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on 21 October 2014
There are many good things about Absalom, Absalom! Not least William Faulkner's wonderfully descriptive writing style that conjures up the tensions and atmosphere of the deep south of America in the mid-1800s. The flow of vivid descriptions almost demand to be read in a Mississippi drawl that transmits either the stifling humidity or bone-chilling cold of the area.
Absalom, Absalom! is the story of the south from its days of slavery and rich plantation owners through its catastrophic war with the north and eventually its ruinous and honour-destroying defeat. This story is told through one family residing in the estate of one Thomas Sutpen. A mysterious and cruel man who rode out of the Haitian darkness with a mysterious fortune and slaves enough to establish the home of Sutpen's Hundred.
The cast of characters is by no means extensive, with the author able to weave enough guilt anger and tragedy through a family and step-family of three generations. The big issues of the time are all weaved into the book: new frontiers, slavery, emancipation, war, poverty and hunger.
There are, however, a few drawbacks. The structure of the writing is far too dense. Sentences run so long that subject is forgotten, paragraphs are near non-existent. The pages are presented as heavy slabs of text that are tough to wade through. There is also the problem of allocation when it comes to speech. Far too often dialogue and thoughts are difficult to attribute and unspoken thoughts near impossible.
The timeframes can also be difficult to follow. The minimal grammar and attribution leave the reader wondering where, who and when someone is talking, with the answer often not revealed until deep into a passage.
Despite the vivid portrayal of the stories and characters it was ultimately their poor presentation that left a lasting impression on me. There were times when I went to pick up a book during a spare moment and opted for a more welcoming, digestible read. Too often Absalom, Absalom! felt like hard work.
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on 11 August 2003
O.K., so this is not exactly easy to read. At the beginning you have to constantly deduce who is narrating. But once you have learnt that the whole story of the Sutpen family is going to be told through a series of interviews between Quentin and several witnesses of the facts related, you can relax and really enjoy it. For me, one of the greatest wonders and sources of joy in this novel was to find the paralelisms between the story of the Sutpen family and that of king David of the Bible. And even though we know what is going to happen with Colonel Sutpen and his offspring (especially the one who stands for Absalom), Faulkner's chilling solution for the conlfict is inevitably amazing. Do I need to add that the paralelism does not only work at the level of the Sutpen family tragedy, but also with the historical setting --the heroic times of the American Civil War in the South?. One of the jewels of universal literature.
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...in China, which causes the proverbial tornado in Kansas (a topical subject in itself). Admittedly it is a simplistic formulation, but it is the classic metaphor for the Chaos Theory which states that dynamic systems are highly sensitive to initial conditions. Human life itself is an essential "dynamic system," and it seems that Faulkner was a proponent of the Chaos Theory, in his writings, even before the theory was formulized. In Intruder In The Dust (Vintage classics), the "initial condition" was a young, cold white boy being offered warmth, and a plate of collard greens. Faulkner depicts this scene at the beginning of "Intruder." In "Absalom, Absalom," one must read more than half the book before realizing the "initial condition" that set all else in motion, in the form of a Greek tragedy: being asked to go around to the back door.

This is a great novel; a quintessential American masterpiece. The "great" themes of life are there: striving, hubris, the choices made in the mating rituals, hierarchical social relations, the means by which the few maintain control over the many, war and peace, aging, family relations, and on and on. Themes that transcend the American condition, and apply to all societies. But few novels speak so directly to that uniquely American issue: its "original sin," slavery and race relations. This issue permeates the book. It has rarely been stated as starkly: "So it's the miscegenation, not the incest, which you cant bear. Henry doesn't answer." Maybe, just maybe, this question was answered in the last election. Imagine, if you will, the sheer strength of "black blood." Just a bit, one-eight or even much less, makes a person "black." Faulkner explores this idea with more than one of his characters.

As a narrative, well, there are actually several narratives, it starts in 1909, with Miss Rosa Coldfield sitting in "a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers...latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes..." Wisteria makes its appearance on the first page also, but one must wait for the fireflies, an essential element of Southern summers, to make their appearance later in the book. Miss Coldfield is intent on telling the story of the Sutpen's, and her interactions, as well as her family's, with them. The receptive vehicle, soon bound for Harvard, and those cold northern winters, is Quentin Compson, grandson of the person who first befriended Thomas Sutpen when he arrived on "the frontier," which was Northern Mississippi in the 1830's. Faulkner is demanding of the reader: long convoluted sentences rarely duplicated, just a hint of a particular relationship or incident, and then he moves on, returning and backfilling, explaining. The author dazzles with his style, which rests on a solid basis of content concerning the human condition. I savored it like a fine after dinner drink: small doses of 20, 30, at most 50 pages at a time. In doing so, I was richly rewarded. I even learned what an "octoroon" is, a term that should slide into the dustbin of history. And who would have ever thought of them as "sparrows," living in New Orleans?

