Oct/Nov 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

341 Days of Faulkner

Commentary by Peter Amos

For Christmas, I gave my father a copy of Absalom, Absalom! along with a note in which I said I better understood the place of my birth and childhood for having read it. That's a dramatic endorsement but, even still, I'd restrained myself for fear of overselling the experience: I might've said more and, by that point, I almost couldn't help it. Absalom, Absalom! was the highpoint of an arduous literary journey, an odyssey upon which I'd embarked months earlier; not the ending but the beach at Ithaca, the victory after which much work remained. I first read William Faulkner in May of last year and, since then, I've read every single one of his 19 novels in chronological order, Soldier's Pay right on to The Reivers in 11 months and nine days. Finishing was akin to emerging from a deep sleep filled with visions in which pale women stared at me, eternally inscrutable, unvanquished and unchaste; in which children sat, starkly indomitable and savagely immobile, amid the steps and columns of ramshackle ineluctable decay. It was like emerging thirsty and naked from a long pilgrimage or opening my good eye having barely survived a protracted fistfight with a better man. I was—I am—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually spent.

But I'm also sharper for the struggle.

Faulkner is easy to hate, and I begrudge no one their opinion. He's infuriating, repetitive, intentionally cryptic, and insufferably longwinded, but the clarity and power of his observations can be devastating, even as they drown in his gargantuan sentences. Those same gargantuan sentences leave me utterly confused for pages, only to realize suddenly that the man has produced in me the precise feeling of brandishing a small flame in a dark cellar. A great writer illuminates a corner into which I've never looked, but William Faulkner plunges his hand deep into the mire of life—death and love, rage and forgiveness, neurosis and anxiety, the ruins of war and the grass and clapboard slung atop the bones. He can be maddeningly obtuse and yet never fails to show me, not the new, but rather the old; the buried and rotting and moss-covered truth. He embodies the South's intractable contradiction: ahead of the curve for the time and place of his coming of age but stifled under the tremendous weight of hierarchy and expectation and oppressive tradition, able to see injustice and evil more clearly than any other but often unable to find the soul of the man subjected to it. Faulkner is nothing if not complicated. Still, through his interminable meandering, tortuous phrasing, nauseating vocabulary, and sometimes blinkered empathy, he says that which I was never able to say about the place by which I was formed. To describe it precisely would be to attempt in a thousand words and a few hours what Faulkner did with a couple million and a lifetime. And it isn't in the words, anyway.

My hometown is beautiful, and I say often I love it, but the South engenders a complicated sort of love, varicolored and curious and possessing of a long shadow. Love for the home in which I live is that of marriage; love for the home that made me is love sprung from a mother's belly, a born love. I care deeply for my family and was raised by and around wonderful people. My yard overflowed with forsythia and trees I knew from saplings. The buildings are old and people are kind on the street. But to walk downtown, to follow the serpentine state routes toward the mountains, or to pull into the Food Lion parking lot, is to be confronted constantly by symbols of nostalgia, bitter pride, and generational resentment. A battle flag the size of a bedsheet still hangs from a house in the river village where my grandfather was born. My wedding reception was on ground once maintained by slaves. Robert E. Lee tied Traveler to a locust in back of a church in town and knelt in a pew that sits preserved behind the organ. I left the place seven years ago, got in my dad's truck and rode with my desk and books and guitar and girlfriend (now wife) to a south-Brooklyn basement. My sisters live in New York, too, and we watched from a distance as the college town to which my parents took us on Saturday afternoons for movies and pizza (incidentally also the city in which Faulkner wrote much of his last three novels) collapsed under the weight of revanchist rightwing mob violence. There are more flags now than there were even when I left. As with Faulkner: there is much to hate.

I feel a peculiar conflict when I contemplate my home; a feeling of being torn between shame and pride, regret and ambition, loathing and love. Southern shame is the nation's shame, but unlike Southerners, my fellow New Yorkers (yes, I suppose I'm both, though New York can be earned or lost, and separating a child from the South is like pulling rust from dirt) aren't asked to confront it routinely. Southerners stare at it on the roadside every day, and rendering the closeness of that shame is Faulkner's unique achievement. He strips life of its falsity and sands through to the bare wood, mixes heroism into atavistic prejudice, animates hate in its ugliest form and plants it in disarmingly sympathetic people. He whirls through and spins into thread the intimacy of evil and racism, the sexual exploitation, the subversion and perversion of heritage, the collapse and decay of family, the stony pride of simple people, the rotten pride on which Southern prejudice stood then and stands now, and the tangle of respect and affection and anguish and misunderstanding that provide its unsettling hue.

My home is beautiful in its own way, irreparably broken in its own way, stubborn and invincible and joyful and kind in its own way; and I finally understood how I felt about it when, as one reaches the bottom of a very steep hill after a good solid shove, I reached the end of Absalom, Absalom! and sat on my couch staring at the last words. It's a hard thing to say that I love where I grew up (though I do). Quentin Compson couldn't bring himself to say it, either, and instead (through Faulkner's typewriter) said what expats like myself mutter every time they smell blooming magnolias, grimace when offered unsweet tea, drive home past poverty and pride and smoking charcoal and fallen willows, judge harshly the barbecue of their adopted cities, or watch fog curl off the Blue Ridge.

"I don't. I don't! I don't hate it! I don't hate it!"

I'll admit it: William Faulkner is a royal pain in the ass—what my grandfather would've called an ornery ole cuss—but his gigantic shadow falls across everything I thought I knew. He delivers his truth like an ax to a stump: "I don't hate it!" His stories remind me the world is older than it feels; that life blooms in the strange air between archaic words and vivid images; that injustice, for all its painful reality, is myriad and obscure, but hate is warm and breathless; that some things aren't built to be understood, and nothing at all is built to be understood on the first pass; that humor and anguish bubble in the same vein; that beauty is often mundane, and to speak love is often more than a person can do.


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