Kings Have Done It

Life in the South is supposed to unfold at a leisurely pace, but the whiz-bang world of Absalom, Absalom! hurtles forward with the breathlessness a Carolyn Keene cliffhanger: “Suddenly Henry grasps the pistol”; “She said ‘Stop’ suddenly”; “She moved suddenly”; “he thought, knew, said suddenly to himself, ‘Why she’s not afraid at all.’”  For all of the book’s developments that seem to occur—as has been mentioned beforeinstantaneously, there are plenty enough events happening suddenly as well: call it Nancy Drew and the Mystery of Yoknapatawpha County.

Frolicsome swimmers are depicted “turning suddenly to face one another.”  Tinsel motes in midair are “darting suddenly.”  An uprooted child is “picked suddenly up out of…the only life he knew.”  A tract of land is “overrun suddenly” by builders in order that quickly-constructed houses can be “put suddenly down in place.”  One character, trying to do some rehabilitation on the otherwise unpalatable concept of incest by giving it a bit of royal window-dressing, is enthused to a suddenly-squared level of exponential urgency: “Henry said suddenly, cried suddenly: ‘But kings have done it!’”

Another character contemplates the unexpected midlife acquisition of a spare tire: “The fat, the stomach, came later.  It came upon him suddenly.”  (Redundancy comes no less swiftly, as the very next sentence begins, “The flesh came upon him suddenly.”)  One speaker, reflecting on shifting expectations, recounts: “‘Suddenly it was not outrage that I waited for.’”  A different speaker, elsewhere in the book, realizing that no one is paying his story any mind (“he had no listener”), falls silent mid-recitation—“Then suddenly he had no talker either.”  (And, no, that last phrase is not, to the best of my knowledge, translated from a different language.*)

Absalom!’s resident archfiend Thomas Sutpen, not generally portrayed in the book in the most glowing of terms, is both “this Faustus who appeared suddenly one Sunday” and “the demon who would suddenly curse the store empty of customers” (a demon as well as a self-sabotaging small business proprietor, it would seem).  One fellow tells a family tale of an abrupt interaction between his kinfolk and the Faustus-grocer: “‘Then Grandfather heard Sutpen move, sudden and sharp’”—which is apparently the guy’s go-to velocity and preferred acuteness level, as the story continues three pages later, “‘[he was] not even hearing Sutpen when he said, sudden and sharp, “Stand back. Don’t you touch me.”’”

It is, however, with one particular, repeatedly employed variation that Absalom! achieves its special sudden impact, goosing the story’s incidents forward like the boldfaced italics of a comic book speech balloon:

you keep on trying or having to keep on trying and then all of a sudden it’s all over (p. 101)

All of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do, but what he just had to do (p. 178)

All of a sudden he found himself running and already some distance from the house (p. 188)

then he said that all of a sudden, it was not thinking, it was something shouting it (p. 192)

his father decided all of a sudden to send him [to school] (p. 194)

he realised all of a sudden and without warning that when he passed the men on the gallery they would look after him too (p. 227)

then all of a sudden [he] kind of reared back (also p. 227)

all of a sudden you knew you didn’t want to go back there even (p. 258)

all of a sudden … you find that you don’t want anything (also p. 258)

he would not know until all of a sudden some day it would burst clear and he would know (p. 273)

then one day all of a sudden he though of it, remembered (p. 277)

nevertheless she told you, or at least all of a sudden you knew—— (p. 280)

All of a sudden, this is starting to look like Nancy’s most baffling case ever!

• • •

*Speaking of excerpts rendered near-nonsensical when unmoored from their context, brace yourself for another double shot of suddenly: “[it was shrewdness] which got him engaged to Miss Rosa … shrewdness acquired in excruciating driblets through the fifty years suddenly capitulant and retroactive or suddenly sprouting and flowering like a seed lain fallow in a vacuum.”  (This has been taken from a wonderfully roundabout sentence chock full of suddenness and shrewdness and any number of other densely packed ingredients—to view it in its entirety, see here.  Although, now that I think about it, I’m not entirely sure how “sensical” this passage is even in context.)

Having and Giving and Sharing and Receiving

There’s a lot of talk of will in Absalom, Absalom!  I don’t mean the legal, bequeathing kind (although there is a bit of that) or in the future-tense sense, but of the “will to endure” variety, the “implacable will” sort of will.  The “ruthless will,” “volitional will,” “fierce constant will,” “sheer desperate will,” “blind instinctive will,” “furious unbending will” sense.  The “will to exist,” “sheer indomitable willing,” “will and intensity,” “will and endurance,” “energy and will,” “heart and muscle and will” will.  (As I said, there’s a lot of it.)

