[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
The Southern Classics Library, 1978; fully bound in brown morocco, with gold inscriptions, raised spine, marbled endpapers, and silk ribbon.
-You are my brother.
-No I’m not. I’m the nigger that’s going to sleep with your sister. Unless you stop me, Henry.
There is something spare, dark and elemental about the great novels of William Faulkner, and Absalom, Absalom! is a masterpiece of a novel. It is a novel told through voices built up like a Bach fugue, but at its heart is a Greek tragedy – a house subject to a curse that runs through the generations until a kind of moral equilibrium obtains, and it’s time for a new cycle. Faulkner may have shared the human failings of Fitzgerald and Hemingway – for both booze and skirt – but for me his offerings are so much more substantial. Ask not who the more clever writer was, but who had the deeper insight into the human condition. Absalom, Absalom! was written by man from the Deep South – Oxford, Mississippi – but it is not just about the South or, for that matter, the American Dream – it is about us, all of us. That is what makes it a truly great novel, a work of very high art.
William Faulkner was raised in Mississippi. He started writing as a poet and wrote short stories throughout his career. He had a lifelong battle with the bottle. He may also have lost count of his affairs. He also wrote for the screen. When he first went to MGM – a contract worth $500 a week in 1932 – he told them that he wanted to do either Mickey Mouse or newsreels, ‘the only movies I like’. He worked with Bogart and Bacall on The Big Sleep. He once had a long discussion with Howard Hawks and Clark Gable about literature. Gable asked him to nominate the kind of writing that Gable might read if he wanted to become literary. When Faulkner responded, Gable asked him if he was a writer. Faulkner replied that he was, and asked Gable what he did for a living. His best known novels include The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Sanctuary and Go Down Moses. Greek tragedy recurs throughout his work which is frequently described as either Gothic or apocalyptic.
The story of Absalom, Absalom! is told through different voices, in a narrative more layered than those of Conrad, and people and events are seen in different lights, and through different prisms. It can be very difficult to follow, and you should make full use of the chronology at the back. But the fugal structure is essential to reflect our partial and fragmentary understanding of our past and our condition. The plot unfolds through three extended conversations. The differences in the recall of the narrators, and their perspectives, give you a sense of walking around the main characters and events. You reach the story in the same way that you peel an onion. To quote our management speak, the reader gets to take ownership of the problems. In reading the book we seem to participate in its construction. We become part of the story, although the process of reading it is both hard and wearing.
This is the first sentence.
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 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 yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.
Miss Coldfield sat there –
Sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation invoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.
Writing like that is not taught – it only comes from someone who has insight and the gift to express it – and the courage to keep going.
This version of the American dream starts in the Appalachians where people were equal, and noone looked down on anyone, except the Indians, and ‘you only looked down at them over your rifle sights.’ It was different in the Tidewater. People were measured by their skin colour and their land. As a young man, the hero, Thomas Sutpen, goes up to a big white house with a message from his lowly father, and he is turned away from the front door by a black butler. He goes to Haiti to make his fortune, but colour gets in the way even there. He returns to carve out his revenge on this slight to his manhood. He is innocent in the sense that Oedipus is innocent – he does not know what fate awaits him. With ‘innocence instructing him’ he resolves that ‘you got to have land and niggers and a fine house to combat them with.’ He strikes into the jungle like an Old Testament prophet in a tale told with language to match that scars the page as Thomas Sutpen wounds the earth.
Out of the quiet thunder-clap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a school-prize water color, faint suphur-reek still kin hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts and half-tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them the French architect, with his hair grim, ragged, and tatter-ran. Immobile, bearded and hand-palm lifted the horseman sat; behind him the wild blacks and the captive architect huddled quietly, carrying in bloodless paradox the shovels and picks and axes of peaceful conquest. Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and formal garden violently out of the soundless Nothing and clap them down like cards upon a table beneath the up-palm mobile and pontific, creating the Sutpen’s hundred…
This attempt to forge a mighty dynasty involves, almost by definition, what the Greeks called hubris, and the unfolding of the curse that Greek tragedy, in the form of nemesis, puts on the House of Sutpen is what the novel is about. You can gauge just how lethal and Greek that curse was from the Freudian inscription at the head of this note. The rise and fall of the House of Sutpen might be thought to mirror the rise and fall of the Old South itself. At the end, the final narrator is sitting in the ‘cold air, the iron New England dark’, and he is asked why he hates the South. The book ends with these words: ‘I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!
The hero has no room for God. He has no room for women either. One item that is missing from the novel is a contented woman. The function of a woman in this patriarchy is to produce a male heir. That way Sutpen can cheat God if not death. The Haitian wife is discarded because her disclosed colour took her out of the design. Once Ellen has produced the heir, she flits around like a useless butterfly and expires after being cheated of being at her daughter’s wedding ‘at the absolute flood-peak of her unreal and weightless life’. The mother of Clytie does not even get a name. Rosa is offered marriage conditional on producing an heir. Milly Jones is treated as being worth less than a horse. At least Clytie gets to burn down the mansion and the son who would have been the heir as she incinerates herself.
The contempt for humanity does not therefore stop at negroes and Indians. This is how the three castes of women are described:
… the virgins whom gentlemen some day marry, the courtesans to whom they went while on sabbaticals to the cities, the slave girls and women upon whom the first caste rested and to whom in certain cases it doubtless owed the very fact of its virginity – not this to Henry, strong blooded, victim of the hard celibacy of riding and hunting to heat and make importunate the blood of a young man, to which he and his kind were forced to pass time away, with girls of his own class interdict and inaccessible and women of the second class just as inaccessible because of money and distance, and hence only the slave girls, the housemaids neated and cleaned by white mistresses or perhaps girls with sweating bodies out of the fields themselves and the young man rides up and beckons the watching overseer and says ‘Send me Juno or Missylena or Chlory’ and then rides on into the trees and dismounts and waits.
So, the world of Sutpen is one of stolen people, stolen land, and abused people. He knows it is a jungle. He has taught himself to put a bullet through a playing card while cantering on his horse twenty yards away. That keeps the whites at bay. He wrestles with the ‘niggers’ to show that he is boss. Presumably he tumbles a nigger occasionally for practice – they, like the courtesans, are the guardians of white female purity.
Here is the doomed pride of the hero.
‘You see, I had a design in my mind. Whether it was a good or a bad design is beside the point; the question is, Where did I make the mistake in it, what did I do or misdo in it, whom or what injure by it to the extent that this would indicate….
The mistake of the hero in the design was to think that he could impose it and himself on the world. White freedom meant black subjection, and Sutpen brings with him his own caste system, and he is haunted by crossings of the boundary in his past. All that talk by Jefferson about all men being equal was phoney.
In Light in August, Faulkner boasted that he had created a Nazi before Hitler did. In her fine book on this author, Carolyn Porter said that ‘Light in August is an angry novel, angry at the people who succumb to the comforts of hatred and the titillations of violence’ The author is ‘so infuriated at the spiritual poverty informing the hunger for violence at the heart of the society he is portraying.’ Well, our novel is at a different, and possibly deeper, level.
The hero of Absalom, Absalom! brought his doom upon himself by trying to play God, and in the end, all that is left is an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
William Faulkner was as elemental in his reading as he was in his writing. He took with him wherever he went a one volume Shakespeare and he read Don Quixote once a year. Absalom, Absalom! is a great big bloody red diamond of a book.
At the end of King Lear, these lines occur:
……we that are young
Shall never see so much nor live so long.
At the end of this great novel, one of the narrator’s, Quentin Thompson, says ‘I am older at twenty than a lot of people who have died.’