Tough Nut to Crack

There are a couple of artillery-style shells lying around here and there in Absalom, Absalom!, but otherwise the word is used almost exclusively either metaphorically or in the bones-of-a-building sort of way (along with an occasional combination of the two).

As the novel tells us (spoiler alert: moral of the story ahead), “the South would realize that it was now paying the price for having erected its economic edifice not on the rock of stern morality but on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage,” so the recurring imagery of denuded or decaying buildings is certainly apt—just a bit redundantly depicted.

Various structures are built (“he erected that shell of a house”), inhabited (“he lived in the Spartan shell of the largest edifice in the county”), abandoned (“the store was now just a shell”), regarded with melancholy (“the house…but a shell marooned and forgotten”), revisited (“I went on up the drive…and reached the house, the shell”), plundered (“the rifled shell of the store”), acted upon by the elements and gravity (“the rotting shell of the house with its sagging portico”), eyeballed from a distance (“peering up the tree-arched drive toward where the rotting shell of the house would be”), and foreshadowingly described in the lead-up to the book’s fiery conclusion (“the house, the monstrous tinder-dry rotten shell”).

In a less architectural vein, Ellen Coldfield (not to be confused with her sister Rosa, better known as Miss Coldfield) is a character compared—repeatedly—to a butterfly, so she figures in such phrases as “some (even if invisible) cocoon-like and complementary shell in which Ellen had to live and die” and “[t]hen Ellen died, the butterfly of a forgotten summer two years defunctive now the substanceless shell” and “Ellen was dead two years now the butterfly…the bright trivial shell.”  (Spoiler alert: Ellen dies.)

Ellen’s husband Thomas—I guess it’s true what they say about old couples growing to resemble one another—is also something of a hollow man: “he himself was not there…[t]he shell of him was there.”  This being Thomas Sutpen, the book’s prime narrative engine, he who builds the house at the start of the first chapter that will wind up in ashes by the end of the last, it’s not unexpected that he is himself described as “the static shell,” “the sentient though nerveless shell,” and “the familiar dream-cloudy shell.”  Maybe less to be expected is that four such references would occur in the space of five consecutive pages, but—presumably goes the thinking—when constructing the framework of your man-as-a-house analogy, better to err on the side of being well-reinforced.

Kinda Sorta

Ah, words—they are powerful tools but not always up to the task.  Some concepts are too big or too slippery to be captured within their net, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot be moved still by our authors’ noble efforts to hunt such elusive prey nevertheless.  No, one cannot describe the indescribable—but how else are you going to end all those H.P. Lovecraft stories?

What is perhaps not so noble as wrestling with big concepts is, instead, constantly putting up signposts announcing, Get a load of these big concepts I’m wrestling!  One could understand how a writer, groping towards the ineffable, might sometimes employ a qualifier—“a sort of hushed and naked searching” or “a kind of furious inertness”—trying to convey a sense that the ideas in question could only be half-captured, or that a rough semblance was the best that words could sketch of an obscure subject.

Of course, one’s understanding of this might begin to flag if the writer employed this locution over and over and over.

Absalom, Absalom! is chock full of sort ofs and kind ofs, and not of the sullen-teenager variety, although even that attitude might be a welcome antidote to the “Dude, I can’t even explain it to you” vibe given off by these phrases and their implication that the book’s every action is swollen with such not-for-mere-mortals profundity as to exceed the capacity of any more precise description.  Their most common usage comes in adverbial phrases—a man getting out of a sickbed moves “with a sort of diffident and tentative amazement,” a sheltered boy lives “in a kind of silken prison,” and so on.

Arranged for neatness’ sake, below are some of Absalom!’s various net-castings in its attempts to ensnare the sublime.  (For whatever reason, with and in are the most popular prepositional weapons employed in this pursuit.)  I’ve removed all but the verb/adverb material, but the complete excerpts can be found here.


(Verb/adverb combos that presumably didn’t get the with-or-in preposition memo include “surrounded by a sort of Scythian glitter”—must be Disco Night at the Classics Department—and “drink[ing] himself insensible, to a sort of dreamy and destinationless locomotion.”  There are also such noun phrases as “a kind of entailed birthright” and “a kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger,” which, filled, doesn’t exactly jibe with my own understanding of how a vacuum works, but never mind.)