Another "topical" subject is Haiti, still poor, forevermore? White men going there, and becoming rich. Need to learn French? "...because Grandfather asked him why he didn't get himself a girl to live with and learn it the easy way..." Are Caribbean planters a model for Southern society? Sutpen obtained, earned, or stole his "grub stake," take your pick, and built a mansion in the middle of his hundred square miles of land. The reader struggles to keep up with the dates; at least I did, knowing the "doom" is coming in 1861. War, a losing war, which will haunt the proud survivors. Faulkner keeps the war mainly in the background, but is still insightful: there is the year of marching backward, towards Richmond, trying to slow down Sherman as he marches up from devastated Georgia. On Southern military leadership Faulkner says: "...because of generals who should not have been generals, who were generals not through training in contemporary methods or aptitude for learning them, but by the divine right to say `Go there' conferred upon them by an absolute caste system;" Faulkner had the wisdom, obtained from his personal experience in World War I, to identify one strain in the forces which cause wars: "...that wars were sometimes created for the sole aim of settling youth's private difficulties and discontents."

Why is Miss Coldfield so angry? What was the insult she experienced at Sutpen's One Hundred after the war? I do not doubt that a good 20 PhD's have been awarded based on the theme of women in Faulkner's writings. Absalom is a rich mine of material, not only for Rosa Coldfield's anger, but the circumstances of Ellen Coldfield's marriage, the unfailing loyalty of Clytemnestra Sutpen to her dubious family role, the bucolic innocence of Judith Sutpen perched on her pedestal.

Based on some of the negative reviews, I can only say that it is indeed a pleasure to read this book for the pleasure, and not as a school assignment or a PhD thesis. With all due deference to Amazon, I purchase my copy from the excellent bookstore "on the square" in Oxford in April of this year. It was the weekend; we didn't have reservations and there was "no room at the inn," (any of them) as the town filled for a spring college football game. The bookstore proudly displayed another "native son," Richard Ford, but you have to go upstairs, past the coffee bar, to the very front of the store to find the Faulkner selection. No doubt some of the football fans could have explained why: Sure, they are proud of him, in an ambivalent sort of way, but he did tell far too much about them.

An essential read, and even an essential re-read, in five years time, given the allocation. Absolutely 6-stars.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 January 2013
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.
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on 27 March 2012
This is one of the top 100 books of world literature and as I'm working my way through them, I thought I'd give it a try - I have previously read "As I lay dying" by Faulkner but to be honest didn't like it too much. I think it's an agreed American classic written in 1936 (and compared to Melville and James - neither author I unfortunately like)

Anyway I found this book extremely difficult and hard going but let's do the basics: This is the story of Sutpen who acquires slaves and an estate in Mississippi in the 1850s - his goal is a male heir and along the way wealth and "standing". He marries Ellen Coldfield and has children Judith and Henry - job done you might think, but no: Henry goes to University and meets Charles Bon, who on meeting Judith may marry her. But wait Civil war starts and of course Sutpen joins the Confederates. But how and where did Sutpen get his money?, why does Sutpen not want Charles to marry Judith?, but conversely why does Henry want Charles to marry Judith?, but then why does Henry want Charles to marry Judith despite perhaps knowing what Sutpen knows?, why does Ellen's virgin sister dislike Sutpen?, do we seriously believe Sutpen has no other relationships before Ellen? Who'll die in the war, return and/or killed on their return. This is a tale centred around Quentin, who is the main character receiving, much like the reader, the broken narrative from certain cast members. The story is about ambition, racial/slave society, pride, incest?, loss (through war), illicit children, death and more death.

Faulkner's writing style uses different view points, times out of sequence and very long wordy sentences - tell me what is for example (44 words...) "that Presbyterian effluvium of lugubrious and vindictive anticipation"(... 61 words end of sentence)?. I found it very difficult to follow; who was who and when. I needed half way through to search the net for a study aid to get a grasp of the story only then could I enjoy it - I wish I'd known at the start as I would really recommend knowing the story first. I was also unaware that an octoroon is an `eighth' black and a quadroon a "quarter" black person, the n-word is used extensively.

