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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Decline and Fall of Interest in William Faulkner

The Decline and Fall of Interest in William Faulkner

Book Review
Absalom, Absalom (1936)
by William Faulkner

    The Ngram above compares the frequency of mention for Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.  Woolf, Faulkner and Joyce are all part of the literature of "high modernism" characterized by the abstraction of the form of the novel and the integration of challenging narrative techniques like stream of consciousness, shifts between narrators without signaling breaks in the text of the book, irregular punctuation and vocabulary and experimental grammar.

  The chart above clearly signals that Virginia Woolf is the most popular, likely due to her popularity of being "taught" to college and post-graduate scholars of fiction.  She has written several short novels, ideal for classroom teaching, and her status as a woman with relatively non-controversial subject matter (and highly controversial personal history) make her an ideal exponent of the principles of high modernism.

  Of the remaining three, Joyce has second place probably on the strength of the combination of legal notority of Ulysses and scholarly interest.  Hemingway and Faulkner share American nationality, but Faulkner employs a variation on the distinctive style of Woolf and Joyce, where Hemingway represents a non-experimental style.  The technical innovation of Woolf, Joyce and Faulkner limit their popular appeal.  Faulkner also carries the burden of being utterly unpolitical correct.

 Absalom, Absalom with a "use of the N word per paragraph" rate of something above 1.0, is exhibit A  the catalog of Faulkernian political incorrectness.  Like The Sound of the Fury- whose Quentin Compson is the narrator of Absalom, Absalom shifts back and forward in time and weaves between narrative perspectives with little more than chapter titles.  Modernist technique abounds, with Chapter VI featuring the current holder of the Guinness Book of World Records record for "longest sentence in a work of literature."

  Although Quentin Compson serves as the narrator, the story is about a friend of his grandfathers, a man named Thomas Sutpen, a son of West Virginia, who made his fortune in Haiti, married a woman with "Negro" blood unwittingly, fathered a son with her, abandoned her, moved to Mississippi, built a huge estate, had two children, saw his son from a first marriage attempt to marry his daughter from his second marriage and ends up murdered at the hands of a tenant whose 15 year old daughter he impregnates with the understanding that if she has a son he will marry her.

  Wikipedia describes the "genre" of Absalom, Absalom as "Southern Gothic" which is rather like calling the text of the Old Testament, "Biblical."  Yes, it's true that has all the elements that would come to characterize "southern gothic" but it's also a late classic of the high modernist period.   Like Woolf and Joyce (but not Hemingway) you don't just pick up a copy of Absalom, Absalom and read it while you are waiting for the bus.

  Most, and arguably all of the top texts of high modernist literature is difficult to imbibe.   At least Faulkner has healthy doses of incest and insanity. 

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