101 Uses for a Dead Cat

The character of Judith in Absalom, Absalom! is described as “cold” and “absolutely impenetrable” (a lot of fun at parties, this one), with an equally fetching physique to complete the package: “this small body with its air of curious and paradoxical awkwardness.”  With her brother Henry, the provincial puritan, she has a “curious relationship.” (Or, as it is helpfully elaborated upon, a “curious and unusual relationship.”)  When she looks at him, it is with “curious and profound intensity.”

She’s not the only one.  When Quentin, our audience surrogate from Absalom!’s first page on, is in a serious conversation with his college roommate Shreve, they pause and “[look] at one another, curious and quiet and profoundly intent.”  During the same exchange, Shreve also watches Quentin “with thoughtful and intent curiosity” and, later, “with intent detached speculation and curiosity.”

Perhaps it is Quentin’s style of speaking that invites these curious stares—“his voice [is] level, curious, a little dreamy.”  Elsewhere, it is a “curious repressed calm voice.”  (I say “elsewhere”—it’s actually in the same paragraph.)  It is also a “flat, curiously dead voice.”  (This, in all fairness, is 30 pages later.)

Other curiosities include characters sitting “in a curious quiet clump,” the “curious pleasures of the flesh,” a “curious lack of economy between cause and effect,” an unfortunate child “born into some curious disjoint of [his] father’s life,” “curious serene suspension,” and a “curious blend of savageness and pity.”  There is “curious and outraged exaggeration” and “curious terrified yet implacable determination.”  We meet “the curious and the vengeful.”  Settings include “architecture [that is] a little curious, a little femininely flamboyant”—on page 88 we behold a “closed and curiously monastic doorway” and then, three pages later, “inscrutable and curiously lifeless doorways.”

Charles Bon, he of the phony grin and the dull foolishness (or foolhardy dullness, as the case may be), also has his own distinctive vocal style, “the bland and cryptic voice with something of secret and curious and unimaginable delights.”  (“Secret and curious and unimaginable delights”?  Is that the sort of voice that most people would describe as “bland”?*)  One character has “something curious and strange in his face,” while the face of another is “quiet, reposed, curiously almost sullen.”  One character finds himself in “a curious position”; one looks “curiously smaller than he actually was.”

Those seeking privacy try to “hide from the world’s curious looking”; those trying to repress painful historical memories are “talking not about the war yet all curiously enough (or perhaps not curiously at all) facing the South.”  One character with a philosophical bent offers “a curious and apt commentary on the times,” while another waxes existential about life, “the curious factor of which is…either choice…leads to the same result.”  At one point, Judith’s mother Ellen “did not know where her husband had gone and [was] not even conscious that she was not curious.”  Which is to say, I guess, that she wasn’t thinking about what she wasn’t thinking about.  I wonder what Descartes would make of that one?

• • •

*It seems there is no aspect of Charles Bon’s character that can ever be depicted without repetition: He is described as “talking now, lazily, almost cryptically”; instances of his subtly corrupting influence on his friend Henry are “so brief as to be cryptic”; his voice is, as mentioned above, “bland and cryptic”; and, eleven lines later, “the mentor’s voice [is] still bland, pleasant, cryptic, postulating still”—and this is all in a single paragraph.

The Question Remains

It’s one thing to drive a point home, but certain pieces of information in Absalom, Absalom! are delivered with all the finesse of a rhetorical nail gun—as if there might have been concern the intended audience suffered from short-term memory loss.  When the word fool is used, for example, it is not used sparingly—Miss Coldfield calls her sister a “blind romantic fool” three times in the first chapter, then later “blind woman mother fool” for good measure; and, as has been mentioned before, the phrase “self-mesmered fool” appears in the book twice as often as seems advisable (which is to say that it appears twice)—but Chapter 8, particularly as it concerns the characters of Charles Bon and a family lawyer, is the real fool’s paradise.

Bon is a fellow who, we have been told, has a tendency to wear a false smile (although “tendency” might not be a strong enough word considering that we are told this about nine times).  As to the mental acuity of the man behind the smile, we have the opinion of his attorney, “who considered Bon only dull, not a fool.”  Lest this evaluation slip from the mind in the space of a page and a half, we are almost immediately made further privy to the lawyer’s thoughts on his client—“even if he was too dull or too indolent to suspect or find out about his father himself, he wasn’t fool enough not to be able to take advantage of it.”

