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August 25, 2010


"I always feel like I'm in an old black-and-white movie. . ." I do, too! I've often wondered if this (I mean this and the need to eat) was what got him writing Hollywood scripts. He has such a keen sense of all the tension a single scene is capable of.

This is enthralling. I love the slow and thickly textured, interwoven approach you are both taking - exchaning so many perspectives on the reading experience. I don't believe I've ever read any Faulkner (It's depressing that we are saturated with the lowest common denominator of US culture here in the UK, but many of us are remarkably ignorant of its heights) and this is probably going to make me start.

Beth, Peter, I'm enjoying this so far and will tune in soon for another chapter in your exchange. But no, Beth, it won't stop anybody from reading the book.... I want to ply my own conscious and unconscious trip through this swamp!

Peter's remark about reading Faulkner subconsciously reminds me of how I read The Sound and the Fury when I was an undergraduate. My professor warned us it was a tough read and that we wouldn't "make sense" of it in the usual way (which is what I meant in my first comment, several posts ago, about Faulkner forcing you to change the way you think). My professor advised that we read the novel twice. The first time, he said we shouldn't try to make sense of anything: we should just read it for the melody of language, like listening to a conversation in a foreign language you don't know. The second time, he said we should try to pick up the threads of connection--things we remembered, or patterns we could trace--among the various sections with their different narrators.

I'm not sure how many other students read the book twice, but I did, and it was hugely helpful. Faulkner's prose, like that of other Modernists, isn't something you necessarily can make sense of in the usual way. I'm not sure that reading Faulkner slowly makes him any more intelligible: you can puzzle over every single word and still miss the connections he's making.

Maybe it's that his prose is impressionistic, so if you examine any of the individual dabs of paint, so to speak, you only see a blurry blob. You have to get swept into the larger image to "see" how the words communicate meaning.

I don't remember how I read Absalom; I read it in grad school, so I probably didn't have time to read it twice! But after that initial experience reading Faulkner, I think I was well-prepared to approach the text differently, as Peter's comment about reading subconsciously suggests.

When I taught As I Lay Dying, I told my students not to try too hard to make sense of the story, but to just keep reading. Gradually, the fragments fall together, and you "get" what's going on. I'm thinking that's probably (?) how I read Absalom in grad school.

Lorianne, thanks very much, I think that's a hugely helpful comment! I really like what you said about the prose being impressionistic, that hadn't occurred to me but you're so right. Absalom, Absalom!" would definitely benefit from a second reading, as I've found when trying to go back and make sure of some things - and it's incredibly hard to find passages I remember because the whole book is, as you say, fragmentary and blurry. Where the heck was that scene or remark? When did we find out this tidbit of information, and from whom?

I think what you're describing, Beth, is the natural frustration of trying to read Faulkner carefully, the way we're accustomed to reading literary classics...but Faulkner (as well as other Modernists) defy this way of reading! You can certainly try to read Faulkner "carefully," but he'll frustrate that, because his prose isn't readily tamable: the narrative wants to be in control rather than relenting to a careful reading! The kind of "subconscious" reading that Peter describes (and that's such a great description of it, Peter: so much better than the obvious opposite of "careful," which is "careless"!) is ultimately more fruitful, I think. In order to understand the text, you have to give up your usual ways of "making sense" of a text.

When I've taught other Modernist texts -- T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land comes to mind, or pretty much anything by Virginia Woolf -- I've suggested that students simply surrender themselves to the language. Instead of trying to "make sense" of the text, let the text wash over you like a dream. When you're done immersing yourself in the text, you can go back and try to pick through the images you remember. It's like interpreting a dream. While you're dreaming, you aren't trying to figure details out; only later, after you wake up, can you step back and wonder about recurring images and feelings.

The Modernists really call into question the notion that there is one true Truth, which is what we're trying to figure out when we interpret a text the usual way: "What really happened?" Texts with multiple narrators force us to admit that "Truth" is multiple: different narrators will tell different versions of the same story, and trying to reconcile them in the usual sense of "If Narrator A is right, Narrator B must be wrong" is doomed to failure. Maybe all the narrators are "right" in their own ways. This isn't logical, but it's something that Faulkner suggests over and over.

Jean and Vivian, your comments mean so much to Beth and me. We’re obviously excited about the book, and we’re also a little skittish about having a conversation about a book many readers either haven’t read or read long ago. So thank you very much, and we’re glad it’s piqued your respective interests.

I connected so much with your first comment to the first post, Lorrianne – the comparison of your experience reading The Sound and the Fury with Dickinson’s reading a real poem: having your head blown off, not from excitement or pressure but from something like a change of consciousness. I read SF twice when I was in college and then dived in for more to write a paper on it, which was the most gratifying paper I wrote in college, a disorganized bundle of the connections I was discovering. Those were sweet nights, writing that. My first reading was just like your professor described. On the second reading, a lot of the wiring started showing through the walls.

