Literary: November 2007 Archives

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.

Bookmark and Share

Faulkner's Humor


It's out of context, and it may be hard to situate, but Ringo is Bayard Sartoris's best friend, brother, slave. Ringo has been sitting and drawing a picture of the Sartoris House before the Yankees burned it to the ground. Looked at in the present of the text, the house consists of four chimneys and a yardful of weeds growing out of the ruins. As this excerpt begins, a Yankee officer is speaking to Ringo; Granny has been using a variety of names to steal donkeys back from the Yankees, sell them and split the proceeds with the needy of the town.

from The Unvanquished
William Faulkner

"All right," he said. "Who lives up there now? What's her name today, hey?"

Ringo was watching him now, though I dont think he suspect yet who he was. "Dont nobody," he said. "The roof leaks." One of the men made a kind of sound; maybe it was laughing. The lieutenant started to whirl around the then he started not to; then he sat there glaring down at Ringo with his mouth beginning to open. "Oh," Ringo said. "You mean way back yonder in the quarters. I though you was still worrying about them chimneys."

This time the soldier did laugh, and this time the lieutenant did whirl around, cursing at the should; I would have known him now even if I hadn't before; he cursed at them all now, sitting there with his face swelling up.

It's played so straight that it is funny, and it is a detail that could easily have been left out of the narrative--but what a robust richness it lends to the tale--what a sense of versimilitude. I have always loved Faulkner, even while I struggle sometimes to understand where he's going. His wordplay and his ability to get into his characters and convey something real and yet something nearly surreal are astonishing.

Oh, and for those who have asked--no, I don't read these things because I'm supposed to, or trying to show off, or anything of the sort. At my age, to paraphrase the great Dr. Johnson, "No one but a blockhead reads for anything other than the desire to do so."

I've spent too much time reading things that simply don't have the substance to warrant having read them. And yet there is much joy in reading both the bad and the great. And the great is even greater when set beside the mediocre or poor. Some say that Faulkner can't write, and my usual reaction is polite silence as I think, "Some people can't read." Faulkner or Dan Brown, let me think a moment. . .

Bookmark and Share

Motion Toward Freedom


A beautiful and moving passage from Faulkner in which he describes the movement of the emancipated slave population of Yoknapatawpha County toward the river, the crossing of which symbolizes for them freedom.

from The Unvanquished
William Faulkner

We began to see the dust almost at once and I even believed that I could already smell them though the distance between us did not appreciably decrease, since they were travelling almost as fast as we were. We never did overtake them, just as you do not overtake a tide. You just keep moving, then suddenly you know that the set is about you, beneath you, overtaking you, as if the slow and ruthless power, become aware of your presence at last, had dropped back a tentacle, a feeler, to gather you in and sweep you remorselessly on. Singly, in couples, in groups and families they began to appear from the woods, ahead of us, alongside of us and behind; they covered and hid from sight the road exactly as an infiltration of flood water would have, hiding the road from sight and then the very wheels of the wagon in which we rode, our two horses as well as Bobolink breasting slowly on, enclosed by a mass of heads and shoulders--men and women carrying babies and dragging older children by the hand, old men and women on improvised sticks and crutches, and very old ones sitting beside the road and even calling to us when we passed; there was one old woman who even walked along beside the wagon, holding to the bed and begging Granny to at least let her see the river before she died.

But mostly they did not look at us. We might not have even been there. We did not even ask them to let us through because we could look at their faces and know they couldn't have heard us. They were not singing yet, they were just hurrying, while our horses pushed slow through them, among the blank eyes not looking at anything out of faces caked with dust and sweat, breasting slowly and terrifically through them as if we were driving in midstream up a creek full of floating logs and the dust and the smell of them everywhere and Granny in Mrs Compson's hat sitting bolt upright under the parasol which Ringo held and looking sicker and sicker, and it already afternoon though we didn't know it anymore than we knew how many miles we had come. Then all of a sudden we reached the river where the cavalry was holding them back from the bridge. It was just a sound at first, like the wind, like it might be in the dust itself. We didn't even know what it was until we saw Drusilla holding Bobolink reined back, her face turned toward us wan and small above the dust and her mouth open and crying thinly: "Look out, Aunt Rosa! Oh, look out!"

And what happens next falls into the realm of tragedy or bathos as the Yankees, for inscrutable purposes of their own, destroy the bridge but fail to stem the tide of yearning. And then, a moment of redemption with a compassionate Yankee officer coming to the aid of Granny--an officer who allowed her to protect her two charges in a previous episode, even while he denied their existence.

This book is Faulkner, pure Faulkner, and yet immediately more accessible and comprehensible than say The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying. And it is enjoyable--a visit to the roots that gave rise to the blossom of Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor.

Bookmark and Share

How What is Divided Grows


I post two separate entries on Dante because while they abut one another in the poetry, they seem to go separate directions in thought. And this particular point is one that a lot of people have difficulty remembering because this world is so limited.

from Purgatorio Canto XV
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"How can each one of many who divide
a single good have more of it, so shared,
than if a few had kept it?" He replied:

"Because within the habit of mankind
you set your whole intent on earthly things,
the true light falls as darkness on your mind.

The infinite and inexpressible Grace
which is in Heaven, gives itself to Love
as a sunbeam gives itself to a bright surface.

As much light as it finds there, it bestows;
thus, as the blaze of Love is spread more widely,
the greater the Eternal Glory grows.

As mirror reflects mirror, so above,
the more there are who join their souls, the more
Love learns perfection, and the more they love.

If you visit colonial houses, you will often find on the wall sconces with convex mirrors or polished surfaces behind them. The purpose was to capture the light from a single candle and use it more efficiently. And so Dante's metaphor. Love that falls on a surface ready to receive it both lights that surface to the degree that it is prepared to be lit, and is "multiplied" to reflect from other such surfaces. Love, as we are well aware, does not diminish in the division, but paradoxically, multiplies. The metaphor of reflection is a clear and perfect trope for the activity of love.

Bookmark and Share

"The Figure a Poem Makes"


from "The Figure a Poem Makes"
Robert Frost

It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.

The entire essay or, at least, a longer excerpt, here. For those interested--here's a link to an Arabic translation. Isn't it lovely even to look at?

Bookmark and Share



About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Literary category from November 2007.

Literary: October 2007 is the previous archive.

Literary: December 2007 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll