Absalom, Absalom!

November 15, 2007

When I set up my Facebook profile I put “Absalom, Absalom!” by William Faulkner on the list of my favourite books.

But I felt a bit uneasy about it. I hadn’t actually read it for many years and it seemed like a pretensious thing to do.

I don’t often go back and reread books, or listen to favorite music again. Although I do have a little ritual every year when I sit down and listen to Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew“. But I do make an exception for Faulkner.

I’ve loved his books ever since I was taught them at school and university. And I can remember rereading both “Light In August” and “The Sound and The Fury” within the past five years or so. I got my old battered paperbacks down from the attic this summer and reread “The Unvanquished“.

But not “Absalom, Absalom!”. I had a vague memory in my mind of it being Faulkner’s most difficult novel and perhaps I had subconsiously avoided it.

But after reading “The Unvanquished” (I love that title, and have adopted it as a life motto: I may have lost, but I’m not vanquished), I resolved to tackle “Absalom, Absalom!”.

There’s no question that it’s a difficult book. You have to raise your brain up several notches to get into it. Faulkner’s style includes long stream of consciousness sentences, the liberal use of abstract nouns, and an obsessive stylistic habit of defining something first by what it is not several times before telling you what it is. I still don’t understand how he can use such abstract, occasionally pompous language and produce such vivid pictures in your head.

But I think I understand now how and why he writes the way he does. As a white southerner he is indeed obsessively examining the South’s bloody, tragic and shameful history. He is half bewitched by the “romance of the south”. After all his own grandfather was one of the South’s great characters.

He is circling around his heritage, looking at it from all the angles and all perspectives. And although part of him is half in love with the romance, as an intelligent (indeed a rare) human being he can’t help honing in on the shameful truth underneath.

And the two sections in the book where the truth is revealed are written in crystal clear, lucid prose. They hit you with enormous power. The truth is that this is a society built on slavery and racism. And all they’ve brought that society is disaster, ruin and madness, destroying hopes, lives and families.

It’s wierd in 2007 to read a book where the word “nigger” is used so casually. But Faulkner is not writing about the black experience of slavery. Rather he shows how slavery has corrupted white society, and his picture is all the more devastating for it.

“Absalom, Absalom!” is so good that I tried to slow down my reading so that it wouldn’t have to end. It contains the best two final pages of any novel I’ve ever read. These are unfashionable words and phrases, but it’s a work of art and Faulkner’s masterpiece.

It’s staying on my Facebook profile.

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