Greek Tragedy in Mississippi

This is my review of Absalom, Absalom! (Vintage Classics) by William Faulkner.

The self-made Thomas Sutpen achieves his ambition of carving out a plantation for himself in the Mississippi wilderness and acquiring a wife and heir, only to lose it all, partly owing to the calamity of the American Civil War of the 1860s, but also through past events coming back to haunt him. His life is a metaphor for the inward-looking, class divided, prejudiced, proud, stubborn, slave-owning South driven to its knees by defeat in the Civil War, the aftermath still evident when a young neighbour Quentin Compson tries to piece the story together, abetted by his friend Shreve, a Canadian "outsider" who is both fascinated by the South and able to assess it with an objective eye.

Faulkner's stream of consciousness style which must have been groundbreaking in the 1930s carries the reader into the characters' minds, using vivid visual impressions and memories to trigger a chain of fleeting thoughts. I like the way he tells the same story from different at times contradictory viewpoints, often repeating details with a hypnotic persistence, only to advance the tale without warning as another important fact is almost casually thrown in. It is also intriguing to grasp that key characters like Rosa Coldfield may only ever hold some of the pieces of the jigsaw – Faulkner is fascinated with the way people's perceptions vary, memory is distorted and complex motives may remain ambiguous, with actors themselves remaining unsure what they are going to do and why.

Despite some poetic passages of extraordinary brilliance and beauty, some sharp dialogue in the compelling southern idiom and a potentially powerful plot, I feel the work is flawed by a tendency to let experiment tip over into self-indulgent ranting and a descent into melodrama. The unrelenting focus on human degradation, the doom and gloom of the work prove unbearable at times, "the turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs". Also, the reliance on characters recounting past events tends to defuse the drama of what should be striking events, although I admit that some moments of high tension remain, even when I "knew" what was going to happen.

I can accept the perhaps at times unintentional racism of the piece as being a feature of the period. Faulkner's misogynic tone is hard to excuse.

This book needs to read twice, even several times to be fully appreciated. I wanted to read it the first time without benefit of notes, to get the raw impact, although it probably helps to consult a "study guide" for a second opinion on some of the obscurer passages. I like best the descriptions of the South stripped bare of overblown emotion, "he looked up the slope…where the wet yellow sedge died upward into the rain like melting gold and saw the grove, the clump of cedars on the crest of the hill dissolving into the rain as if the trees had been drawn in ink on a wet blotter." Yet even here is evidence of his verbosity.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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