There are writers whose books take you into another place and hold you there, from the opening sentence until the moment, finally, when they release you. Alice Munro and the fictional town of Jubilee, Ontario. Harper Lee and Monroe County, Alabama. John Steinbeck and the Golden State of California.
William Faulkner set all but four of his novels, and 50 short stories, in Yoknapatawpha County, which was inspired by and based on Lafayette County, Mississippi, where he spent most of his life. He called it his apocryphal home, and wrote about it with the kind of somatic understanding that comes from knowing a place better than you know yourself. Absalom, Absalom! is one of the most difficult of these works, not only because of its structure – it’s told entirely in nonchronological flashbacks by a series of unreliable narrators – but also because of the language. Which is powerful and rhythmic but wrapped in long, unwieldy sentences that can frequently run to a page or longer. The difficulty is compounded by the references to “niggers”, a word that appears so often you are tempted to simply close the book and move on. But the very use of such words, tossed out so casually and frequently, underlines the brutality of a country whose economy was based on the labour of slaves. Cursed by it, as Faulkner has said.
First published in 1936, Absalom, Absalom! tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, who came out of nowhere and established a dynasty, only to have it fall to pieces within his lifetime. The story is told, first of all, by Quentin Compson, who is 20 years old in 1910 and attending Harvard University. Quentin has a Canadian roommate named Shreve, and through a series of exchanges Quentin tries to explain the South to this foreigner, this cheerful young man from a cold climate who can’t possibly know what it’s like to be born and bred south of the Mason-Dixon line. Quentin begins by telling Shreve about a summons he received the previous summer from his elderly aunt, Rosa Coldfield. Miss Rosa never married – she has “the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity”; the house she lives in is “unpainted and a little shabby, yet with an air, a quality of grim endurance as though like her it had been created to fit into and complement a world in all ways a little smaller than the one in which it found itself”. Rosa has nourished a bitter hatred of Thomas Sutpen for more than 40 years and she wants to tell Quentin the reasons. She has something else in mind, as well, although we don’t get to hear about that until very near the end of the book.
As Rosa tells it, Sutpen rode into town one day in 1833 accompanied by a “wild” band of slaves and a French architect who’d been somehow coerced into working for him. Through means that were legal but not necessarily ethical, he bought 100 square miles of land from a local tribe and spent the next two years building a cotton plantation and a large, ostentatious mansion. Who he was – who his people were and where they lived – was a mystery. He was a handsome but cold man, with no inclination for friendship, but he did make one friend shortly after arriving: Goodhue Compson, Rosa’s father. When his mansion was built and it came time to marry, Sutpen chose Compson’s older daughter, Ellen. Within a few years Sutpen, who was pretty well universally disliked and even feared, was well established within the local aristocracy and had fathered two children, Henry and Judith, with Ellen, and another daughter, Clytie, with one of his slaves.
After listening to Rosa’s version of Thomas Sutpen’s story, Quentin sits with his father and they go over it, the story of Sutpen and his legacy. We learn that Rosa’s anger towards Sutpen goes back to the time when, after Ellen died, he proposed to her. But in doing so, he offered her such an outrageous insult she walked away and never forgave him. But it isn’t until much later that we learn that Sutpen was born into poverty in the backwoods of West Virginia (which wasn’t West Virginia until a half century had passed). He ran away when he was 14 after being snubbed by a well-dressed Negro who turned him away from the door when he was trying to deliver a message. Having heard about the West Indies during the short period when he attended school, Thomas gets it in his head that one could go there and, if one was courageous and shrewd, one could become rich. He finds a ship, lands in Haiti, and becomes the overseer of a French sugar plantation. After showing great courage in subduing a slave revolt in 1827, Sutpen marries the plantation owner’s daughter and fathers a son. (It should be mentioned, I think, that there were neither slaves nor French plantations in Haiti at this time. In 1791 the slaves revolted and by 1804 the independent republic of Haiti was the first black national state of the Americas.) After the child is born, Sutpen learns that he’s been tricked: his wife, Eulalia Bon, has negro blood. Sutpen renounces her, hands over his fortune to her as compensation, and leaves. The child, however, will reappear 30 years later.
At the age of 20, his son Henry goes to college at the University of Mississippi where he meets the handsome, sophisticated, and laconic Charles Bon, who is eight years older. Henry looks up to Charles, aping his style and manner of speaking, and they become close friends. In his letters home, Henry talks about his new friend, how much he admires him and so on, and Ellen, who lives in a kind of perpetual fantasy, decides that Charles and Judith will marry. That Christmas, Henry brings Charles home for a visit, and Sutpen recognizes him as the son he left behind in Haiti. Without acknowledging this to anyone, he forbids the marriage – primarily, one would think, for reasons of incest, but as it turns out, given the time and the place, the greater crime is miscegenation, or “race mixing”. When Sutpen eventually tells Henry the truth – that Charles is his half-brother – Henry says he doesn’t believe it. He refuses to abandon his friend, repudiates his birthright, and leaves. Shortly afterwards, the Civil War breaks out; Charles and Henry enlist together, and for four years Henry struggles to convince himself that incest is acceptable, under certain situations. What he doesn’t know, and we learn later, is that Charles has realized early on that Sutpen is his father. He’s been waiting all this time for some sign of recognition from Sutpen that yes, he is his son. If Thomas will only do that, Charles will refuse to marry Judith, will leave and never return. But Thomas is incapable of giving him even that. Instead he seeks Henry out and informs him that Charles has black blood. He knows that this, more than incest, will convince Henry to take direct action to prevent the marriage. And he’s right.
The tragedy is that Henry, more so than Judith, truly loves Charles. He sees him as a kind of heroic figure. And he’s not wrong: at one point, during battle, Charles saves his life. So the fact that it’s he who must do his father’s bidding and destroy his friend makes the final outcome even more painful.
The title, being a direct reference to the biblical story of King David and Absalom, his third and favourite son, may lead you to think of Faulkner as a “Christian writer”. He has, in fact, been called that. But he wasn’t. At least, not in the sense of preaching Christianity. Far from it. But he used it, as all writers use what they know. He once put it this way: “The writer must write out of his background. He must write out of what he knows and the Christian legend is part of any Christian’s background, especially the background of a country boy, a Southern country boy. My life was passed, my childhood, in a very small Mississippi town, and that was a part of my background. I grew up with that, I assimilated that, took that in without even knowing it. It’s just there. It has nothing to do with how much of it I might believe or disbelieve—it’s just there.”
Much of what we learn about Sutpen is speculation; while Quentin, his father, Miss Rosa and even Shreve attempt to translate the thoughts and intentions of characters who died before the story begins, we can never be sure if we, the readers, are meant to place any faith in their telling. Faulkner is writing myth, and debating what is true and what is not seems beside the point. What we can say, though, is that all of his characters, young and old, are damaged. Even Quentin, a young man distanced by three generations from the darkness of those times, appears to be succumbing near the end. “I am older at 20 than a lot of people who have died,” he tells Shreve. He knows the terrible truth about the South – he may not have lived it, but he carries the burden. And yet, at the very end, when Shreve asks him why he hates the South, Quentin denies it, quickly and immediately. “I don’t hate it, he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”
Faulkner drew this map of Yoknapatawpha County and included it at the back of Absalom, Absalom!