Posted in Fiction

William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

 

Maybe he knew then that whatever the old man had done,whether he meant well or ill by it, it wasn’t going to be the old man who would have to pay the check; and now that the old man was bankrupt with the incompetence of age, who should do the paying if not his sons, his get, because wasn’t it done that way in the old days? the old Abraham full of years and weak and incapable now of further harm, caught at last and the captains and the collectors saying, ‘Old man, we don’t want you’ and Abraham would say, ‘Praise the Lord, I have raised about me sons to bear the burden of mine iniquities…’

As with the other William Faulkner novels I’ve read this year, there is so much in Absalom, Absalom! that I don’t have the time to cover everything but I’ll post about a few of the things that jumped out at me. And also again, my ability to suspend my need for certainty became an asset to me while reading this novel.

The novel itself is the story of Thomas Sutpen whose life spans most of the 19th century and who seeks and builds his fortune in Faulkner’s fictional Jefferson, Mississippi. Most of what I’ve read about this novel indicates that Sutpen’s life is an allegory for the rise and fall of the South during the 1800’s. I don’t know if allegory is the right word but Sutpen’s life definitely coincides with the historical South before, after and during the American Civil War.

From the outset, the way this story is told proves unusual and fascinating. Quentin Compson, the middle son of the Compson family from The Sound and The Fury (and other Faulkner stories) is the point of contact for the entire story in spite of the fact that it is easy to forget he’s there. Parts of the story are narrated by various characters as they tell their part of the story to Quentin. A significant portion is told to Quentin by his father who is basing his information on what was told to him by his father (Quentin’s grandfather) who was at least an acquaintance of Sutpen. In another section, we have Quentin’s Harvard roommate “repeating” the story to Quentin in the form of very long questions as if he is making sure he’s heard it correctly. The idea that history is handed down from generation to generation is illustrated beautifully here and the fact that the narrators are not 100% reliable gives an even more realistic notion to the idea of learning history as more detective work than scholarly study although I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

The title of the novel is an allusion from the Old Testament in which King David cries out at the death of his son Absalom who had spent his adult life attempting to overthrow and usurp the power of his father. This Biblical narrative often is used to illustrate the idea that the sins of the father are cast down to the next generations and this plays into the themes of Sutpen’s story and the Southern United States.  This cry out can be interpreted in many different ways even at the same time. My own opinion is that the cry out is one for an ideal or way of life that is more important than survival. Sutpen and the South would rather see themselves destroyed than change their culture and attitudes.

A story about the American Civil War wouldn’t be considered accurate without including the institution of slavery and the racism that comes with it.  As Sutpen is determining who should marry his daughter, Judith, incest is considered a better option than someone who potentially has mixed blood (even as little as one sixteenth). This is in spite of the fact that Sutpen himself has illegitimate children of mixed race who while may be minor characters, collectively, are written more sympathetically by Faulkner than Sutpen’s legitimate family.

The power in the novel comes with the concept of the generational passing of sins. The sins of the father(s) will be paid for in some form or fashion by the sons or the next generations. And Faulkner doesn’t seem to think that payment will necessarily be an easy one.

The novel ends with a reminder that Quentin Compson is still here in the present (1909) and his realization of Sutpen’s story may or may not hinder his reconciliation to his “Southerness” and while this is not the final line of the novel and it may incorporate more characters than just Quentin, it seems to fit his state of mind:

…he bettered choosing who created in his own image, the cold Cerberus of his private hell.

 

Posted in Fiction

William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

It’s remarkable and odd and completely real how determined the Bundren family is to get Addie, their dead wife and mother, buried in Jefferson, Mississippi – a journey of at least a few days depending on what types of hell or high water they might encounter.

They come to a turn in the road with a sign pointing to New Hope. The Bundrens, in their mule-driven wagon and coffin in tow; however, role right on by – literally and probably metaphorically. They will “endure” all the way to Jefferson.

The Bundrens tend to not see (or smell) themselves the way others see (or smell) them. In spite of each member of the family having their own wishes and desires and interests and in spite of various secrets and dysfunctions, they all have the same determination in regards to getting Addie buried. There’s not a lot of love – or at least what would traditionally be considered love – between them. This determination is probably the closest they will come. Cash has his tools, Jewel has his horse, Dewey Dell – the daughter – has a heart-breaking secret, Vardaman has his fish. I’m not sure what Darl has but he eventually ends up in “Jackson” which is where Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury ends up.

And Anse, the father, has his additional motives for the journey, that leads to the novel’s shockingly funny ending.

As I’m finding out in reading Faulkner, he uses numerous points of view. Each of the family members take turns telling the story including Addie. It’s also interesting that in the middle of one character’s narration, another character will interrupt via italics. A film version was made by James Franco in 2013 that utilizes (and also clarifies) this technique very well.

