Poof!

In Absalom, Absalom!, there is a major character, Henry Sutpen, who kills a man who is not only his best friend but also engaged to marry Henry’s sister, Judith.  This may sound like I’m revealing a big plot twist, but we actually learn this information early on—it’s only page 6, and already old Miss Coldfield is sharing about her nephew and how he “shot the fiance to death…and then fled, vanished, none knew where.”

Henry the shooter may have vanished, never to be heard from again, but it’s hardly the last time we’ll hear about the fact that he’s never heard from again.  “Henry had just vanished,” we’re told on page 61.  And then a page later: “Henry just vanished.”  And five pages after that: “Henry up to now was just vanished.”

The incident is also revisited from Judith’s perspective: “her brother had quitted the house in the night and vanished, none knew why or where.”  The incident is also revisited from their father’s perspective—repeatedly: “[he] had been told that his son had done murder and vanished”; “one of [his] children vanished…doomed to be a murderer”; “[his] son gone, vanished.”  The incident will even be revisited many years hence: “was it…four years since Henry vanished [?]”

Funny, considering that it’s Miss Coldfield who first tells the story about her nephew Henry, because she once, as a much younger woman, lived with her own aunt—that is, until the occasion of her aunt deciding to abandon the family, i.e., “the night the aunt climbed out the window and vanished.”  (Miss Coldfield doesn’t seem to have a lot of luck in the kin-constancy department.)  Yes, she shared a house with her aunt “up to the time the aunt vanished”—although the older woman’s departure might not have been too heartbreaking, considering that, till then, the niece had been “the object and victim of the vanished aunt’s vindictive unflagging care and attention.”

Miss Coldfield also has a sister, Ellen—Henry and Judith’s mother.  And Ellen…?  Yes, vanished.  Metaphorically, though, in her case: The sublimation of her own personality into that of her horrible husband is described as her being “vanished into the stronghold of an ogre.”  As Miss Coldfield sees it, “her sister [was] a woman who had vanished not only out of the family and the house but out of life too.”  Like a brief-lived insect, “Ellen…completed…the butterfly’s summer and vanished.”*

As for Miss Coldfield’s niece, Judith?  In her life, “she had seen almost everything else she had learned to call stable vanish like straws in a gale.”  And Charles Bon, the fiance whom Henry shot?  Well, he was a very colorful character to say the least, a man to inspire such wildly poetic descriptions as “almost phoenix-like…born of no woman and impervious to time and, vanished, leaving no bones nor dust.”

And what of Charles Bon’s son, whom we meet later in the story as he is being abruptly plunged into alien circumstances?  “[A]ll that he had ever been familiar with was vanishing about him like smoke,” we learn of that moment, as he is stripped even of his clothing: His “shirt and stockings and shoes…vanished”—in a cloud of seemingly prerequisite vapor—“as if they had been woven of chimaeras or of smoke.”  (This character will fall out of the narrative for many years, only to reappear much later, now hitched: “a grown man…who had vanished and then returned with an authentic wife.”)

And getting back to Miss Coldfield—when we first meet her, we are told of an odd vocal characteristic that she has: “Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish.”  Or, to put it another way (which is pretty much the same way), hers was a “voice not ceasing but vanishing.”  A.k.a. a “vanishing voice.”  (Near the end of the book, there is a scene in which she is propositioned by her brother-in-law, Thomas Sutpen; so outraged is her response that she immediately takes her leave of his eponymous plantation—which is to say, she “vanished from Sutpen’s Hundred.”**)

It is not only members of the extended Coldfield/Sutpen family that can pull this vanishing act: In one crowd scene, a “circle of faces…seemed to advance and waver and shift and vanish” until the participants have—same page—“vanished back into the region from which they had emerged.”  (This rather undulatory, literal-sea-of-faces facial aspect will recur in a later episode—“like a tide in which the strange harsh rough faces…swam up and vanished.”)

Vanish naturally lends itself to descriptions of ephemeral and indefinite phenomena: “an explosion—a bright glare that vanished and left nothing”; “events [that] transpire…and fade, vanish”; “all truth, evidence vanished into a moiling clump”; an idea that “touched and then vanished from…[the] mind”; and the “prisoner soul” that “dies, is gone, vanished.”  In that same and-to-dust-we-shall-return vein, we have a collapsing grave (“that mound vanishing slowly back into the earth”), some sinking tombstones (“slabs…vanishing into the hole”), and further proof—this time more sanguinary than cemetery—of the ground’s absorptive capabilities (“old unsleeping blood that had vanished into the earth”).

