It’s got to be a tricky business for an author to portray a character as having irritating habits without the results becoming a bit irritating themselves. Absalom, Absalom!’s Miss Coldfield, for instance, is predisposed to a variety of somewhat grating conversational mannerisms and, just our luck, she narrates an entire chapter, in the first paragraph of which she calls her brother-in-law, Thomas Sutpen, “that brute” four times (including “that brute progenitor of brutes”), a plain old unmodified “brute” once, and also a “brute instrument”—for a grand total of seven brutes on Chapter 5’s initial page. (With an opening salvo like that, you can hardly say that you weren’t warned.)
For Absalom! to shift fully into the voice of a person already inclined to repeat herself is one of those infinite-regression, holding-a-mirror-up-to-a-mirror type of propositions, like an edgy undercover cop movie in which the ethically tainted protagonist starts feeling his own identity getting confused with that of the role he’s playing. We’ve already seen that Miss Coldfield has issues with whimpering and—as the book has indelicately informed us—old-woman smell, but she also comes equipped with her own reticule of personal catch phrases.
“‘Oh, I hold no brief for Ellen,’” she says of her sister in the recollection that forms the book’s first scene. “‘No, I hold no more brief for Ellen than I do for myself,’” she continues, and then, later, “‘No. I hold no brief for myself.’” Which you might think would be sufficient to get across this little bit of character coloration until you get to Chapter 5, which proceeds in the space of six pages to completely redefine “sufficient”: “Oh, I hold no brief for myself” (p. 128); “No. I hold no brief for me” (also p. 128); “I hold no brief for myself, I do not excuse it” (p. 131); “I do not excuse it. I claim no brief, no pity” (p. 132); “No, no brief, no pity” (also p. 132); “No, I hold no brief, ask no pity” (p. 133). This is your second warning: Run while you can!
Miss Coldfield is a fan of the word thousand, whether applied to questionable reasoning (“Now you will ask why I stayed there. I could…give ten thousand paltry reasons”; “I…could give you a thousand specious reasons good enough for women”) or to matters insignificant (“I did not say one of the thousand trivial things with which the indomitable woman-blood ignores the man’s world”; “talk, talk, talk of…the weary recurrent triviata of our daily lives, of a thousand things but not of one”). Triviata? I’m sure there’s some great pun to be made here about a trifling opera, but I am sadly lacking the music-literacy bona fides to do it justice.
When Miss Coldfield is in denial, she might as well have a sign around her neck: regarding her sister, she says on page 118, “I was not spying when I would follow her. I was not spying, though you will say I was. And even if it was spying, it was not jealousy.” Not spying, got that? No? Let’s see if these selections, all from page 119, help convince you: “No, it was not that; I was not spying”; “Oh no, I was not spying”; “No, not spying, not even hiding”; “I became again that…woman…who was not spying, hiding.” You should have run when you had the chance—you were warned!
Miss Coldfield finds herself at one point so startled to see an unexpected character that her brain seizes up even as the rest of her physical processes continue on about their business, a sensation she tries repeatedly to put into words—“the face stopping me dead…not my body: it still advanced, ran on”; “and I (my body) not stopping yet”; “I did stop dead. Possibly even then my body did not stop”; “I stopped in running’s midstride again though my body…still advanced”—until she eventually ends up sounding like the Eveready Bunny caught in the throes of a philosophical mind/body debate.
Of all the grooves the old gal’s broken Victrola gets stuck in, the deepest is a paranoiac one. You know the “they” in “that’s what they say”? Well, they would seem to have plenty enough to say about Miss Coldfield—her preoccupation with what she imagines is the town’s preoccupation with her is established in Chapter 5’s very first sentence: “So they will have told you doubtless already how I told that Jones to take that mule.” Nor is any disinclination in her conspiracy-theorizing evident in the sentence that immediately follows: “That was all I needed to do since they will have told you doubtless that I would have had no need for either trunk or bag.” And after that, well…just as Miss Coldfield does, “they” do have a tendency to repeat themselves (even if sometimes it’s a matter of what they can’t tell you rather than what they can), so I’ll provide an easy-to-skim list:
if not in my sister’s house at least in my sister’s bed to which (so they will tell you) I aspired (p. 107)
But they cannot tell you how I went on up the drive, past Ellen’s ruined and weed-choked flower beds and reached the house (p. 108)
But it was gone; and this too they cannot tell you: How I ran, fled, up the stairs and found no grieving widowed bride but Judith (p. 114)
Once there was (they cannot have told you this either) a summer of wistaria (p. 115)
the fear of dying manless which (so they will doubtless tell you) old maids always have (p. 128)
They will have told you how I came back home…. Oh yes, I know (and kind too; they would be kind): Rosa Coldfield, warped bitter orphaned country stick…they will have told you: How I went out there to live for the rest of my life (p. 136)
Yes, they will have told you: who was young and had buried hopes only during that night which was four years long…—they will have told you: daughter of an embusque who had to turn to a demon, a villain (p. 137)
Yes, Rosie Coldfield, lose him, weep him; caught a beau but couldn’t keep him; (oh yes, they will tell you) found a beau and was insulted (p. 138)
But I forgave him. They will tell you different, but I did. (p. 138)
One begins to wonder if this is intentional but overdone (Faulkner supplying Miss Coldfield an excess of these persecution-complex oratorical hiccups and his editor doing nothing to rein him in) or just the usual unintentional (Faulkner going about his standard once-to-the-well-is-never-enough routine and his editor doing nothing to rein him in). This would be the part in the movie when the cop is looking at himself in the broken mirror that he’s just punched and his wife is standing behind him crying, “I don’t even know who you are anymore!”