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Spring 2013

Symposium on Absalom, Absalom!

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Richard Ford

I have my copy of Absalom, Absalom! here beside me this morning. It’s the undersized, red Modern Library hardcover, with the nicely line-spaced, crisp and distinct serif typeface. I haven’t opened it in decades. But when I do—now—I see two things that surprise me. One is that the yellowed pages are cluttered with my still-legible pencil notations from the last time I read the novel—Autumn, 1979, when I “taught” it, at Princeton, in a course in which I teamed with the wonderfully droll and erudite A. W. Litz, and which concentrated on the southern novel. Eudora Welty visited our class on the very day I talked about Faulkner, when I’d prepared far beyond the max (hence my profuse pencil notings). Discussion inevitably veered away from the syllabus with Eudora there. And I went away that day feeling slightly bemused, almost undone by it all. I was young, and Eudora—who was from my home town, and my hero—didn’t seem to know I was a novelist.

The other surprise is to notice how short Absalom, Absalom! is. Only three hundred seventy-eight pages to reach Quentin’s “I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” the novel’s stagy, pay-off cri de coeur that released generation upon generation of readers (like me) to feel somewhat better about things. Less marooned and, well…unvanquished about being southerners. It seems to me now—and it seemed to me in 1979, and also back to 1964, when I read it first—that Absalom, Absalom! ought to be a thousand pages long, so full is it of everything in the world. Walter Benjamin’s reproving characterization of the novel form in his essay “The Storyteller” comes immediately to mind. “To write a novel,” Benjamin wrote, “means to carry the incommensurate to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.” Benjamin had possibly just read Quentin’s last words when he wrote that, and felt a bit perplexed about things himself.

I first read Absalom, Absalom! in a sophomore college course that took as its subject Faulkner, Hemingway, and Eliot. Apparently these three made a tidy, teachable package in those days. It was the time when The Wound and the Bow, and Jesse Weston, and the Fisher King were on scholars’ minds. When I signed up, Faulkner, I felt, would likely be familiar to me—though I’d never read a word he’d written that I knew of. He was from where I was from—Mississippi. Eliot would be difficult, I somehow knew; I would struggle with him. And my mother liked Hemingway, which made me benightedly like him. She had a smiling Life magazine picture of him tucked secretly inside our family album. I thought of him as a sportsman more than a writer. But Faulkner. Faulkner I was sure I would “get.”

What I felt, however, when I opened Absalom Absalom! that winter, 1964, was that this novel indeed carried the incommensurate to extremes in the representation of human life (though I couldn’t have said such a thing). It was an ocean. An ocean of words. Those long sentences, the parentheses and the italics (all of which apparently meant something, but not always the same thing, and in any case I wasn’t sure what). The confusing characters’ names (Bond? Bon?). The confusing generations. The author’s casual refusal to explain virtually anything (you just had to pick stuff up as you hurtled along). The brooding, Learish, enigmatic figure of Thomas Sutpen, who’d crossed the eastern mountains to tame the Mississippi swamps. The uncertain thread of the whole story (was it Quentin’s?). The furious set-pieces: the Negroes chasing the French architect through the cane brakes; Wash Jones, his pulchritudinous daughter, and the randy Sutpen in the murderous scuppernong arbor; the spooky house, the great fire at the end; Miss Rosa Coldfield spooling it out because she couldn’t not. It buoyed me, it sunk me, it turned me upside down. I loved it, I loathed it. It was familiar, it was alien. But I took on faith that this was a great novel. But what I didn’t understand was why it had to represent life in this way. Why all the word-storm and turbidity? Life seemed fairly knowable to me at nineteen. Hemingway seemed to have a much clearer and truer view of things. “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was…” Wasn’t this better?

No. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t.

And it wasn’t long before I thought so. You don’t read great novels once. You read them, in a sense, all the time throughout your life. I don’t know, at my age, if I’ll ever open the pages of Absalom, Absalom! again, and read it, front to end. But, in a way, I don’t have to. I can open it, as I did today, and pretty well invoke it all from the many times I have read it before. And I can invoke its signal “lesson”—something I carry with me, and also couldn’t have articulated or privately known the first, or the third or the fifth time I read it. Namely, that it does have to represent life the way it does: swarming, confusing, simultaneous, mistake-ridden, obsessive, occasionally hilarious, pathetic, violent, fighting it out with clarity; insistent on there needing to be a form within which to register and imagine life—because otherwise all-but-incommensurate life pulls you under and you’re lost. That downward, sucking undertow is the way life is. Faulkner’s novel said this was true, after which, for me, life came along and proved it true. This view of hurtling life versus the form art takes to refer us to life was not only Faulkner’s immense artistic vision, but it was a conviction his novel eventually sold to me by being so certain and insistent and plausible—and with that sold me his conviction regarding art’s saving, balming necessity in the face of it all. Absalom, Absalom! isn’t really so uniquely about the south, when you scrape away the surface. It’s just realism—about everything. Which was useful information to set me on my own way toward devising forms to depict that maelstrom, and to try to build a solid, even beautiful artifice against its swirling, plunderous truth.

Richard Ford is the author of Canada, The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land, and other works of fiction. He was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and now lives in Maine.

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