George Marion O'Donnell
"Mr. Faulkner Flirts with Failure"
25 October 1936
Seemingly coming out of nowhere, Thomas Sutpen appeared in Jefferson, Miss. in 1833, with a wagon full of wild Negroes and a frightened French architect. And, while the town wondered at him, Sutpen traded the Indians out of 100 square miles of land, built on his land the biggest house in the county, married the daughter of a respectable Jefferson merchant, fathered two children, and became the richest man in the community. All of this he accomplished with endless difficulty, but nevertheless accomplished, acting always in a kind of violent haste which made more than one person think of him as demoniac, mad in his desire to attain some goal which no one of them could define. Sutpen lived to see an impending incestuous marriage between his daughter and his son by the first wife whom he had married in Haiti and put aside upon discovering that she had Negro blood. He lived to see this marriage stopped when the bridegroom was killed by his own halfbrother, the brother of the bride, who immediately fled from home. He lived to fight through the War of the confederacy, to hear of his wife's death, to return from war and start the rebuilding of his estate with the same violence which had characterized his original building of it. He lived to propose marriage to his wife's younger sister, to win her consent, then to insult her so that she hated him for the forty-four remaining years of her life. He descended at last to the keeping of a country store for a livelihood, still inspiring awe and some fear in his neighbors. And he died, at 62, violently as he had lived, killed by the grandfather of his sixteen-year-old paramour. This was Sutpen of Sutpen's Hundred. And he was all of this because, as a poor-white child in Virginia, he was turned away from the front door of one of the great mansions by a Negro servant, and because he had resolved to vindicate that child who was the demoniac Sutpen himself.
"He is bigger than all them Yankees that killed us and ourn, that killed his wife and widowed his daughter and druv his son from home, that stole his niggers and ruined his land," says Wash Jones, the man who later is to kill Sutpen, "bigger than this whole country that he fit for and in payment for which has brung him to keeping a little country store for his bread and meat; bigger than the scorn and denial which hit held to his lips like the bitter cup in the Book."
Returning for his setting to the Mississippi country of Sartoris and As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury , Mr. Faulkner has built his new novel, Absalom, Absalom! around this man, who stands out as a new sort of figure in Southern fiction, in all his demoniac fierceness and strength. And with him in the book live also the people who lived around him and wondered at him during his lifetime. For in this novel, Mr. Faulkner has presented at once one man's life, the way of life in which he existed, a whole section of the country, and a whole passage of time.
But the story and the characters are not revealed in any conventional fashion. Mr. Faulkner is still experimenting with form; and this is probably a healthy sign, indicating that he is not yet finished as a novelist and is not likely to be finished for some time, despite the major artistic defects of his two previous books, Light in August (the formal structure of which does not stand the test of rereading), and Pylon (which is probably the worst of Mr. Faulkner's novels). For this new book, Mr. Faulkner has adopted a strange device: the story is revealed only as it takes form in the understanding of Quentin Compson (one of the Compson family who appeared in The Sound and the Fury ) and becomes so much a part of him that "he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth," so much a part of him that he can say of himself: "I am older at 20 than a lot of people who have died"--and say this without speaking falsely, without speaking with the world-weariness of youth. This taking form of the story in Quentin's understanding occurs in the summer before he leaves for Harvard in 1910, and in the winter of his first year at Harvard, long after most of the events in the narrative have taken place.
Quentin functions as an actor, insofar as he is present at the startling denouement of the story. But primarily, Quentin might be called a Special Listener; his part is to hear people talk about Sutpen and about the doings surrounding him and his family. Those whom Quentin hears are his father, who tells what his own father knew and told him, and Miss Rosa Coldfield, Sutpen's sister-in-law whom he insulted.
Sometimes Mr. Faulkner reports their actual speech to Quentin. Sometimes he follows Quentin's mind as he thinks of the story. Sometimes he reports Quentin's speech as he tells the story to his roommate at Harvard. Sometimes the roommate, who has evidently heard parts of the story before this particular telling, interrupts Quentin to recount these parts of it. And in the last three sections of the book, all of these methods are combined, sometimes in such a manner that reading is difficult, the story is obscured, and it becomes necessary to refer to the beginning of a passage to determine just what character is acting as narrator. This is undoubtedly a stylistic fault. Difficulty is probably legitimate in fiction; but it has a very tenuous legitimacy, being always dangerous because it may perform the decidedly illegitimate function of standing between the reader and his final understanding of the characters and of the story, instead of helping him toward that understanding.
Moreover, when Quentin's roommate tells Quentin all over again parts of the story which Quentin himself must have told to the roommate, then the process seems a little ridiculous. It cannot fail to call to mind the device by which inexperienced dramatists make their exposition of antecedent action-those tense moments in which a husband reminds his wife that they have been married for five years and now have two children!
However, these are not major faults. Though the method of construction in this book is a dangerous one, it appears to succeed. The book seems narrowly to evade formlessness; yet it does manage the evasion, because of Mr. Faulkner's device of using Quentin as his Special Listener, even if it does not achieve perfect formal coherence.
One might question at times the realism of the narrator's speech, because they speak often in a kind of prose-poetry familiar to readers of The Sound and the Fury . But this is defensible in Absalom, Absalom! on the ground that Mr. Faulkner is dealing with characters who speak and think in the elaborate, Latinesque, sometimes oratorical style characteristic of the antebellum South. And it is defensible on the different ground that Mr. Faulkner is not writing just what can be said in narrative speech; he is writing all that cannot be said (trying thereby to project the very experience itself) along with what can be narrated. And experiences actually are projected in Absalom, Absalom! by means of this style. Here, too, Mr. Faulkner is daring; here, once more, he is flirting with failure. A novel can not be so complex and artistic a presentation of experience as a poem, since a novel necessarily excludes more of the minutiae of an experience, giving only the essentials where a poem may give much more of rich detail. And the ignoring of this limitation is a dangerous thing. Mr. Faulkner, however, is a conscientious and profound artist. And it is more likely that he deliberately accepts the danger than that he accidentally stumbles into it. That he does accept the danger, and still manages to defy it successfully, is one more evidence of Mr. Faulkner's artistry. For by this acceptance Mr. Faulkner manages to recreate the story of Sutpen whole, as it would be revealed in life, yet richer than life itself because of the strong, controlled power of his art.
With all of its minor stylistic and formal defects, Absalom, Absalom! is fiction of a high order of excellence, strong from its roots in the life of a people and in a land and in a time, rich from the experience of that people, and beautiful from its sincere telling by one of that very race, who has mastered his art as have few of his contemporaries.