Absalom Absalom

Absalom! Absalom! (Modern Library) - William Faulkner


I usually don't find it difficult to write about my reaction to a novel. But this one has defeated me. What a complex, layered work it is. I've sat in front of the computer for about an hour now, writing and deleting sentences, trying to analyse what I feel about it, and I can't quite find the words.

The narrative, which moves back and forward in time, concerns Thomas Sutpen, who arrives in Mississippi with a band of "wild" slaves to fulfill his obession to create a dynasty. He  builds a large estate, marries a local girl and has two children. Years later, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Sutpen's daughter's fiancé is killed by Sutpen's son, who then disappears. Herein lies the mystery at the heart of the work - how and why Sutpen's past returned to haunt and ultimately destroy him.

Much of the complexity of the work comes from its structure. Sutpen's story is told through a series of intertwined third person accounts. Years after Sutpen's death, his sister-in-law tells part of the story to 20 year old Quentin Compson, who is then given other information about Sutpen by his father, who had in turn been told about Sutpen by his father. Quentin then tells the story to his Canadian room mate at Harvard, Shreve, who adds his own speculations about Sutpen to the narrative. None of the narrators know exactly what happened. All of them speculate about the facts and the text abounds with "probably", "possibly", "may have" and "must have". The effect of all of this uncertainty is unsettling and Sutpen's true story remains elusive, which is, I assume, part of the point.

The themes are also unsettling: Faulkner deals with race and class relations, incest and miscegenation. The novel is in effect an allegory of Southern history. This may be why I have difficulty articulating how I feel about the work. I'm an outsider to that history - as is Shreve in the novel - and I don't quite know how to react to it. What I can say, though, is that I found this work moving and haunting. This is an extraordinary novel and I'm in awe of Faulkner's writing.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Grover Gardner, which made the work much more accessible than I expected it to be. There was something about hearing the rhythms of the characters' speech which overcame the inherent difficulty of the long sentences and the complicated structure. I can't give this novel any less than five stars.