Old Corn-Drinking Mellifluous

Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner.  315 pp.  $15.95

I’m obsessed with the subject of telling stories.  I’ve spoken before about how all stories are false, or all stories true; they are, in any case, human fabrications, which may have little to do with what actually happened.  We love them nevertheless.  Human beings tell each other stories, and take pleasure in them, or are consoled by them, perhaps learn from them.  There is nothing more human than listening to and telling stories.

I would say that Absalom, Absalom! is at least as much about the telling as it is about the story, which is incredible and horrific, though not particularly well told in the novel.  An old woman named Rosa Coldfield tells part of the story to Quentin Compson, whom we know from The Sound and the Fury.  She has enlisted him because she needs his help with something.  He talks about the story with his father, who fills him in on things Miss Coldfield may not have known.  Quentin then famously tells it to his roommate at Harvard, a Canadian named Shrevlin McCannon, who tells parts of it back to him, rather incredulously.  The novel ends with a famous exchange, Shreve asking a question of Quentin.

“’Now I want you to tell me just one thing more.  Why do you hate the South?’

“’I dont hate it,’ Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately.  ‘I dont hate it,’ he said.  I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont.  I dont!  I dont hate it!  I dont hate it![1]

We know from The Sound and the Fury, published seven years earlier, that Quentin kills himself during his first year at Harvard, soon—apparently—after having this exchange with Shreve.  We can’t help asking ourselves if there is evidence in this novel about why he did that, if in some way this story explains why he both hates the South and wants to take his own life.

There is some argument about what Faulkner’s great novels are, but most critics would say that he did his greatest work in a period from 1929 to 1936, when he wrote,  The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!.  Some people would extend the great period to include The Hamlet in 1940, the first volume of the Snopes trilogy.  I would go at least that far.  This period of greatness also includes Sanctuary, his most notorious book, which was perhaps responsible for bringing him to people’s attention.  And of course in a way all his work is great, including the wonderful comic novel he wrote at the end of his life, The Reivers.  But he had a seven year period, starting when he was 32, when he was on fire.

The fascinating thing is that all four of those novels are completely different.  In a way every novel he ever wrote is completely different from every other, as if each one were a completely new experiment.  There are some writers (Barbara Pym, comes to mind, or P.G. Wodehouse) who seemed to write the same book again and again.  Faulkner never did, at least not from The Sound and the Fury on.  He started fresh every time.

Absalom, Absalom! is strange because of its bizarre rhetorical style, immense convoluted sentences, massive and obscure vocabulary.  We’re not especially surprised that Mr. Compson talks that way, or maybe not even Rosa Coldfield.  But when a Canadian starts using Southern rhetoric we begin to wonder.  “Old Corn-Drinking Mellifluous” was Hemingway’s contemptuous name for Faulkner.[2]  Never was it more apt than in this novel.

The story everybody is batting around here is sad and tragic and fabulous and just plain unbelievable.  It is the story of a man and his family, but is obviously in some way supposed to represent the story of the South.  People pick up parts of it and tell them to death, while they barely mention other parts.  You can almost create the story from the chronology that Faulkner includes at the end, a cast of characters and their dates.  I must have consulted it fifty times as I read, trying to keep things straight.

The story goes something like this (spoiler alert, but Faulkner himself spoils things all over the place): a man named Thomas Sutpen, born in West Virginia in 1807, has a humiliating experience early in his life when a Negro butler refuses him entrance at the front door of a plantation, telling him to go around to the back.  He resolves in that moment to make his fortune, goes off to the West Indies (?) to do so.  He returns eventually to Mississippi (why that state we never hear) with a passel of “crazy” Negroes and a pile of money, buying a hundred acres of land and intent on building a plantation.  He has brought the slaves and a French architect to do so.

In the meantime, apparently, he stopped in New Orleans, where he fathered a son with a Creole woman and abandoned them because he couldn’t make a respectable home with them in the 1850’s, though he continued to support them.  In Mississippi he married a woman named Ellen Coldfield (the much older sister of Rosa) and had two children with her, Henry and Judith.  When Henry went to college, he met an older and much more sophisticated man who became his friend and mentor (these days we would say the two men had a bromance) named Charles Bon.  He admired the man so much that he hooked him up with his sister.

Unbeknownst to Henry, the light-skinned Charles was his father’s child from that earlier union (as Thomas Sutpen realized immediately).  That does sound a tad coincidental, but by the time you figure it out you’re way beyond worrying about coincidence.  Thomas tells Henry the truth; Henry refuses to believe it; Henry and Charles ride off together to fight for the Confederacy, as does, eventually, Thomas.  Charles at some point reveals to Henry not only that they are indeed brothers, but that he too has a black (just barely) wife and child, and doesn’t feel they are an impediment to marrying Judith.  Henry eventually kills Charles, apparently because of the insult to his sister (“The miscegenation bothers you more than the incest” the older man says at one point), then flees himself.

Thomas is left without an heir for his land, which is all he really wanted: he desperately wanted a son.  He proposes to Rosa, but asks if they might couple and see if they produce a son before they actually go through with a ceremony (time is getting short here).  The woman is so outraged at this affront to her Southern womanhood that she becomes a spinster on the spot.  He fathers a child with a white trash woman whose father he has been drinking with for years, but the baby turns out to be a girl, so he abandons the two of them.  The woman’s father, Wash Jones, is deeply offended, and comes after Thomas with a scythe.  “Stand back, Wash.  Don’t you touch me.”   “I’m going to tech you, Kernel.”  And tech him he does.  The central story ends there.  But there are a few more surprises once Rosa encounters Quentin.

In this bizarre mess of an unlikely story is somehow the story of the South, miscegenation, incest and all.  I can’t say I see the reason that Quentin hates the South and wants to kill himself, though there was certainly some suggestion in The Sound and the Fury that he loved his own sister and that that was his real problem.  Southern incest rears its ugly—or for some people, extremely attractive—head again.  I got impatient early in the story with Rosa’s turgid storytelling, and the dipsomaniac (as Faulkner would say) Mr. Compson could also be tiresome—like so many drunken Southerners—but once Quentin started talking to Shreve the story took on an urgency that had me riveted.

Faulkner could be the worst writer who ever lived and the best within the same book, even within the same chapter, and there were times when I didn’t think I would be able—to use a Faulknerian term—to prevail.  But by the time I got to the end I was glad I had, thrilled by the writing and the fabulous tale it told.  It is a story that is impossibly unlikely but somehow rings true.  Only one man in all the world could have written it.

[1] Faulkner apparently didn’t care for apostrophes.

[2] Hemingway appreciated the man, and understood his greatness, but never forgave him for saying that Thomas Wolfe was more courageous than he because of the way he wrote.