the mind of the narrator and one enters the time and the world of Faulkner's fiction in a way that rarely happens in light fiction treating of similar subjects. There is substance here that goes beyond the status of "literature" or "classic" and enters the world of simply satisfying--solid, grounded and grounding, substantial--the author has authority (ever wondered about the similarity of the two words) and the world is authentic. To read Faulkner is to enter a world that is accessible in no other way (the same is true of every author worth his or her salt), but there is a pleasure in reading Faulkner that comes from acquaintance with a master. Too bad our early experiences cause us to shy away, often thinking that the work is beyond us or ill-conceived, or otherwise not available to us. In their enthusiasm and desire to introduce us into these new realms some of our early literature teachers do inestimable harm. But stop blaming them and avail yourself of the wonders of great prose despite those bitter early memories. You'll be glad you did.
While I enjoyed revisiting this classic, and while I would recommend it to almost everyone as a quick and light exposure to Hemingway without some of the trappings that come with The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms, it did not have great resonance for me. Nevertheless, I will think about it for a few days and regard it as a palate cleanser in between bouts of Faulkner. My next read--the remarkable As I Lay Dying.

Wow--Chew on That!
After a break to read Pillars of the Earth and The Undercover Economist (about which, perhaps, more later) I'm back to Absalom, Absalom! and the fragrant (or reeking) climes of Yoknapatawpha County, and the rise, decline, and fall of the Sutpen family, with Quentin Compson and his father (Intrusions of The Sound and the Fury). And here's what I stumble upon:

from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

Yes, granted that, even to the unworldly Henry, let alone the more travelled father, the existence of the eight part negro mistress and the sixteenth part negro son, granted even the morganatic ceremony--a situation which was as much a part of a wealthy young New Orleansian's social and fashionable equipment as his dancing slippers--was reason enough, which is drawing honor a little fine even for the shadowy paragons which are our ancestors born in the South and come to man- and womanhood about eighteen sixty or sixty one. It's just incredible. It just does not explain. Or perhaps that's it: they dont explain and we are not supposed to know.
And doesn't that last line explain a good deal of Faulkner?
Nevertheless, I revel in it, in a way that I cannot seem to do with Hemingway, Steinbeck, or other contemporaries (except perhaps Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie).

Faulkner's Humor and Moral Vision
Throughout most of Absalom, Absalom! Thomas Sutpen, a key figure, could hardly be called sympathetic. He seems at time little less than a monster. In the last third, or so, of the book, Faulkner spends some time telling us about Mr. Sutpen and how he came to be who he presently is. What emerges is a man who much conflicted attempts to make his own way in the world by his own constricted and convoluted sense of morality and ends up precipitating the entire action of the novel.
Throughout the book there are moments of high humor even within the tragedy, pathos, or sheer chaos of the action. One of these moments occurs in the passage sited below.
from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner
And then the shrewdness failed him again. It broke down, it vanished into that old impotent logic and morality which had betrayed him before: and what day it might have been, what furrow might he have stopped dead in, one foot advanced, the unsentient plow handles in his instantaneous unsentient hands, what fence panel held in midair as though it had no weight by muscles which could not feel it, when he realised that there was more in his problem than just lack of time, that the problem contained some super-distillation of this lack: that he was now past sixty and that possibly he could get but one more son, had at best but one more son in his loins, as the old cannon might know when it has just one more shot in its corporeality. So he suggested what he suggested to her [Miss Rosa Coldfield], and she did what he should have known she would do and would have known probably if he had not bogged himself again in his morality which had all the parts but which refused to run, to move. Hence the proposal, the outrage and unbelief; the tide, the blast of indignation and anger upon which Miss Rosa vanished from Sutpen's Hundred, her air-ballooned skirts spread upon the flood, chip-light, her bonnet (possibly one of Ellen's which she had prowled out of the attic) clapped fast onto her head rigid and precarious with rage.
The description of Miss Rosa's departure in irate indignation (fully justified) is a marvelous limned-in portrait right down to the last phrase which, while probably modifying "head" can be seen as modifying "her bonnet," in which case we get, "her bonnet rigid and precarious with rage." Even her clothing revolts against Thomas Sutpen.

