Could William Faulkner Write?

I don’t like to travel without an interesting compelling time-filling book, and I’m driving up to PA tomorrow in what is still called a car because that is what the people over at Hertz call it – a bright cool air-conditioned chamber with the windows all closed because as a man I realize that hot air prevents coolness from spreading and the open window will let more heat than cool in – so I was glancing over my office qua study bookcase covered with anthologies of great books and poems and individual novels from which life-changing insights broke in random gusts, breaking the backs of cultures on the rack of history and I made the mistake of picking up Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. I read the first page and a half and thought, “This demands a response.”

So, even though I have no time for it, and even though I can’t possibly say anything intelligent, I am going to take a few moments and respond to this page and a half.

My first thought, by the time it formed itself into a proposition, sounded something like this: “How does such a book find a publisher?”

It’s not that it doesn’t deserve to be published, it’s just that it breaks every rule in the publishers library of rule books. How did the first editor get past the second page? This book, were it handed in to a college professor, would have almost certainly been dismissed as ridiculous.

But the error would have been the professor’s, I guess, because its now among the great books in the American canon.

My trouble, and the trouble is mine and it is a vice, is that when I pick up a book to read on my own, I want to know it will be worth my time. I am a distressingly pragmatic reader. I want to take something out of the reading and I want to do it quickly.

So when I read, “From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that — a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with ….” I wonder:

How do I know Faulkner isn’t playing a joke on me?

The thing is, it may be that Faulkner is writing this exactly as it needed to be written given the reality he is embodying in this description. It may be that unless we see all these things interpenetrating each other verbally we can never perceive how they interpenetrated each other in reality. In other words, maybe high school essay prose won’t express the idea Faulkner is trying to express.

So I flip randomly and end up on my head. Then I flip the pages of my book randomly and end up on page 87, where I read this:

“She must have seen Judith now and Judith probably urged her to come out to Sutpen’s Hundred to live, but I believe that this is the reason she did not go, even though she did not know where Bon and Henry were and Judith apparently never thought to tell her.”

And just as I’m about to plunge into despair, he follows that with this:

“Because Judith knew. She may have known for some time; even Ellen may have known. Or perhaps Judith never told her mother either.”

He can write short sentences – but he won’t write in a perfectly linear way, that’s evident. Every phrase seems to be a qualification of the preceding one.

Now, being a child of the age, I prefer to read fast and to get on to the next book, but it’s pretty obvious that if I’m going to read Absalom, Absalom I’m going to have to slow down and think about what I’m reading. I’ll probably even, horror of horrors, have to read it more than once.

Who’s got time for that? There are 54 great books in the great books set and this isn’t even one of them! Plus I have to read Hicks, Plato’s Phaedrus, and The Tempest for the apprenticeship, study Latin, study poetics for LTW development, and read things for next year’s conference – etc. etc.

Who’s got time for a leisurely read?

It reminds me of Emo Phillips doing the triathlon. He swims for about five minutes and then thinks, “This is stupid, the bike is getting rusty.”

So who knows, maybe I’ll read Faulkner or maybe I won’t. I know that until I do I can’t be considered educated, but that’s the way the cookie bounces. I blew my chance to get educated when I went to school as a child. Now I just do what I can.

But it does seem to me that the effort would be worth it. For one thing, I would have to read in a manner I’m not accustomed to reading and that’s always a good thing to do. Reading is an almost miraculous activity in that it opens the mind, not only to new ideas, but to new forms of thinking, to new patterns of perception.

I like the standard clear strong manly English sentence with a subject, predicate, direct object. I like the periodic sentence too, where the verb (imitating Latin and German), till the end of the sentence, is withheld. It seems to hold the attention while the reader, anxious to see whether the sentence will heal or wound itself with its ending, poised on a balance beam, waits; and the writer, heels over head, dismounting the same beam, nothing promises.

But Faulkner: what is he doing?

Here’s how it appears to me. He is not writing, or so it seems to me from the two pages I’ve read, about actions or about the world outside. He seems instead to be writing about perceptions, relationships, and recollections all flowing together – not a flow of thought subjectivism, but a dynamic interaction between the world around and the organ of perception.

His form, therefore, while it is not easy, would seem to be essential, as much a part of the story as the words themselves. It will be demanding, as much poetry as prose. But if I ever have the time and if I ever feel like it, I might well read this book. For now, I’m happy with my Spider-Man comic.