There’s also a fair amount of courage—“courage and fortitude,” “courage and skill,” “courage and pride,” “courage and honor and pride,” “honor and courage and pride,” “courage or cowardice,” “virtue or courage or cowardice”—and so forth, in that seemingly mix-and-match fashion.

And there are a number of instances of shrewdness, one of the more amusing of which is “that stupid shrewdness half instinct and half belief in luck, and half muscular habit of the senses and nerves of the gambler”—about which I can only say that I hope that gambler’s card-counting skills are better than his math.*

What is most amusing, though, is how these words come together on a weird collision course in Chapter 7, which flashes back to the young Thomas Sutpen seeking his fortune in the West Indies, a place “to which poor men went in ships and became rich…so long as [they were] clever and courageous.”  Sutpen’s self-evaluation on these two counts?  “‘[T]he latter of which I believed that I possessed, the former of which I believed that, if it were to be learned by energy and will…I should learn.’”

He indeed endures an arduous ocean voyage, bolstered by his belief “that all [that was] necessary was courage and shrewdness and the one he knew he had and the other he believed he could learn.”  Upon arrival, his assumptions at first seem to be confirmed: “he had found the place where money was to be had quick if you were courageous and shrewd.”  But then reality sets in: “he had believed that courage and shrewdness would be enough but found that he was wrong.”

Nevertheless, this does not shake his conception of himself as “a man of courage and shrewdness,” “the one of which he now knew he possessed, the other of which he believed that he had now learned.”  What setbacks he does suffer “were not the result of any failing of courage or shrewdness.”  And even when he has second thoughts, “he still knew that he had courage, and though he may have come to doubt lately that he had acquired that shrewdness which at one time he believed he had, he still believed that it existed somewhere in the world to be learned and that if it could be learned he would yet learn it.”

No, he remains largely confident (“he had no more doubt of his bones and flesh than he did of his will and courage”), even as certain ventures require multiple efforts: “if shrewdness could not extricate him this second time as it had before, he could at least depend on the courage to find him will and strength to make a third start.”  (When the story eventually shifts back to the present, we are told that “he (the old man)…still had the courage and even all the shrewdness too,” which provides welcome closure for those readers concerned if he would ever finally get that latter subject successfully under his belt.)

All of this leads up to a passage that must be reproduced in its entirety to convey how densely clustered the courage– and will– and shrewdness-related debris is that litters the area where these three forces finally meet head on.  (The information is being related by Thomas Sutpen’s acquaintance at the time, a Mr. Compson, grandfather of Quentin; I have deemphasized those less courageous/willful/shrewd portions.)

He was not concerned, Mr Compson said, about the courage and the will, nor even about the shrewdness now. He was not for one moment concerned about his ability to start the third time. All that he was concerned about was the possibility that he might not have time sufficient to do it in, regain his lost ground in. He did not waste any of what time he had either. The will and the shrewdness too he did not waste, though he doubtless did not consider it to have been either his will or his shrewdness which supplied waiting to his hand the opportunity, and it was probably less of shrewdness and more of courage than even will which got him engaged to Miss Rosa within a period of three months and almost before she was aware of the fact Miss Rosa, the chief disciple and advocate of that cult of demon-harrying of which he was the chief object (even though not victim), engaged to him before she had got accustomed to having him in the house, yes, more of courage than even will, yet something of shrewdness too: the shrewdness acquired in excruciating driblets through the fifty years suddenly capitulant and retroactive or suddenly sprouting and flowering like a seed lain fallow in a vacuum or in a single iron clod.**

(Final score: Courage, 3; Will, 5; Shrewdness, 6.)

On the page that follows this…outpouring, we are told “the thread of shrewdness and courage and will ran onto the same spool”—about which I can only say, No kidding!

• • •

*I feel obliged to report that, of the two online versions of the book that I’ve looked at, one corresponds with my own printed copy in the quotation above, whereas another has it as “part instinct and part belief in luck, and part muscular habit,” etc.  (The editor’s note in the back of my Vintage International edition makes no mention of this being a corrected or contested part of the text; I have no idea of the history of this variation, but it feels like somebody along the way noticed that the gambler in question was giving 150% and made the necessary adjustments.)

**It’s impossible for me to read this and not hear Friends’ Joey Tribbiani in my head giving his “having and giving and sharing and receiving” wedding speech: