Absalom, Absalom!

Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner

“Yes. They lead beautiful lives—women. Lives not only divorced from, but irrevocably excommunicated from, all reality. That’s why although their deaths, the instant of dissolution, are of no importance to them since they have a courage and fortitude in the face of pain and annihilation which would make the most Spartan man resemble a puling boy, yet to them their funerals and graves, the little puny affirmations of spurious immortality set above their slumber, are of incalculable importance.”

This novel may be my second favorite novel of all time. Every line was breathtakingly beautiful, every word carefully chosen so that they seemed to dance on the page.

And Faulkner’s women characters simply astonished me. Some men have difficulty grasping that the complexities of women’s lives and psyches, their selves and their positions in society, are equal to their own and yet irrevocably different. Faulkner, and Salman Rushdie, are men who seem to understand this effortlessly.

In a strange way, every character in this novel is both the villain and the hero. No story is every simply told: it is told by someone else, and thus their perceptions and memories are shaped by their own knowledge and positions. Thus, even a quote like the one at the top cannot be taken at its word, placed as it is in an atmosphere of death and told by a man in a graveyard who really didn’t know the women whose graves he was staring at.

The women of Absalom, Absalom! Are all powerful and conflicted personalities, whose positions in a small southern town before and after the Civil War fundamentally shape their lives, their choices, and the sense that they, perhaps far more than the men, are caught in a world that does not take their individuality into account, at the same time that every man, woman and child in the novel is saturated with an aura of defeat, infected with the “ghosts” of the lost Civil War.

This novel challenged my conception of the South, of what the men and women who lived there were like. It included masterful characterizations of women and, incredibly, of black women too. The women of color and mixed race are as caught in the culture as any other character, have the same level of depth and despair. Clytie, a woman whose mother was a slave and whose father was her owner, represents the only continuous character in the novel, which leaps between places and times as easily as memory does. Clytie, and other characters with black blood mixed with the white, which ends up being a large chunk of the cast, is somehow both the representation of the South’s “Original Sin” and its guardian, one of only two characters who remain in the center of the action until the bitter end, whose decisions both at the behest of her siblings and from her own drive shape the plot perhaps more than any other.

An extremely absorbing read, like rich chocolate in that if you eat too much of it at once you get sick, I highly recommend this one for anyone who loves characters, male and female, who feel in every way like real, complex people trapped in their gender roles and in their own heads, their hearts at war with themselves.

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