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23 Responses

  1. One more note, especially since as far as I am concerned this is a great discussion: it helps to know what the story is before reading a Faulkner novel. It helps to have all the characters worked out in your head ahead of time or at least after the first couple of chapters. That may seem like a waste of time but you have to read Faulkner like you read Milton or Dante and not like you read Vince Flynn. It also helps to just plan on reading the novels twice in a row and then when you can relax a little about the characters and storylines, you can get caught up in the language and cadence.

  2. I’m hesitant to chime in, because I’m a defensive southerner who gets all emotional about things I really care about. But I would at least agree with whoever said, Don’t start with Absalom, Absalom. My first choice for you would be Go Down, Moses, although frankly this novel also descends into stream-of-consciousness meltdown right in the middle, and lots of folks give up then.

    Listen – Faulkner is investing the south with mythology – that’s what he’s doing – or he’s articulating the mythological significance that is already there. You say you want manly prose – well, it is very virile stuff. Virile like Agamemmnon and Ajax and those guys.

    Anyway, I’m from Alabama, and I learned to play banjo on my grandfather’s front porch, so maybe I’m not the right one to ask.

    But I do know an Englishman and a Cambridge graduate who loves Faulkner. So nyah.

    “I don’t hate the south! I don’t! – Quentin Compson (from the very end of Absalom, Absalom)

    • In the interests of self-disclosure, I am not a particular fan of Faulkner but respect his body of work.

      I believe that Faulkner is offering a worldview which attempts to define a certain segment of the South, and consequently must invest it with the mundane for the profound to reveal itself. Otherwise, the story would seem contrived or incessantly sanctimonious and neither extreme is particularly appealing on any level.

  3. Maybe Faulkner could write, and I know of people who love to read him, but you can’t prove it by me. I read As I Lay Dying for a literature class about 12 y ears ago, and to this day I have no idea what the story was about. He may well be “. . . writing about perceptions, relationships, and recollections all flowing together – not a flow of thought subjectivism, but a dynamic interaction between the world around and the organ of perception.” The problem with that is I’m not included, so I end up not grasping what he’s communicating. Apparently others are included, and I am happy for them. There are a lot of other places, literarily speaking, where I am wanted, literature that is “deep” stream of consciousness/interaction between the world and the author’s psyche, so that I’m not going to spend my time reading an author that, even after a thorough, albeit a singular novel, approach is incomprehensible to me.

    • Paulina,

      I can’t know all the variables that affect this, but are you sure you aren’t approaching the artifact from the wrong angle?

      Strictly based on what you wrote, on the words in front of me, removed from personal context, which means that I am speaking from almost total ignorance of you and your circumstances, but, strictly based on what you wrote:

      if you were in my class, I would try to figure out why you feel excluded and unwanted, and then I would, encourage you to change your angle of perception.

      Of course, I don’t mean that to come across so gracelessly, but don’t know any other words to put it in. My point is simply that when we are in the presence of greatness of any sort our duty is to give it the honor due it.

      Now it’s hard for me to imagine that the way I’ve phrased this hasn’t offended you, so I have to try to explain.

      I don’t mean to say that you are an unskilled, self-centered, or otherwise inadequate reader. I mean something more like this:

      I think every author owes it to his reader to try to connect as well as he can, but that, even more important than the author or the reader is the idea being expressed.

      The author’s first task is to embody truth in the text. The reader’s first duty is to discover the truth in the text. The form of the narrative is essential to the truth embodied.

      If, therefore, Faulkner said something true in the way the truth needed to be said, then we as readers, inasmuch as we are readers, are bound to submit to the text, not to demand that it fit our tastes, expectations, or demands.

      The truth is the lord of the experience, not the author, not the reader, and not even the text.

      So when I approach Faulkner, if his approach is incomprehensible to me, then, inasmuch as I am a reader, if I, for that reason, don’t read him, whatever truth he is embodying is lost to me.

      As a human that may be fine. It may well be that what Faulkner says is not important to me, not necessary for me to fulfill my duties as a human.

      But as a reader, as one who wants to be a great reader, which I do, when I confront a Faulkner, or even the abominable James Joyce, if I want to be a great reader, then I need to engage.

      Finally, I don’t think many literature classes help us see the truth embodied because literary theory, especially in the 90’s, doesn’t believe in truth or embodiment.

  4. For me, the best entre to Faulkner was through his short stories, Try “A Rose for Emily” or “The Bear”. Both exhibit the Faulkner signature, and allow you to make a relatively quick decision about trying his novels.