Ten pages after this—to ensure against any depreciation of the reader’s acquaintance with this relationship dynamic—we are reminded of Bon, “[l]ike that lawyer thought, he wasn’t a fool.”  (Aha, but now the dramatic complications deepen, as the sentence continues: “the trouble was, he wasn’t the kind of not-fool the lawyer thought he would be.”*)

The investigation into the complexities of this Bon-foolery persists eight pages on (although it has become so complex that the author himself seems to have gotten reversed which things the attorney thinks Bon is and isn’t): “Because, though the lawyer believed him to be rather a fool than dull or dense, yet even he (the lawyer) never for one moment believed that even Bon was going to be the kind of fool he was going to be.”**

Four pages later and, for those readers who might be thinking, “Seems like the finer points of Bon’s foolishness have gone underexplored in this chapter so far,” additional evidence arrives in epistolary form, “a letter…that boiled down to eighteen words I know you are a fool, but just what kind of fool are you going to be? and Bon was at least enough a not-fool to do the boiling down.”  (“Not-fool” now joining “self-mesmered fool” in the ranks of “fool-related terms and phrases one does not expect to see more than once within a single literary work.”)

Continuing on the same page, the subject somehow not yet exhausted, the lawyer offers some closing thoughts: “he still did not really believe that Bon was that kind of a fool, though he was about to alter his opinion somewhat about the dullness.”  Even with allowance for this final bit of wiggle room vis-à-vis the legal proceedings of Foolish v. Dull, surely the point has at last been more than driven home—it’s been driven home, taken inside, and put summarily to bed.

• • •

* Not-fool ?  (I guess I’m only surprised it wasn’t unfool.)



                                (Gary Larson, The Far Side)

And, footnote p.s.: the parenthetical clarification “the lawyer” in this sentence is the book’s, not mine.

Serenity Now

When you see a particular word—for instance, calm—used almost 30 times within a single novel—for instance, Absalom, Absalom!—you might wonder of the author, Did he not have a thesaurus?  Wouldn’t a few synonyms have helped to spice up all that calmness?  Like maybe a serene or the occasional tranquil?

And then you start to notice all the serenes and tranquils.  Turns out they themselves are more than occasional.

No surprise that Judith, the character already described as calm a half-dozen times, is serene as well: she has, we are told, an “impenetrable and serene face.”  A page later, we are furthermore told—presumably to clarify that these are qualities not even one iota shy of 200-proof purity—that it is a face “absolutely impenetrable, absolutely serene.”  And then, a page after that, it is “the impenetrable, the calm, the absolutely serene face.”  (In classes on how to give presentations, this principle is known as Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.*)

Judith not only looks serene, she listens serene—“Judith listening with that serenity, that impenetrable tranquility.”  (Yes, her tranquility is as impenetrable as her face.)  And even when she recedes into the background of the narrative, there’s no doubt how she’s coming back on the scene—“Judith was absent, returning at supper time serene and calm.”  With her around, one serene a sentence will simply not suffice—“something walked with Judith and Clytie back across that sunset field and answered in some curious serene suspension to the serene quiet voice.”

In addition to Judith’s “impenetrable tranquility” and her “face calm cold and tranquil,” Absalom! includes “tranquil anticipation,” “tranquil disregard,” “tranquil and astonished earth,” “tranquil and unwitting desolation,” “melodious and tranquil” music, and “that profound and absolutely inexplicable tranquil patient clairvoyance of women.”  (It will likely not come as a great shock that this last item is far from the book’s only phenomenon to be deemed “profound.”)

Judith is calm even when irritated—“annoyed yet still serene”—which puts her in the relaxed company of a “serene and florid boast,” the “serene and idle splendor of flowers,” “the open door’s serene rectangle,” and “old age’s serene and well-lived content.”  One character in Chapter 6 speaks in a manner “serene, not even triumphant,” while another in Chapter 9 regards a situation “perhaps not even now with triumph…possibly even serene.”

The only things that get the serene treatment nearly as often as Judith are, oddly, various amorphous presences—“shapes fluid and delicate…parasitic and potent and serene”; “symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene”; and—in another demonstration of the can’t-have-too-much-serenity-in-a-single-sentence stratagem—“two shades pacing, serene and untroubled by flesh, in a summer garden—the same two serene phantoms.”

All of which makes you realize that apparently Faulkner did have a thesaurus, and it’s a good thing, too, or else this book would have been completely up to its neck in calms.

