Excruciatingly Good

Give the author the tragic sense of Classic drama, roll him in the modern expansion of the craft of fiction, create a world which can contain all the great themes of literature, give the author a strong sense of language and you might approximate the strength of William Faulkner:  Aeschylus, Woolf, Hardy, Joyce in one author. But when you add the intense sense of history and the deep understanding of the South, you have a truly excellent writer and a truly excellent, albeit demanding, read.

Most of Faulkner’s work is well worth reading and many works are enhanced by repeated reading both to absorb the great complexity of the writing and also to discover the unique strength and vividness of the writing. My one complaint about Faulkner:  he makes most other authors seem silly and frivolous.

Absalom, Absalom!, which I now consider superior to the earlier The Sound and the Fury, is a simple Classic narrative told in a complex way and transferred from the Classic Age of Greece and Rome to the Gothic South in the America of the 19th century. Certainly Absalom, Absalom! benefits from being a part of the mythical Yoknapatawpha County, the geography and the many characters that the author uses in many of his novels, and as such, the full value of a single novel may not be complete without having read several other novels. It can also be argued that Faulkner’s novels and stories can be read as independent works and other than when there is a strict grouping, like the Trilogy, reoccurring characters, shared events, common locales, are added spice but not vital to understanding and appreciating the novel in question.

This is what the publishers says about Absalom, Absalom!:

Absalom, Absalom! is Faulkner’s major work—his most important and ambitious contribution to American literature. In the dramatic texture of this story of the founding, flourishing and decay of the plantation of Sutpen’s Hundred, and of the family that demonic Stephen Sutpen brought into the world a generation before the Civil War, there rises the lament of the South for its own vanished splendor. From its magnificent and bold inception, when with his wild Negroes the founder of the great plantation appeared out of nowhere to seize his hundred square miles of land and build his mansion,through the destruction of the Civil War and its aftermath, and the drab beginnings of the new South, the narrative is colored by the author’s glowing imagery, his command of a powerful and magical prose style. Beneath its brilliant surface and dark undercurrents, the novel sweeps backward and forward through time. The story in all its ramifications becomes crystallized in the mind of a relative of this strange family, young Quentin Compson, a Harvard student. At the terrifying and abrupt end of the tale there remain in the crumbling shell of the old house only the dying son of its builder, an ancient Negro woman who have been his slave, and the idiot mulatto youth who was to be the only direct descendant of the Sutpen blood.

Faulkner is a challenging read requiring a mature, disciplined, and energetic approach to reading (and rereading).  You’ve read all those Steinbeck novels and the Hemingway stories, not to forget Fitzgerald and his one good novel, but now it’s time to grow up and read at the big table. Ever wonder why Faulkner is seldom assigned-reading in the public schools and often is not read until the gray cells are a little more disciplined in college? Grab a novel like Absalom, Absalom! and the answer should be obvious.

2 responses

  1. I’ve tried “The Sound and the Fury” once before and didn’t get very far in it. Just like I’ve tried “War and Peace” twice.

    I supidly bought the unabridged version of War and Peace and managed right at 250 pages in it, but by then I had 20+ notecards on all the characters and it was just too much work to keep up with. I know you’ll hate me forever for saying this, but I think most literature could use a good modern editor to speed things up and cut parts out. This might make it more avaiable to more typical readers.

    For instance, in “War and Peace,” if you had someone rename the characters so that the characters didn’t have such similar names — and it’d be nice if some of them didn’t have four different names — then I think more people could get into it. There were certainly parts in that 250 pages that I thought were brilliant, but ultimately I can’t do reading that is flat out work. And in “War and Peace,” when you’re using notecards and having to struggle to get into it, it’s work.

    With Faulkner, it’s his writing style. As I remember, the sentences were just way too long and I had no idea where it was going — it certainly wasn’t going anywhere in the parts I read.

    So, basically, I’m just one of your dumber, less educated readers who’s being honest, and who I’m certain will soon be shredded by most of your other blog readers. : ) But, thanks for bringing him up and this book, perhaps I’ll try to pick it up again.

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    • Not everyone gets through a demanding novel the first time but that’s no excuse to resort to abridgments. When I am looking forward to a thick pastrami sandwich on crusty rye bread I’m not going to be happy with a slab of bologna between two pieces of stale white bread. Bowdlerizing literature as you suggest might be acceptable for Little Big Books but not for serious reading. In all parts of life, good things come when we put forth the effort required.

      I remember my earliest reading: Fun With Dick and Jane. Short names, no complex sentences, clear plots that reached identifiable conclusions in only a page or two … and pictures! Reading in the first grade was a pleasure. Actually, that’s not true because reading even the simple Dick and Jane stories is a difficult challenge when you are only five or six. I haven’t been five or six in a long time and I don’t think reading those old books would challenge my imagination any more.

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