I love your analogy: “Maybe it's that his prose is impressionistic, so if you examine any of the individual dabs of paint, so to speak, you only see a blurry blob. You have to get swept into the larger image to "see" how the words communicate meaning.” What a helpful way to talk about it.

I think your professor offered great advice, and your comment here clarifies my thinking about listening to the unabridged, audio version of The Sound and the Fury. I just downloaded it from Audible even though the reviews there of it were not as strong as of some of the other Faulkner audiobooks. Five out of the six negative reviews said that the book was difficult to follow in audio form, and around half of the negatives said or implied that the book wasn’t made to be read out loud. I wonder if they couldn’t lose themselves to it during a first reading.

Most of the eighteen positive reviewers offered ways of approaching the book, and some of these said that the audible reading was their second reading. I liked this comment from that page:

"I was skeptical that this novel, difficult to understand with its constant shifts in time, could be absorbed through the ear without the clues of the printed page. Although it isn't easy, the joy of hearing Faulkner's magnificent language more than compensates for the effort. If you told me I had to choose between reading and listening, after this experience I would pick the latter. The characters come alive in a new and memorable way."

Maybe the “magnificent language” was the drug that got her through her first reading. I’m looking forward to my own “first” reading.

Lorianne (and sorry I misspelled your name in my last comment!), I just thought about this, too: ". . . the narrative wants to be in control rather than relenting to a careful reading!" It really is a control issue, not just on the rhetorical level, as I describe -- the what-happened-then? reader having to give into the sickness and story-as-therapy -- but also at the analysis level. Slow reading and Cleanth Brooks's close reading doesn't get to it, at least to the mind-blowing experience of the first reading.

My first exposure to Faulkner was reading Light in August in college. I absolutely hated it. I don't remember why (it was almost 20 years ago) but I remember I just didn't care about the characters, the situation, the book... none of it. I was only certain of one thing and that was that I was completely mesmerized by Faulkner's writing and I was hungry to read more. After that class I read As I Lay Dying, The Reivers, and Sound and the Fury in close succession, all of which were powerful experiences for me. I haven't read Faulkner in a while, but this wonderful exchange is reminding me why I enjoyed his work so much and makes me want to read him again. Perhaps even let my older self have another look at Light in August.

I met someone else today who said she hadn't read any Faulkner since college. (Though, James, it sounds as if you read Faulkner on your own sometime shortly after college.) I wonder where Faulkner would rank on a list of American authors with the highest current read-in-college to read-after-college ratio. Probably in the top five . . .

So what about the so-called swamp? Or is it just about people? I don't know if anyone can imagine the vividness and the intelligence of the nature that Faulkner must have witnessed and belonged to.

In Missouri there is one tiny remaining patch of bottomland hardwood forest. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it. An oak tree from the fourteenth century nine feet in diameter rising seventy feet before branching out into massive limbs. They aren't all that big but they keep to the form of trunks limbless for sixty or seventy feet and crowning out at one hundred and twenty to one hundred and forty feet. It brought forth in me a new understanding of swamps. I think the only swamp left today are un-drainable wetlands, but in the old days swamps were a mix of wet and dry ground the were often sharply divided habitats even though they differed in elevation only a few feet. In the water cypress and tupelo. On the higher parts oaks, persimmon, hickory, cherry, hackberry, sycamore. I can't describe it as I should. Buffalo used to roam in sand prairies on low ridges of twenty or so feet elevation in Missouri's Bootheel.

So what about the swamp? Does Faulkner register the tragedy of exchanging the "big woods" for soy crops? Is the destruction of a bountiful paradise in exchange for dirt and the sin of agriculture, a bleak mercantile practice which in the pre-industrial era always required serfdom or slavery.

Sorry, I got impatient and didn't correct my last terrible sentence. It's still terrible but legible:

So what about the swamp? Does Faulkner register the tragedy of exchanging the "big woods" for soy crops? What does he make of the destruction of a bountiful paradise in exchange for dirt farming and the sin of agriculture, a bleak mercantile practice which in the pre-industrial era seems to often require serfdom or slavery?

Sorry. One more thing if I may. Beth I think you mention the character purchasing a 100 acre property. I think maybe that you meant to say 100 square mile property, but it seemed to outlandish to your recollection and you revised miles to acres. In Missouri I believe huge parcels of land were the order of the day with the Swamp Land Act of 1850s. I believe the state gave the land to newly formed counties whose officers then sold cheap or gave away in exchange for future tax revenue.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.