But encased here is Faulkner's statement about so many of us. And it is a statement wise and true, and most particularly true when we try to operate on our own. ". . . [I]f he had not bogged himself again in his morality which had all the parts but which refused to run, to move." The quandary of modern humanity--we have all the component parts of a morality, all of the right concerns, all of the proper foci, all of the will and the energy, and no ability to implement. The parts are all there but if they are not connected into one smooth-functioning machine, they are useless--they are but spare parts or the old washing machine on the front porch--they identify us as surely as our names or the clothes we wear, they tell something about us, but they don't even serve as window-dressing.

Faulkner makes this point time and again and the downfall of Sutpen is directly related to his inability to get his moral life in order and functioning. And this inability is directly related to the fact that the society he occupies has refused the moral norms of the world in the "peculiar institution" they cling to with such ferocity.

It's interesting--Faulkner loves the South--deeply. He is a true son of the South and yet he can have no truck with the nonsense (on either side) of the War Between the States. The South cannot be justified because it has a moral laxity and a patent offense to natural law. The North cannot because they are not fighting a war to release a people from bondage, but a war that many of them fail to understand at all and so their "bringing freedom" rains down destruction and chaos (see some of my posts related to The Unvanquished.) In a sense Faulkner gets it exactly right and encapsulates the love-hate many of us who are partisans of the South have with our native land.

But I digress--and I digress because Faulkner is one endless digression on matters of such grave importance that it is a pleasure to read and to absorb all that he has to say. Absalom, Absalom! starts out as a kind of mystery and quickly evolves into a complex tale of moral nightmare, evil, delusion, self-determination, and the destruction not only of the person who fall prey to this, but to everyone around him. Thomas Sutpen is a moral cancer in a society that hasn't a firm grasp or understanding of God and His purposes, and as such he is a nexus of destruction and endless unhappiness--perhaps even contributing to Quentin Compson's decision later in 1910 to commit suicide (only after, fortunately, he left us his part of The Sound and the Fury).

And just to seal the point, let me finish the passage quoted above:
And he, standing there with the reins over his arm, with perhaps something like smiling inside his beard and about the eyes which was no smiling but the crinkled concentration of furious thinking:--the haste, the need for it; the urgency but not fear, not concern: just the fact that he had missed that time, though luckily it was just a spotting shot with a light charge, and the old gun, the old barrel and carriage none the worse; only next time there might not be enough powder for both a spotting shot and then a full-sized load;--the fact that the thread of shrewdness and courage and will ran onto the same spool which the thread of his remaining days ran onto and that spool almost near enough for him to reach out his hand and touch it. But this was no grave concern yet, since it (the old logic, the old morality which had never yet failed to fail him) was already falling into pattern, already showing him conclusively that he had been right, just as he knew he had been, and there what had happened was just a delusion and not actually exist.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave. . .

And again, a light touch in a very serious matter: "(the old logic, the old morality which had never yet failed to fail him)."

And so it is with the man who refuses his redemption and attempts to acquire it by his own merits.

More Humor
"He overheard them before he could begin to not listen. . . "
William Faulkner, Abasalom, Absalom!

  One More--Wash Jones on Bravery
Hi all, I'm sorry, I'm just enthralled with the last part of this book and I'd probably post the entire last fifty or so pages I've read had I the time and the right. Because I have neither, let me regale you with one more excerpt:
from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

'. . . Because you are brave. It aint that you were a brave man at one second or minute or hour of your life and got a paper to show hit from General Lee. But you are brave, the same as you are alive and breathing. That's where it's different. Hit dont need no ticket from nobody to tell me that. And I know that whatever your hands tech, whether hit's a regiment of men or a ignorant gal or just a hound dog, that you will make hit right.'
Bravery isn't the matter of a moment but a matter of the heart and mettle.
Is Believing Seeing?
from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner
while one part of him said My brow my skull my jaws my hands and the other said Wait. Wait. You cant know yet. You cannot know yet whether what you see is what you are looking at or what you are believing. Wait. Wait.
Often we see beyond the thing we are looking at and into the inference we are making from it. This is one of the very common problems in science--a scientist can reasonably confuse inference with observation when what he wants is strong enough. In fact, I would accuse some evolutionary scientists of this problem. They want so much to see evidence for evolution that their "observations" cease to be descriptions of the natural world and become descriptions of their inferences from the natural order. Thus we have a plethora of books for agnostic and atheistic evolutionists who leap from the observations of the natural world to the inference of chaotic origin, all the while making a case for it being observation.
Southern to the Core
from "William Faulkner: Heart in Conflict with Itself"
John D. Anderson
Intruder in the Dust presaged Faulkner's speaking out on integration. He argued in several public letters that southern blacks must receive equal rights, which led to harassment and threats by bigoted neighbors. However, his resistance to federal intervention to enforce those rights alienated staunch liberals. Faulkner's moderate liberalism angered everyone.
Found here