• • •

*Such insistent repetition also reminds me of Dudley Moore in Arthur, completely undissuadable by the aunt and uncle he encounters in a restaurant that he has not adequately conveyed how small the country is that his date comes from: “It’s terribly small.  Tiny little country.  Rhode Island could beat the crap out of it in a war.  That’s how small it is.”  (Aunt: “It’s small.”)  “Very little. It’s 85 cents in a cab from one end of the country to the other.  I’m talking small.”  (Uncle: “We understand it’s small, Arthur.”)  “They recently had the whole country carpeted—this is not a big place.”

Reading Rainbow

Chapter 5 of Absalom, Absalom! introduces a character of multiracial ancestry who is described as a “coffee-colored woman.”*  Being the illegitimate daughter of the book’s patriarch Thomas Sutpen, she has a “Sutpen coffee-colored face.”  Because time has been less than forgiving to her features, it is a “worn coffee-colored face.”  Since rare is the Faulknerian visage that is not some variation of impenetrable or implacable, it is an “inscrutable coffee-colored face.”  It becomes, quickly enough, courtesy of such repetition, “that familiar coffee-colored face.”

The same sentence that describes the familiarity of her face also mentions her “bare coffee-colored feet motionless on the bare floor” (as opposed to their behavior in the next chapter, which finds “her bare coffee-colored feet wrapped around [a] chair rung”).  At one point, she holds a match “in one coffee-colored and doll-like hand.”  Her eyes, although not themselves in any way coffee-like, do appear “like two shoe buttons in the myriad wrinkles of her”—yes—“coffee-colored face.”

No other such phrase gets puts through its paces nearly so vigorously, although one lad sketched in Chapter 6 as a “slack-mouthed saddle-colored boy” reappears in Chapter 9 to be once again uncharitably described as having a “saddle-colored and slack-mouthed idiot face.”  Other like-worded points along the skin-tone continuum include a “white-colored man,” a “light-colored negro,” a “bright-colored boy,” a woman with “parchment-colored skin,” and a little girl with “magnolia-colored arms.”  One female character is pictured on page 244 with “lank iron-colored hair,” which the author must have thought pretty follicularly spot-on, since an individual “lank iron-colored strand of hair” gets its own mention two pages later.

Other items beneath the “blank-colored” umbrella are a “leaf-colored and threadbare coat,” “rose-colored candle shades,” and some rather frightening-sounding “violently-colored candy.”  Most lysergically colorful of all is a mention of one character’s “journey accompanied by the raspberry-colored elephants and snakes”—which I think are the hallucinatory delusions of Sutpen’s alcoholic father, although trying to contextualize any given phrase in Absalom, Absalom! can be much like attempting to get one’s bearings in a hedge maze as dusk approaches.  (Particularly when the sentence in question is one of those 500-word doozies.**)  So, as to the exact provenance of those fruity elephants, color me uncertain.

• • •

*She is, in the full description, a—natch—“grim coffee-colored woman” (emphasis mine).

**537 words, by my count, although it is once again a sentence that contains parenthetical material with periods in it.  (I have also seen it punctuated differently—albeit even less coherently—in another version of the book that I viewed online.)

Before the Storm

Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanHowever it came to pass that a rediscovered WWII-era motivational slogan became the wildly prolific progenitor to seemingly thousands of mutant variations, there is now no end to signs, buttons, T-shirts, etc., telling us to “Keep Calm” and fill in the blank as the case may be.  As it happens, the original poster was designed in Britain in 1939, only three short years after Absalom, Absalom! was itself first published.  This interesting coincidence is, of course, neither interesting nor what anyone would define as a “coincidence,” but it will serve nevertheless as the rickety scaffolding from which I will launch into a number of wisecracks about how much William Faulkner likes to use the word calm.

There are a lot of “impenetrable faces” in Absalom, Absalom!, as has been mentioned elsewhere, and those impenetrable faces are usually of the calm variety—whether it’s “that calm absolutely impenetrable face,” “the impenetrable, the calm, the absolutely serene face” or, combining the both for a whole that is indeed no greater the sum of its parts, “two calm impenetrable faces.”

For all the fury going on around them, the book’s characters maintain surprisingly relaxed kissers (even if not always impenetrably so)—Absalom!’s provincial puritan Henry has a sister, Judith, who is alternately described as having a “calm face,” a “calm frozen face,” and a “face calm cold and tranquil.”  This is, genetically, to be expected, since Henry and Judith’s mother, Ellen, has, at various times, a “face white and calm” and a “face absolutely calm.”  (Henry himself has a touch of the same DNA, with his own “cold calm face.”)