In summary; it feels like a literary jigsaw without the box's picture, some pieces missing and perhaps the author has even deliberately cut off a few nodules. You get a strong flavour of slavery, the deep South and loathing. When I finished it only then did I discover at the end of the Vintage edition a full chronology and character list at the back of the book - which at least told me I wasn't going mad about the difficulty. I can recommend this challenging book and is probably another of those `best at the second reading' stories but don't expect it to be easy.
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on 24 March 2013
To even begin to understand this novel you have to read it at least three times. This is a task and challenge but not a chore. It has a soporific quality, and the luxuriance of decay and decadence. On the first reading you are almost drugged by the heat and above all the smell of the old South,sweet and corrupting. This book constitutes the best introduction one could have for the post-bellum period in those states' history. The stench of slavery and its insidious influence on the lives of all who live there is incarnate in this fine novel, one of the classics of American literature.
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on 2 April 1999
As a Mississippi native, I fell in love with Faulkner at an earlier age than most. I have read many of his novels, specifically his best works during the thirties, and most of his short stories. Many acclaim the work of Sound and the Fury as his best piece; the accolades are well founded. Yet, Absalom, Absalom as an experiment in fictional writing is unparalleled in his Yoknapatawpha Tales. Also, it offers an interesting, if not sordid continuation to the saga that the Sound and the Fury began. It is a must read for serious lovers of American fiction.
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on 24 March 2013
To even begin to understand this novel you have to read it at least three times. This is a task and challenge but not a chore. It has a soporific quality, and the luxuriance of decay and decadence. On the first reading you are almost drugged by the heat and above all the smell of the old South,sweet and corrupting. This book constitutes the best introduction one could have for the post-bellum period in those states' history. The stench of slavery and its insidious influence on the lives of all who live there is incarnate in this fine novel, one of the classics of American literature.
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So, she (Miss Rosa Coldfield) rattled on circuitously, circling round and round, in a circle; and yet, not round always, but in memory, sometimes backward, before the enemy thrashed her father and destroyed the Old South, destroying it in a destructive manner, while he watched the dust motes and wondered why she repeated herself endlessly without ever actually saying anything to the point, endlessly repeating the story of her sister, long dead, and Sutpen, repeatedly telling him (Quentin) about his (Sutpen's) beard that was the only thing that differentiated him from the wild black men he brought with him when he came to destroy the honour of his or possibly her family, or possibly their families, or possibly not, for as she would undoubtedly come to say “It is important that this story never dies, so I'm going to reveal it to you in a code so obscure it will take, not just the rest of your life, but the lives of many academics, paid for by the taxes not just of ourselves but of those who conquered us and tamed the wild men, destroying something precious but perhaps a little immoral along the way, for some strange people in the North, you know, think that to chain wild men to a post is nearly as wicked as to beat horses for no reason other than to show how wicked the beater is, to decipher it or at least to convince themselves that they had deciphered it because otherwise would be to admit that yet again the Nobel Prize had been given to someone who fundamentally can't write intelligibly, though of course in the wondrous worlds of academe and literary prizes intelligibility ranks low on the list of things a writer should achieve, which is not how it was...” and she broke off as her voice retreated not into silence exactly, but into silence nevertheless, a silence forced upon her and all her race by the men who conquered her or them or him and his family and their honour, and he said “Yessum” which was, one has to admit, as good an answer as any from one of the broken ghosts that inhabit this broken land, broken by conquerors who destroyed the honour of those whose only fault, if indeed fault it were, and who is to decide that question is still to be decided, was to tie wild men to posts and impregnate wild women, hardly a fault at all; though some may say that then naming the offspring with silly names like Clytemnestra may have been the most wicked thing of all and may even have been some small justification for the destruction of these once proud people, now wandering ghost-like through the past and present with no calendar, dammit, to tell them where they might be supposed to be, which is to assume anyone cares, which brings me back to the point which I have unfortunately forgotten since my braincells began deteriorating at page 5 and the deterioration deteriorated so rapidly that by page 48 I had turned into a brainless mumbling mono-celled organism condemned to spend eternity going round in an endless circle of rambling, barely punctuated, incomprehensibly-structured prose, an endless circle of destruction, leaving me feeling like a ghost inhabiting a land which unfortunately the destroyers didn't destroy thoroughly enough or they would have wiped out Miss Coldfield, Mr Compson, Mr Sutpen and all their pesky descendants and left Mr Faulkner with nothing to go round in endless circles about, so that when at some time in the future or perhaps the past FF asked for recommendations for the Great American Novel Quest, no-one, not one person, not even a ghost, would have suggested torturing herself half to death reading a pretentious, repetitive, repetitive book, which is to literature much as WWE is to sport, with its major claim to fame being that it contains the longest grammatically correct sentence in the English language, thus getting into the Guinness Book of Records, surely more illustrious than the broken Nobel, though that record doesn't specify intelligible, nor does it take account of the fact that Michael Chabon created a much longer, better constructed, and rather beautiful one in Telegraph Avenue, thus making this work even more redundant than it once was, this being the problem with all records, for who now remembers who held the record for the fastest mile before Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mark, itself a record now broken, but one that was at least exciting at the time, which I suggest this one wasn't; and if they did, if some ghost drifting in the motes of dust circling round the room of the woman who is doing a particularly bad Miss 'Avisham impersonation, in her room where she lives with the blinds drawn, angsting about a 50-year-old jilting, had whispered “Read Absalom! Absalom!”, then FF would have known to say “No'm!” - but too late, alas, too late!

