Saturday, March 11, 2017

Finding Fault with Faulkner

On the one hand, it is incredibly presumptuous to "find fault" with one of the preeminent novelists of the 20th Century.  On the other hand, I have found that I like some of Faulkner's writing quite a bit, but other material leaves me terribly cold.

I'm really struggling to get through Absalom, Absalom! a second time (though I should wrap this up by tomorrow).  I had originally read it in my first or second year of university.  I don't recall having nearly as much difficulty the first time around.  I suppose back then I simply read novels faster and didn't really dwell on them to the same extent, and I was probably a bit more open to experimental novels.  But also, I didn't value my time quite the same way.  Some people really like reading about tragedies (sort of literary rubber-necking), but I don't.  That doesn't mean that I only read comedies, but Absalom, Absalom! just piles on thing after another.  While it is probably more directly inspired by Greek tragedies, there is also something Lear-like about the novel.

In general I am finding less and less satisfaction in novels where it seems that everything happens within a tiny circle of people.  This is a bit more acceptable in the context of theatre where you don't want a cast of thousands, but really, of all the people that Henry Sutpen could have run across while at university, it is really going to be his disinherited half-brother?  Really?  (I haven't quite gotten to the end of the novel to see if Charles actually was the one that set the plot into motion, trying to revenge himself on his father, but I don't think so.  It was just Fate.*)  I know that this was a common thing in Greek tragedy (see Oedipus Rex and apparently the lost play Ulysses Wounded, which Aristotle mentioned in his Poetics), but it just strains credibility in the 20th Century (or even the late 19th Century, though I grant you that there were fewer people around at that time).  It isn't a fatal flaw in Mafouz's The Cairo Trilogy where the father and eldest son sort of fall in love (sequentially) with the same series of courtesans, but it was something that bugged me at the time.

Anyway, Absalom, Absalom! is sort of like an onion where you know the main tragic events, then you dig a bit deeper and find out what happened to Thomas Sutpen (the head of the clan) and then how he managed to alienate his sister-in-law, which led indirectly to his own demise, and then there is a deep dive into Thomas Sutpen's childhood and his motivations.  The problem is, I don't care.  I loathe Sutpen who on top of being incredibly racist (way above average even for Faulkner) is so sexist that he basically will only acknowledge his male offspring and doesn't rate females at all.  There isn't anything I could learn about his background that would make me the slightest bit more sympathetic to him (and I don't like doing the literary rubber-necking thing), so why should I spend the time?  Other than this is one of Faulkner's major novels...

But this is a case where I think Faulkner's obscurant tendencies go too far.  Far too many characters (Miss Coldfield, Charles, Quentin's roommate Shreve and Thomas Sutpen when we hear his words passed down) write or talk in extremely convoluted passages and/or use high-faluting words, so they all sound far too much alike.  To top it off, Faulkner writes a sentence that is almost 1300 words long!  (Incidentally, this is clearly the novel that Garcia Marquez used as the prototype for The Autumn of the Patriarch.) Just as with Proust, I find it improbable or even impossible that so much of Sutpen's campfire chatter could be conveyed across the generations to Quentin, though Faulker actually said (in an interview) that that was really the point -- that no one could ever know the truth about another.  I could probably live with a novel that is 2 or even 3 times as obscure as it had to be, but this is far over the top, and I definitely will not read it a third time.  I vastly prefer The Sound and the Fury, which has much more differentiation between the characters.

I didn't really care that much for Light in August either, since almost the entire novel is driven by a character essentially going mad because he has mixed blood -- white and "Negro."  Faulkner's obsession with miscegenation (certainly in these two novels, but elsewhere) is just not something that I find all that compelling.  I'm not going to pretend that the problem of race has been "solved" in North America, but few people will be so horrified by mixed-race individuals today and certainly not anyone with whom I would care to spend any amount of time.

I also don't like absurdly proud and/or stiff-necked characters, which typifies a lot of his characters, not only Sutpen but the poor farmer trying to bury his wife in As I Lay Dying.  And while I haven't read them, it's almost certainly to be the case with the Sartoris and Snopes patriarchs as well, though I will still read all of these novels (though probably only once).

Looking over what I have read of Faulkner, I'd say I had a reasonable level of enjoyment from reading The Sound and the Fury (which I'll likely reread) and Go Down, Moses and Intruder in the Dust (though I probably won't reread these).  My absolute favorite Faulkner remains his final novel, The Reivers, with its high-spirited hi-jinks, and I'll definitely read that again one of these days.  Over the next 18-24 months, I'm going to try to get around to reading another 6 of his novels, including the Snopes Trilogy.

* Actually, the last 50 pages appear to be written in a less contrived manner, but they are entirely speculation.  Quentin has a copy of a letter sent to Henry by a lawyer employed by Charles (or rather Charles's mother), and from this, he spins an elaborate tale that the lawyer sent Charles to the University of Mississippi specifically to run into Henry (but perhaps without Charles knowing the whole truth of his parentage).  I already am exhausted by the attempt to unpack Thomas Sutpen's motivations, and honestly, I think the novel should have ended with that.  Dredging even further into these completely made-up events to try to humanize a character that isn't worth a lick is just too much.  I really do wonder at those professors who think this is such a masterpiece compared to his other works...

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