And then there’s the actual writing itself – the way words are put together:

The breeze was setting up from the barn, so we put her under the apple tree, where the moonlight can dapple the apple tree upon the long slumbering flanks within which now and then she talks in little trickling bursts of secret and murmurous bubbling. I took Vardaman to listen. When we came up the cat leaped down from it and flicked away with silver claw and silver eye into the shadow.

This novel is ranking up there as a favorite and Faulkner continues to intrigue me. But I feel like there’s so much more to learn.

Posted in Fiction

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury

William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury is a mystery of sorts, an unveiling, a slow surprise culminating in a heart-breaking, breath-taking scene. Dilsey, the Compson family’s African American servant woman takes the mentally disabled Benjy Compson’s head in her lap to comfort his crying:

“We’s down to worse’n dis, ef folks jes knowed,” she said. “You’s de Lawd’s chile, anyway. En I be His’n too, fo long…

Benjy doesn’t understand or remember the unraveling of his family but the sorrow, longing and loss are his to feel and his to express in the sound (and the fury, I suppose) of his crying.

I don’t think I’ve come across a scene that could represent more the Biblical phrase “the least of these”. In his final section, Faulkner delivers short vignettes that tell the continual disappearance of the Compson family but he finally describes Dilsey and her family with simply “They endured.”

Hope? Maybe a glimmer.

The Sound and the Fury is not an easy book to read. It’s been on my shelf for over three decades and I’ve only now had the patience to get through it. Even now, I had to consciously suspend my desire for certainty in order to keep going. But I did and it was worth it. Once finished, perhaps the reader has “endured”, too.

Posted in Fiction

William Faulkner’s Light In August

Light in August

Hope is a funny thing in literature. It can come in the form of a Pollyanna-type looking through rose-colored glasses singing “keep on the sunny side of life”. Or it can come in the form of a small glimmer in an otherwise dark story as in William Faulkner’s Light In August. Hope is barely there – but it’s still hope:

“I don’t think that the old lady had any hope of saving him when she came, any actual hope. I believe that all she wanted was that he die ‘decent,’ as she put it. Decently hung by a Force, a principle; not burned or hacked or dragged dead by a Thing.”

“She just didn’t hope. Didn’t know how to begin to hope. I imagine that after thirty years the machinery for hoping requires more than twenty four hours to get started, to get into motion again.”

“I don’t think that the hoping machine had got started then, either. I don’t think that it ever did start until that baby was born out there this morning, born right in her face…”

One of the images of hope that has stayed with me is that of Lena Groves, pregnant, unwed, walking for weeks on end from Alabama to Jefferson, Mississippi in the hope of finding the father of her baby who had left “to find work” and not returned to her. During her travels, she tends to draw people to her even if the societal norms of the time might say otherwise. They want to help her as she tells her story but they, and the reader, have an understanding that she’s probably not going to find the man she’s looking for. But she persistently puts one foot in front of the other all the way to Jefferson.

The darkness that encompasses this novel revolves around Joe Christmas, born of mixed race and cast off as an orphan never fitting in with anyone. He tends to repel the people he meets. Faulkner brilliantly manipulates time to let the reader know the crime Christmas commits before it occurs in the narrative which makes the scene of Christmas “mounting the stairs” over and over again (same scene, several tellings) all that more terrifying. Faulkner also lets the reader know Joe Christmas’s horrible childhood and while this allows the reader to see the result and the horror of the times in which Christmas had to grow up and its influence on him, Faulkner doesn’t seem to allow for much sympathy for Christmas, himself.

If Faulkner does present any sympathy toward Christmas, it’s through his grandmother Mrs Hines who is referred to in the quotations above. When she discovers Joe is her grandson, the reader feels her sympathy and her love for Joe.  In a form of redemption, Mrs. Hines gets to be at the birth of Lena’s baby. The birth of Lena’s baby promotes that small amount of hope, that ability to see a new life in the midst of such darkness.

When I read this book in my senior high school English class (which was thirty-six years ago), I remember discussing the title. According to my teacher, the term “light” was a southern farming term meaning “pregnant”. And while pregnancy has a significant place in the plot, this passage stood out toward the end:

In the lambent suspension of August into which night is about to fully come, it seems to engender and surround itself with a faint glow like a halo. The halo is full of faces.

At least based on this one passage, light in terms of the opposite of darkness doesn’t seem that far-fetched as a meaning behind the title. It’s also not uncommon for the theme of hope to be represented by light especially in contrast with darkness. I realize, though, titles can have more than one meaning. It’s interesting that Lena is also described as traveling light in the sense of traveling pregnant and traveling on foot with very little baggage. Light, as in the opposite of heavy or as in pregnancy and new life, might also represent hope as well.

I haven’t even gotten to Faulkner’s use of point of view or the characters of Byron Bunch and the Reverend Gail Hightower. I may need a separate post about them.