I'll have to read a biography to verify this, though I've no reason to doubt it. Faulkner is Southern to the core and this stand is only one of many that demonstrates it. While he wants to do what is right, he wants it to come not from pressure from above but from the hearts of those who need to "get right." No federal intervention, because Faulkner felt the weight of the past and what that weight did to his beloved South. While this won for an oppressed people their freedom, the Federal Government of that time did little to relieve the crushed south and the freed slave population of the plight that had been inflicted upon it by years of war and its concomittant poverty. So much so that the legacy remains with us to this very day, with Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi amongst the poorest states in the union though at one time they ranked with all the others. Faulkner could see no good in this mode of operation (about which one could argue the wisdom). Had the movement risen organically from the people of the South we might still have with us the moderate voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But had there been no intervention would anything at all have changed? One cannot tell, but if what is said above is true, Faulkner felt that the consequences would be more negative than positive, prolonging the agony of racism and bigotry. Who knows. Whatever the case may be--Faulkner shows himself in these opinions a true son of the South.
 Absalom, Absalom!--William Faulkner
I have reached the end and let me from the start make clear how I felt about it. Once upon a time my top five list looked something like this:

1. Ulysses James Joyce
2. To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf
3. The Golden Bowl Henry James
4. Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien
5. Tom Sawyer Mark Twain
6. Portait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce

I don't know I had ever considered much beyond this list. Now, I have a new second place prize holder--Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner. I don't know that anything will ever displace Ulysses for sheer strength of story, prose, imagination, and writing. But Absalom, Absalom! has all of that AND it has great seriousness of purpose.

And today is a remarkably good day on which to review it precisely because of some of the nature of that purpose. Consider for a moment the following: The Absalom of the title, greated in an almost biblical way by his father near the very end of the book, encounters the following moral dilemma: a man he knows to be his half brother wants to marry his sister. With a great deal of effort and thought, he is able to come to terms with this. What he cannot come to terms with is the fact that this man Charles Bon is also one-sixteenth black, and therefore, in the eyes of the south a Negro. And this the man cannot bring himself to countenance.

A stark portrayal of the ingrained class structure and racism of the old South, it is, at once, savage, funny, disturbing, and deeply moving. The story unpeels, layer by layer, you sometimes learn something in a cast-off or aside in a speech of another character--a key clue to what is happening in the novel is just tossed out there. Usually it is developed further, but not always.

Faulkner plays with time, memory, incident, and character in the book. A good third of it is "making up" what really happened because there are gaps that no narrator can cover. So it is with history--we connect the dots we see, but the line connecting them may be missing dots we cannot. And yet, we personalize history by the stories we make up in the interstices--the stories that make history make sense to us. These are not "what really happened," as in many cases we cannot know--but they are the hooks on which we hang what we know and then move on.

Absalom, Absalom! is one of the most difficult books I have ever read--it may even, at times be more difficult than Ulysses. But the difficulty stems only in part from the convolute and involute prose. Another part of the difficulty comes as you try to piece together the past witht he characters and try to come to terms with the issues that have no terms that are acceptable.

Faulkner was a staunch supporter of the rights of African Americans. His language may not seem to reflect his sympathies, but it does indeed, and the compassion and power with which he writes about issues that stain the Old South is remarkable. He manages to explain much about those of us who are fiercely proud of our Southern Heritage and fiercely ashamed as well. How can it be one in the same. Well, read the book as a sympathetic reader and find out.


  1. I was just reading about how desperate Faulkner was for money at one point in time that he was cranking out 2 short stories a week. Apparently, until the Portable Faulkner came out, laying out his works in relation to each other, his work wasn't as appreciated as it came to be. As I Lay Dying was going to be my next Faulkner, but now I think I'll move on to Absalom, Absalom after reading this glowing review.

  2. Dear Emily,

    As fine as Absalom, Absalom! is, and it is very fine--I'd stick with your original plan. Absalom, Absalom! is best worked up to and As I Lay Dying is almost as easy an introduction, or in your case reintroduction to Faulkner as is The Unvanquished.




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