Abandoned with a feeling of joyous glee at page 92. The 1-star rating is merely because Amazon doesn't have a "Yeuch" rating.
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on 7 March 2011
This being the first of Faulkner's works that I have read, I have understood from it a lot more than I have from other works of literature; not only does the variation in style and perspective give it an added dimension of character but so does the liberal use of language and the patchwork style of narrative. It is an unusual book, mostly as a result of an absent narrator, a free-flow nature in which the characters themselves unfold the events through their own perspective.

The story seems irrelevant with Faulkner. It is characters and how they interact with each other, and the shifting of nature and events that make their lives tumble forward quicker and with less control. The narrative style is loose and uninhibited by convention, and the author seems a deity much like the one that exists outwith literature; never to me met, never an outstretched arm for guidance or reassurance. The author observes and conveys with great eloquence and gravity the story through an understanding of his characters and the way they react to situations.

The novel is referred to as a gothic piece and this is unsurprising; much like Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo the characters are made to submit to their own particular fate and the harshness of reality is never played down. There are rough edges and hard truths, and once the story of Thomas Sutpen and his failed plan to make a success of his life (an honest, truthful success, even) unfolds it becomes painfully obvious that this author will not spin things out for the better; the author will allow for events and characters to destroy one another. And the author even lets characters like Thomas Sutpen ruin themselves with stubbornness, with a lack of faith in other people. The characters need not be liked or approved of because they are who they are, and that is how you write with realism. The strange twists of fate in actual life are played out with remarkable honesty and clarity in this patched-together, overcast piece of literature.

Particularly evocative is how Faulkner describes the event of the American Civil War, an event which occurs during the course of the novel and serves to precipitate actions and decisions which may have been postponed. This quote demonstrates the level of suffering and moral confusion that leads to the crisis:

"'It won't be much longer now and then there won't be anything left: we wont even have anything to do left, not even the privilege of walking backward slowly for a reason, for the sake of honor and what's left of pride. Not God; evidently we have done without him for four years, only He just didn't think to notify us; and not only not shoes and clothing but not even any need for them, and not only no land nor any way to make food, but no need for the food since we have learned to live without that too; and so if you dont have God and you dont need food and clothes and shelter, there isn't anything for honor and pride to climb on and hold to and flourish. And if you haven't got honor and pride, then nothing matters. Only there is something in you that doesn't care about honor and pride yet that lives, that even walks backward for a whole year just to live; that probably even when this is over and there is not even defeat left, will still decline to sit still in the sun and die, but will be out in the woods, moving and seeking where just will and endurance could not move it, grubbing for roots and such- the old mindless sentient undreaming meat that doesn't even know any difference between despair and victory...'"
- William Faulkner, "Absalom, Absalom!" (Random House, 1951), p349

It isn't healthy to reveal plots, and is more or less the best thing to offer a little understanding and insight. To reveal a plot would be to reveal a story that should unravel of its own volition and not that of a writer whom has nothing to do with the original author. Best maybe to offer one of the penultimate moments of gothic detail in the novel, which would be understood in context but appreciated only slightly outwith it.

Faulkner weaves Absalom, Absalom! together with honest realism, the kind of writing that I am sure characterized his career as an author. His recognition of failure is not the point; it is the fact that man won't admit to failure, will destroy himself to makes his dreams appear and become a part of actual life. Thomas Sutpen regrettably trusts no-one around him and tries to fashion his own destiny. In setting himself apart and putting himself far from blame for anything he might be held accountable for he casts a lasting shadow over his family and future. A lonesome shadow, which leaves the outside world to paint him as a monster and a devil. In short Faulkner tells the reader with his indirect deity involvement in presenting the story: to hide from mistakes and to hold neighbours in contempt without seeking to understand them is how fools behave. If anything, this is a gothic parable to make that point clear.

I am beginning to appreciate that Faulkner must have sprung into motion generations of songwriters and authors with this appreciative view of human nature. This particular novel has set me on a path with the words "old time" written on it. I set out from here to discover the language of the past and forgotten styles of writing which are capable of bringing to life forgotten generations and events. Faulkner is a very special author and type of philosopher and I am very pleased to be able to appreciate and seek to understand that.
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