  5. Faulkner is the bane of most southerners. As proud of our southern writers as most of us are, Faulkner is still problematic. Maybe if I gave up reading To Kill a Mockingbird one year, I’d have time for Absolam. Harper Lee most certainly makes all things right in the world of southern writers…..and it is the ONLY book I read EVERY year.

  6. Absalom, Absalom is worth the time and effort, but it is not the place to start. Read The Unvanquished. The Sutpen family story is told briefly there in passing. Read Go Down, Moses next. And by all means, read Cleanth Brooks’ books on Faulkner or at least the sections dealing with Absolam, Absolam. And get a hold of the University of Mississippi Press series called Reading Faulkner. There is a volume devoted to Absalom, Absalom. And look at my blog entries occasionally that deal with Faulkner.
    I hope you remember me. It has been quite a few years since our paths crossed.

    • Ben,
      Of course I remember you. Thanks for the tips and the reference to your blog. I’m amazed by how much response this post has received.

      Faulkner obviously strikes some chord, which is one pretty good mark of a great piece of literature.

  7. The Spider Man comic must be a Scott McFarland Spider Man comic, or it is not worth reading.

  8. Good thing you didn’t just dip randomly into The Sound and the Fury where Faulkner is using a mentally handicapped narrator who keeps shifting back and forth between three different time periods of life in his stream of consciousness monologues and the only way the reader can begin to get his bearings is by keeping track of which caretaker is mentioned (he had a different one for each period of time). Cliff Notes aren’t always bad…

  9. I’m curious about the Spider Man comic – like, is it crinkled with an ear sticking out of the brief case for brief snatches of chance and rare moments of profound insights … I’m asking for my sons’ benefit, of course. lol

    Enjoying Quiddity and am continually helped as the posts typically expand my understanding of the foundational principles of LTW … and classical education in general.

    Love the humor, as well.

    • Thanks Julie.

      The Spider Man comic… Well, it’s actually wrapped in clear plastic and in perfect condition. And I don’t get to look at it because its condition is so pristine. And it’s really, really old. To give you a clue, Gwen Stacy is Peter Parker’s girlfriend. The one who got such unforgivably short shrift in the movie. Talk about an injustice. I can’t believe people don’t march on Washington over this issue.

  10. Try listening to Faulkner…on audio. Faulkner, whom I love and Virginia Woolf, whom I do not love, both used stream of consciousness writing. With Woolf I am tempted always to say, “TMI,” but with Faulkner I can only say “stream on and on and on.” He wrote beautifully. He wrote pictures and they are lovely.

  11. “Absalom, Absalom” is, from what I understand, often considered one of the most difficult books in the canon of American lit. When I read it for an independent study I found that to be the case.

    It’s dense. Thematically, too.

    And Faulkner’s other writing is, mostly, much different. Especially his stories.

    For what it’s worth, I agree with this:
    “He is not writing, or so it seems to me from the two pages I’ve read, about actions or about the world outside. He seems instead to be writing about perceptions, relationships, and recollections all flowing together – not a flow of thought subjectivism, but a dynamic interaction between the world around and the organ of perception.”

    The book is fundamentally about perception. It’s the same story told from three (or so) different perspectives, three different generations. It’s both an examination of the passing of the Old South, a theme about which Faulkner was obsessed, and an examination of one man, one family, and the various ways that people look at and think about that man and his family.

    So I think one could safely say that his style is the “objective correlative” for that.

    It’s a really heartbreaking, powerful, and if you can make it through, which is not easy, it’s definitely worth the read. You know, for the pragmatist.

  12. Have you read Flannery O’Connor? Maybe reading her would be a good warm-up for reading Faulkner.

  13. Of course you could have spent the time you spent writing this post on reading more Faulkner and thereby understanding him better.

  14. Absalom, Absalom still sits on my shelf, left over from the Southern Lit class I dropped in college after reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. It had nothing to do with the class, but with the fact I needed room in my day to have lunch dates with a young man…and after 17 years of marriage to this man I still haven’t read it. What’s interesting is that whenever I pick it up and consider reading it, I get a kind of out-of-breath feeling, almost like I am suffocating a little, from the endless wordy sentences. What’s funny to me is that it’s a wee bit like the sensation of young love, but for a wholly different reason. Maybe you just have to dive in.

  15. The section that starts, “She must have seen Judith” is authentic speech–I can hear someone talking just that way, a certain sort of someone in a certain place and time. It takes me back to the things I love about Southern literature–the voice and atmosphere. Even the description of the room has that hot Southern slowness.

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