There are not only calm faces on display—sometimes with their “eyes wide open and calm”—but “calm and sweet” voices to be heard, “repressed calm voice[s]” and “voices…sober enough, even calm.”  Some characters are “calm but logical” while others are “calm and undeviating”; positions are “stated calmly” and “argued calmly”; one woman is “saying ‘Yes, Rosa?’ calmly” and another is “standing calmly in a gingham dress”; there is “icy calm” to be seen as well as “calm incorrigible insistence.”  But it’s not until late in the book that the calm really begins to run riot.

Of the 30-plus calms and calmlys in Absalom, Absalom!, over half are in Chapter 7, where they sometimes double up even within the same sentence: “He was quite calm about it, he said, sitting there…arguing with himself quietly and calmly.”*  And, two pages later, as this unusually laid-back internal conflict continues to roil: “the two of them argued inside of him, speaking in orderly turn, both calm, even leaning backward to be calm.”  (The fiery conclusion to this epic moral conundrum?  “[H]e had argued calmly and logically with his conscience until it was settled.”)

“I was calm,” says another cool customer, still in the same chapter, “quite calm.”  Seems to be the order of the day!  The overriding eerie hush of Chapter 7’s placid trip is encapsulated in a moment featuring a minor character, a sheriff named Major de Spain: “[I]t was too quiet, too calm; so much too quiet and calm that de Spain said he did not realise for a moment that it was too calm and quiet.”

The resignation one might feel in the face of such tranquilizing repetition is given voice by the book itself in this final soothing nugget of ancestral wisdom: “Grandfather said that his very calmness was indication that he had long since given up any hope.”


*For those who need things repeated to them and who prefer their adverbs written like adjectives, the sentence after this reads, “[t]here was only himself, the two of them inside that one body…arguing quiet and calm.”

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

Some of Absalom, Absalom!’s favored words are sprinkled consistently throughout its length—grim is there on the very first page and manages at least one appearance per chapter (almost, that is—carefree Chapter 7 excepted) until its final showing four pages before the last.*  Other words, what they lack in frequency of use, they make up for in concentration—one densely employed example doesn’t even debut until the book’s final fifteen pages but really makes up for lost time once on the scene.

Quentin and Miss Coldfield—characters whose relationship we’ve watched develop over the course of the story, bonding through such olfactorily memorable moments as Quentin imbibing the scent of Miss Coldfield’s “heat-distilled old woman-flesh”—are reunited as the narrative comes full circle for its climax.  (The two engage briefly in a game of “what’s that smell” for old time’s sake as Miss Coldfield’s shawl is twice described as “fusty” within a single paragraph, but the really serious word-recycling is reserved for characterization of our geriatric heroine’s behavior in the finale.)

Anticipating conflict? “‘She’s going to try to stop me,’ Miss Coldfield whimpered.”  Anticipating revelation?  “‘And now I will have to find it out,’ she whimpered.”  Quentin’s impression?  “It seemed to him that he could still hear her whimpering panting.”  Her respiratory status?  “Still breathing in those whimpering pants.”**  Quietly needing assistance?  “‘I will have to take your arm,’ she whispered, whimpered.”  Anticipating discovery?  “‘I just know she is somewhere watching us,’ she whimpered.”  Momentarily impeded vocal status?  “Not saying words, yet producing a steady whimpering.”  Anticipating ingress via bladed force?  ““I’m going inside,’ she whimpered. ‘Give me the hatchet.’”  Quentin’s largely redundant second impression?  “He could hear Miss Coldfield’s whimpering breathing.”  These nine quotations?  Pages 291-294.

This short-lived but bright-burning bit of vocabulary finally extinguishes itself a few pages later, going out with a bang on page 297 and breathing its last “whimpering panting breath.”  (Happily, Miss Coldfield herself manages to linger a bit longer.)  Although it might boggle the mind to think such flagrant repetition could escape editorial intervention, consider that this version is the corrected text drawn from Faulkner’s original typescript—as the process is explained in an endnote, “We have attempted in this volume to reproduce that text faithfully.”  Whimper fidelis.


*My copy is the 1990 Vintage International Edition (pictured, sidebar), which is where I get my page counts and numbers.

**Not unlike overalls, no one looks good in whimpering pants.