Wednesday 26 October 2011

Fateful Birth: William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! turns 75

William Faulkner, looking haunted
by Ed Clough

This week sees the fall of Halloween and Dia de los Muertos – festivals celebrating (ostensibly, anyway) death as abstract and haunting, and as personal and familial; as elemental horror and as intimate loss – and, in both cases, as excuses for some freestyle, heavy-duty material and consumptive excess.

It’s apt, then, that this week should also mark the 75th anniversary of the publication of one of America’s most deathly and gothic literary masterpieces, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, published on October 26, 1936. Faulkner, in a typically modest evaluation of his talents, referred to it as “the best novel yet written by an American”. Many would doubtless disagree – yet all the same, it’s hard to discount or ignore the sheer brilliance of this richly difficult, bleakly poetic book.

The book is a breathless performance told by multiple narrators – sometimes literally: it reportedly contains the longest recognized sentence of any English-language novel, a serpentine, page-devouring monster weighing in at a monumental 1,287 words. Charting the rise and fall of an ambitious planter named Thomas Sutpen, and the attempts of Southern youth Quentin Compson to reconstruct Sutpen’s story out of vastly conflicting accounts half a century later, Absalom, Absalom!’s epic sweep takes in the romance of antebellum Mississippi, the destruction of the Civil War, and the lingering violence of its aftermath. It is also an eerie Gothic tale in the best hell-fired tradition of Hawthorne, Melville, or Edgar Allan Poe – a tale of material consumption gone awry, of excess and loss, of family as the site of tragedy and horror – an American dream turned nightmare that easily out-does Gatsby’s failed dream for sheer devastation, for its cycle of rags to riches to ruins, for its unquiet spirits that can never quite be exorcised.

Faulkner as horror writer? Absalom, Absalom! unquestionably fits the bill:

  1. Ruined house with dark secret hidden inside? Check. 
  2. Cast of grotesques, including an apparently crazed old woman and a disabled animalistic figure? Check.   
  3. Obsessive use of light and dark, of shadows and claustrophobic atmosphere? Check.
  4. Repetitive use of supernatural imagery – ghosts, phantasms, demons and the like? Check.
  5. Use of ambiguity, the uncanny, and the unknown in the narration – to the point of intense confusion? Check, check, and check.
  6. Emotionally intense and eerily spectacular conclusion? Check, again.
  7. Finally, and perhaps most crucially – constant use of a narrative technique that winds and weaves, forever compelling you toward the house’s dark secrets, yet forever frustrating your approach, until ultimately you can neither look nor turn your eyes away? Check.

So this Halloween, why not indulge your fears and neuroses in a sophisticated and literary fashion; pour yourself an appropriately large glass of bourbon (or, for full Faulknerian authenticity, a jar of that moonshine you’ve been home-brewing under the porch); sit back, and enjoy 300+ pages of devastating beauty and Gothic poetry – courtesy of William Faulkner, that most unexpectedly horrifying of American authors.
Plantation Gothic

No comments: