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.

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*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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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.

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.

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.”

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*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.”