Wednesday, January 25, 2012

130. Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom!* (Vintage, 1936; 485) is a story of how a singular decision made by a poor boy, at a time when he was too young to understand anything, caused so much devastation to him and the people around him. The story follows from when that decision, and later others, was made and their effects through the generations, beginning from 1820 when the first malevolent seed was sown to 1910 when the last bitter fruit was harvested, or crushed.

Thomas Sutpen appeared suddenly in Yoknapatawpha County. A strange man with strange looks, strange behaviour, strange language, and nigger followers. A man with an unknown past. A man who at fourteen made a decision, after he had been turned away from a big white house by a nigger who wears nice clothes, to create his own future wherein lies a big white house, niggers, and nobility.

Sutpen was to acquire a hundred-square miles land from an Indian community through a process no one knew or could conjecture. Then he set forth to build his house, having an architect amongst his travelling troupe. Again, through unknown and suspicious means, suspicious to the folks of Jefferson, he built the biggest house and named it Sutpen's Hundred. After which the need for a wife and Nobility arose. Sutpen then fished for a wife from an unlikely man, Goodhue Coldfield. For had Coldfield and Sutpen been twins they would definitely had been fraternal where one would be hedonistic and the other a monk. Goodhue was
a Methodist steward, a merchant who was not rich and who not only could have done nothing under the sun to advance his fortune or prospects but could by no stretch of imagination ven owned anything that he would have wanted, even picked up in the road - a man who owned neither land nor slaves except two house servants whom he had freed as soon as he got them, bought them, who neither drank nor hunted nor gambled; [20]
And from Goodhue Coldfield's home, Sutpen married Ellen Coldfield - a woman who was, initially and falsely, attracted by the house and the pride to live in it. The enigma surrounding Sutpen increased to such an extent that, even though the townfolks weren't certain of the source of his wealth, which seems to move with him into Jefferson anytime he takes a temporary leave, they had him arrested for theft and in his arrest Sutpen was still the unshaken stoic man and it was Goodhue Coldfield who bailed him out and having being bailed out looked no different from before his arrest. A man unmoved by the devices of man or of nature. A man whose sole purpose in life is to acquire certain items in life (including a wife and a name), pick them up like one picks items from a shopping mall, only his had an exceptional kind of determination and zealousness to it so that he would, if necessary, sacrifice his life towards its realisation just as he starved for several days during his journey into Jefferson and braced the cold weather conditions when Sutpen's Hundred was not fixed with its fixtures and fittings. And he was a man who could not accept help from anyone. And so Sutpen married Ellen Coldfield on one rainy day before a dozen witnesses cum audience and had two children Henry and Judith Sutpen, in that order.

What would undo Sutpen was not that Henry was almost effeminate, not as strong as he - Sutpen - was and unable to stand the bloody entertainment his father had with his niggers nor that Judith took his father's boldness. What would undo him is a choice Sutpen made when he run away from home and went to the West Indies in search of the riches that would make him achieve his dream. Not even this for merely fleeing home in search of wealth was innocuous. What would pulverise Sutpen's achievement began with deception.  When he married, bore a son and left mother and son because the son was a negro. Sutpen had earlier been told that Charles Bon's - his son - mother was a Spaniard and not Haitian. When Sutpen - a man who had been turned away from a house by a negro and which had set him on this long journey - found that he had borne a negro, he saw his dream crushing down upon him before it began and so repudiated both mother and son.

Sutpen had achieved all: wealth - he was the largest grower of cotton; the house; the niggers; recognition - he was commended for his part in the war. Yet, he was a man who wanted sons. And it was this quest for sons that destroyed him. For Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen met at the university, became friends, later got to know they were brothers. And Judith fell in love with Bon and Bon wanted Sutpen to accept him as a son and Sutpen didn't want the marriage to materialise and Henry wanted Bon to divorce his octoroon wife in New Orleans, with whom he had a negro son, and Henry not assenting. And it was through this that Sutpen would urge Henry, psychologically, to kill Bon. And Henry would not have done it for he feared not the possible incest, in fact he argued for it. But it was the miscegenation that Henry feared and this was revealed to him by his father. And it was that that destroyed him and Bon. Having lost both sons - one physically the other emotionally, spiritually and all - Sutpen wanted sons who would succeed him. Ellen was dead; died through neglect and pain for all that Sutpen wanted was a woman with a respectable name in his household. In need of sons, Sutpen proposed to Rosa - Ellen's youngest sibling who, born seven years after Ellen's marriage had come to live with her sister - that if she were to make him sons there would be marriage. As an affront on her being Rosa - whose father - Goodhue Coldfield - and all her relatives had died or eloped, moved to his lonely home. In need of sons, Sutpen slept with the granddaughter of a handyman on his property. She did get pregnant but it was a daughter. The interlocked gears which had been set into motion ground all - Sutpens and Coldfields. This destruction brought upon him by his quest for sons is reflected in the title Absalom an allusion to the biblical Absalom, the third son of David, who rebelled against his father and died in that rebellion.