Also making (dis)appearances are—and if I may, for just a moment, before I begin this inventory, let down my otherwise devoutly maintained facade of cool scholasticism and say, What is the deal with this guy and the word “vanish”?!—handwriting so faint that it “might fade, vanish, at any instant”; “snow on [an] overcoat sleeve…vanishing”; a person gone missing who “seemed to vanish in broad daylight”; transients in a shelter who “lived beneath [the roof] and vanished”; “some tree, vanished, burned for warmth”; tears that are “vanishing, disappearing instantaneously”; “red spots [that] wheeled and vanished across the retinae”; an imploding house afire whose “whole lower hall vanished”; and a man reaching for a hidden weapon whose “hand vanishes beneath the blanket and reappears, holding his pistol.”

At one point, a character reflects on a piece of vanishment-related advice handed down through his family—how, in life, it was best to avoid “that picayune splitting of abstract hairs while (Grandfather said) Rome vanished and Jericho crumbled.”  To this I can only reply that, when the occasions of a certain V-word in a certain novel start to near the half-century mark, maybe it wouldn’t hurt for the editor to be just a teensy bit more picayune.

• • •

*Mind you, to call Ellen’s vanishing metaphorical is not to suggest that Henry or his aunt’s aunt literally, you know, vanished.

Also, that same ogre (which is some kind of symbol of how Judith’s youthful traumas are being replayed through her relationship with her husband) has a few more magic tricks up its sleeve: “in which the ogre-face of her childhood would apparently vanish so completely that she would agree to marry the late owner of it”—until it finally steps off the stage for the last time: “[there] was no ogre, because it was dead, vanished.”

**During a flashback, it is mentioned that the young Thomas Sutpen had two brothers—“two brothers who had vanished.”

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Balance Overdrawn

Not only does Absalom, Absalom! have a sizable stable of favored words that get trotted out repeatedly to pepper the prose, it also regularly recycles a number of eye-catching phrases (presumably thought too precious by their author to be wasted on a mere single use).  A “balance of spiritual solvency,” for example, impresses with its poetic euphony when first employed to describe one character’s attempt to navigate a moral dilemma—but feels rather like sloppy seconds when it gets used again only eight pages later.  By the time “spiritual solvency” has made its third appearance within the space of two successive chapters, the law of diminishing returns is fully in effect.

Faulkner must have liked the sound of his description of an exterior light beset by insects as a “bug-fouled globe,” as it gets retooled into “the single globe stained and bug-fouled” for use elsewhere, just as lunar metaphors for eyewear are modulated for their repeat performances in Chapters 6 and 7 (“twin moons of his spectacles” and “lamp-glared moons of his spectacles,” respectively) and the constructive efforts of the book’s foul patriarch to “drag house and formal gardens violently out of the soundless Nothing” are reviewed a chapter later: “he had dragged house and gardens out of virgin swamp.”

The notion that the passage of a season is personally transformative is well captured in the description of a woman who “preened and fluttered out of her unwitting butterfly’s Indian summer,” but once we have furthermore read about “the absolute halcyon of her butterfly’s summer” and “the bright pointless noon and afternoon of the butterfly’s summer” and “the butterfly of a forgotten summer two years defunctive now,” the imagery is pretty much dead in the jar.

Some turns of phrase set off such distinctive echoes it’s almost hard to believe they were composed previous to the control-X, control-V days of cut-and-paste. Miss Coldfield, the old woman with the grim voice, grim house, and grim front yard whom we met conversing with Quentin in Chapter 1, is described in Chapter 4 as having “even now in her hand or on her lap the reticule with all the keys, entrance closet and cupboard, that the house possessed.”  Then, two chapters later: “Miss Coldfield…had…the black reticule almost as large as a carpet bag containing all the keys which the house possessed: cupboard closet and door.” (Who knows? Maybe there was actual cutting and pasting going on back then—those computer terms had to come from somewhere.)

Other phraseological double-visions include “self-mesmered fool,” a characterization used twice in four pages, and—falling rather firmly into the category of things you probably don’t want to see on the page even once—from Chapter 1, “the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity,” which is served anew in Chapter 6 (with the appetizing addition of an increase in temperature), again featuring Miss Coldfield and Quentin, the latter getting a whiff of the former, “smelling the heat-distilled old woman-flesh.”  Now there’s a mental picture to bug-foul the twin moons of your spectacles!