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 prizeholder--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.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 21, 2008 4:08 PM.

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