The story had different narratives, including a universal narrator. It began as a narration from Rosa Coldfield to the grandson of Sutpen's only 'friend' in Jefferson, Quentin Compson. Quentin's father also filled him in. Then Quentin himself retold parts of the story to his roommate at Harvard University, Shreve, who himself also narrated parts, or retold parts to Quentin to ensure that he had understood him. What was clear from all these narratives is each narrator's perception or influence on the story: they were more like explaining the actions of the individuals in the story rather than telling it as it is. Consequently, the veracity of what was being told became questionable. Another point about the narrative is the method chosen by Faulkner. The story was told in a repetitive mode, with each repetition adding another layer of information. As the telling spirals inward, the reader get to understand reasons and motives and it is not until the last end, when the story converges, that a concrete picture is obtained.

Aside being enigmatic, his singular purpose of mind in search of riches and, after he attained them, of sons made him a demon to many. He was described in many similar adjectives. Initially, one could not pinpoint what exactly Sutpen did wrong. Was it his goal in life? It could be said that the numerous narrators were all confused and could not explain the man's reasons. Even the few times a somewhat omniscient narrator took over the explanation of the man carried little of essence. So that Sutpen's evilness could lie not in him but within the skewness of the narrative. Irrespective of this, the reading evokes a comparison of Sutpen with Heathcliff (ref. Wuthering Heights). However, when the story developed and the narrators explained, adding and subtracting, they ended up with a Sutpen who, not having killed a person, nor fought anyone, nor stolen from anyone, was still as much evil as evil could possibly be.

A feminist reading of Absalom, Absalom! would be appropriate. For Sutpen was a patriarch who considered women as properties and even though Judith could have been what he wanted Henry to be, he saw through her. Again, to him marriage was for sons and acquiring a wife was akin to acquiring a property. Though the period might have contributed to this, Sutpen's relationship with women quite stood out relative to other couples in the story. 

Absalom, Absalom! could be a difficult read. With its long sentences the reader sometimes loses the message being conveyed for within each sentence lies several diversions, expatiation, and confirmations. Notwithstanding this, Faulkner's storytelling ability is capable of holding one's attention throughout and a dedicated, attentive reading is a necessity for understanding and enjoyment. William Faulkner has a way with words and this shone through too.
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* I read The Corrected Text
Read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge and the Chunkster Challenge

12 comments:

  1. This sounds interesting...but I had a terrible time with the Sound and the Fury. It'll be a good long while before I try Faulkner again!

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    1. Faulkner is a difficult read, no doubt about that. One needs absolute attention and dedication to his style of writing. I suspended this book and picked it after a month, restarted it and made it through.

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  2. Only The Sound and the Fury is as hard as this one. Other Faulkner novels will be easy by comparison.

    Or that's what I remember - it has been a while since I read most of them. Most other Faulkner novels will be easier, let's say that.

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    1. Thanks Tom. I have two or three other titles on my reading challenge list. And I was dreading them but your words have encouraged me.

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  3. As much as I loved As I Lay Dying, most of Faulkner's other work simply intimidates me.... have been avoiding this one for years. Light in August will be my next foray into Faulkner.

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    1. lol. I agree. I had to suspend this for a month and pick it up again. Afresh. As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August are on my reading challenge list and I hope to complete them.

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  4. Faulkner always worth the struggle to read at time a truly unique writer Nana ,all the best stu

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  5. You did a great job of untangling Rosa's cobwebs, and many other conflicting story strands to summarize the story of this terrible man, Sutpen.

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    1. Thanks altheakale. It wasn't easy but it required patience and attention.

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  6. Faulkner is not easy and requires patience but some of his works are worth it. This is one of my favorite books. thanks for the wonderful review. You finally got through it.

    This search for sons and Sutpen desire to leave a part of him behind when he dies and his insistence that it be male. He could not have known that his inability to do so was his fault. Pity!

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    1. lol. How could he have known. Upon all his stoicism, he was not a man of the books or Faulkner remained quiet on that front or did he? He did not. According to Faulkner he named his children by himself and it was a mistake or a fault in knowledge that he named Clytie.

      Yes Faulkner requires patience and I hope I'll be able to go through his remaining books on my list.

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