In some ways it’s intimidating to talk about Faulkner. I know very little about him and his work but I know that this was definitely the right time for me to re-read this story.  Any insight out there would be greatly enjoyed and greatly appreciated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Short Stories

William Faulkner: That Evening Sun Go Down (Deal Me In 2017-Week 26)

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Nancy whispered something. It was oh or no, I don’t know which. Like nobody had made it, like it came from nowhere and went nowhere, until it was like Nancy was not there at all; that I had looked so hard at her eyes on the stair that they had got printed on my eyelids, like the sun does when you have closed your eyes and there is no sun.

There’s a lot to William Faulkner’s short story “That Evening Sun Go Down” – this story probably warrants more than one reading but here are some of the things I picked up.

William_Faulkner

When Nancy, the servant woman of the Compson family repeatedly says “I ain’t nothing but a [racial slur]”, she is not only saying what she herself feels at that point in the story but she puts this into universal terms for anyone who has been oppressed because of their race. I think the fact that Faulkner has her repeat it gives it more power and emphasis than it might otherwise.

Then the repeated echo from five year-old Jason Compson “I ain’t a [racial slur]” contrasts Nancy’s oppression with an uncertain knowing on the part of a child. Jason has the understanding that comes with observation even at a young age but does not completely “get” Nancy’s circumstances or the deeper meaning behind her exclamation.

Uncertainty seems to play a role here. Mr. Jason (young Jason’s father) willingly takes the scared Nancy home each night. I admit to thinking that Mr. Jason has less than noble reasons for doing that; however, everything I read brings me to conclude that the father of the Compson children tries to do the right thing within his situation. Nancy and the children are both afraid. I’m not sure they are afraid for the same reasons.

I am familiar with the Compson children only from my numerous attempts to read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. One day (will it be this year? I can’t promise), I will read that novel in its entirety and maybe more of Faulkner’s work.  I am more than willing to hear anyone else’s take on this story. Or their take on reading Faulkner in general.

It’s hard to believe that it is already the halfway point for Deal Me In 2017. I selected my first Wild Card, the Two of Diamonds, for Week 26. “That Evening Sun Go Down” is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Posted in Short Stories

“A Rose For Emily”

It’s the second week of my Deal Me In: Short Story Project – 2013 and I’ve already drawn a wild card, the two of hearts – I swear I shuffled them!  For the wild cards, I’m going to pick a story from somebody else’s list – i.e. Jay over at Bibliophilopolis.  Since he has been doing this for several years, now, he has several lists I can choose from.  So this week I read William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose For Emily”.

I’ve posted before about a literary theory I have about surprise endings.  A good writer can  lead the reader along in a good story and then blow them away with a surprise ending.  Those stories can be enjoyable; however, I tend to believe great writers can take readers along in a great story giving them every thing they need to know exactly where the story will end up – and still blow them away at the end.  I found this short story by Faulkner to fall into the latter category.

Emily Grierson lives in a small southern town sometime around the turn of the twentieth century.  The story jumps back and forth in time to explain her reclusive nature.  She and her family tend to be quite the topic of conversation among the townspeople.  The story contains several episodes involving the townspeople confronting Emily about oddities surrounding her living arrangements.  While I didn’t find myself having much sympathy for Emily right off the bat, as the townspeople became more and more intrusive, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her a little bit.  In my mind, the final straw came when the Baptist minister and his wife confronted Emily about riding with her “beau” around the town on Sunday afternoons.

As I mentioned, almost from the beginning, Faulkner gives the reader everything they need to know about how the story will end.  I can’t really say that the ending was a surprise to me.  Emily’s visit to the drugstore in the middle of the story pretty much clinched it.   In spite of knowing where the story was headed, the ending was probably as completely satisfying as any story I’ve read.  I’m not against surprise endings – I just don’t think great writers need them.

As an aside, just in case anyone wonders whether I’m still reading books, the answer is “yes, I am”.  I only have 40 pages left in War and Peace and I will be free – I mean I will have accomplished my goal.

Posted in Fiction

Classic Intimidation

For November, the monthly meme at The Classics Club asks the question:  What classic book most intimidates you?  Tolstoy’s War and Peace immediately comes to mind.  I have a feeling many readers find this novel intimidating simply because of its length.  I might actually use this novel to answer the question if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m currently half way through reading it – and I’m completely confident that I will finish it.  I’m guessing I won’t finish it until December, but I will finish it.

So what other classic work of literature intimidates me?  I’ll pick William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury.  During my senior year in high school, my English class read Faulkner’s Light in August.  I enjoyed the novel enough to try reading more Faulkner and The Sound and the Fury popped up on my radar.  I don’t remember how far I got into it, but I could not make heads or tails out of it.   I’ve never been afraid of working at reading a book and usually a little extra effort pays off in an enjoyable reading experience; however, this Faulkner novel never got finished.  The disjointed, stream of consciousness, lack of chronological order narrative just proved too much for me.

It’s been a little while since high school and I’ve developed some as a reader, but giving The Sound and The Fury another go just isn’t on my agenda – but never say never.  I never thought I’d be reading War and Peace and enjoying it as much as I am.