Hunting Wabbits

While previously making light of a scene in Absalom, Absalom! that rather overuses both a particular sepulchral simile and the repeated imagery of steamy respiration (“their breaths in the tomblike air vaporised gently and quietly”; “their quiet breathing vaporising faintly and steadily in the now tomblike air”), I did not even think at the time to note the other recurring element from these excerpts—although the oversight was easy enough to make since it’s a word that by its nature does not invite attention to itself, being as it’s so very quiet (“quiet as the visible murmur of their vaporising breath”).

Much as with another quiet but persistent phenomenon—the dripping faucet—one may not immediately notice Absalom!’s incessant quiets, but, once one becomes aware of their steady rhythm, it is almost impossible to tune them out.  Within the space of the book’s first two pages there is already “the savage quiet September sun,” a poetically oxymoronic “quiet thunderclap,” a character who is “huddled quietly,” and a “quiet inattentive and harmless” pseudo-spirit who is metaphorically conjured up via an evocative recollection.

In a vignette that unfolds in a single paragraph over the space of pages 18 and 19, we are told of a “huge quiet house,” which has a “quiet upper hall,” off of which is a “quiet darkened room.”  That room has a “quiet door.”*  The events described occur on “a still hot quiet Sunday afternoon”; the occupants are enjoying “that Saturday afternoon’s quiet and peace.”  One of the few things to be heard is the voice of a young girl, who speaks “with that quiet aptitude of a child.”  The afternoon will be recalled later by another character, who reports, “I remember yet the utter quiet of that house” and “I could hear the sabbath afternoon quiet of that house louder than thunder” (yet another sonically-inverted thunderclap, apparently).  Did I mention this was all within a single paragraph?

[T]hat Saturday afternoon’s quiet and peace” is only one example of quiet buddying around with its usual partner in crime: Elsewhere we are told that “the family wanted only peace and quiet,” and throughout the book we will witness such permutations as “something like peace, like quiet”; “sunny and peaceful quiet”; the still-peaceful but somewhat-less-sunny “desolate solitude and peaceful quiet”; and, most simply, “quiet peace.”  (Unfortunately, by the final chapter, “that peace and quiet had fled.”**)

Absalom!’s players are a soft-spoken bunch; any one of them is likely to have a “grim quiet voice” or a “serene quiet voice” or a “voice [that] was just flat and quiet.”  (Get two of them together and they’re likely to have “two quiet voices.”)  If they give speeches, they are “speeches, quiet, contained.”  If they want to have a word with you, it is “a single quiet word.”  These citizens are quiet when addressing each other (“[he] spoke his name quietly”); quiet when agreeing with each other (“he stopped and said, right quiet: All right”); even quiet when gossiping about each other (“we talked of Henry, quietly”).  When it’s your turn to speak, they will be “listening courteous and quiet.”  And if you put a bunch of them together and make them wait to come in?  The result: “The crowd outside was quiet yet.”  These are polite folk.

Even their internal conversations are hush-hush: One character is pictured “arguing with himself quietly,” although—short of a crazy person—quietly is how you would expect someone to carry on that sort of inner conflict, which puts it in the same category as the previously mentioned “quiet September sun” (i.e., the As opposed to a noisy sun? category—joining such descriptions as the child who is “blinking quietly,” the man who is “thinking quietly,” and the fellow who “leaned against a pine, leaning quietly”).

Also on Absalom!’s silent roll call are “quiet and unflagging fury,” “quiet and incredulous incomprehension,” “quiet and unalarmed amazement,” “sober and quiet bemusement,” and “that attitude dogged and quiet and not cringing.”  There is “quiet regular breathing” and “quiet intermittent weeping.”  There is “quiet earth,” “quiet country,” and “a lake welling from quiet springs into a quiet valley.”  There is “quiet and monotony.”  There are people “wondering quietly”; “sitting quietly”; and, from whence they came, “returning quietly.”  A whipped man is “quiet and bloody”; a plainspoken man is “quiet and simple.”  Bedraggled laborers sit around in a “curious quiet clump” while a dispirited woman lies on the floor like “a small shapeless bundle of quiet clean rags.”  (As opposed to…?)

One character has “eyes quiet and sort of bright”; another has a “quiet bright expression about the eyes.”  Other examples of bodily muteness include a fellow in repose with “his face quiet” and one chap with a rather strange-sounding condition in which “the flesh on his bones had become quieter.”  One special case concerns a character with the unlikely name of Wash, who is described, in a second-hand flashback, with such pointed optimism—“‘Father said how for that moment Wash’s heart would be quiet and proud both’”—that you know something truly terrible awaits him in the future.

The very next page shows the first stirrings of a bloody family tragedy, but “‘Father said how Wash’s heart was probably still quiet’” and—same paragraph still (this will not be a point to go underemphasized)—“‘Father said his heart was still quiet, even now.’”  Three pages after this, with doom clearly on the horizon, the poor schmo remains untroubled (“‘Father said his heart was quiet then too’”) although the foreshadowing is now all but jumping up and down and gesticulating—“[he was] standing there maybe by the very post where the scythe had leaned rusting for two years.”  One fears that Wash’s let-a-smile-be-your-umbrella attitude (which perhaps borders on the oblivious at this point—“‘the granddaughter’s screams came steady as a clock now but his own heart [was] quiet’”) might not be adequate to spare him from the impending unpleasantness.  (Maybe this is what can happen when your quiet heart never raises its voice above a heart murmur.)

• • •

*The room has a quiet door.

**Calm is quiet’s other, slightly less popular, companion: “quiet and calm,” “quietly and calmly,” and—Fast and Furious style—“too quiet, too calm.”

Two, Four, Six, Eight …

If words can be said to paint a picture, there are certain scenes in Absalom, Absalom! that are like canvases with way too many layers of Pantone on them.  In Chapter 8, for example, some Harvard students are having a discussion in dormitory quarters that cannot keep out the winter chill—on page 236, the occupants are pictured as “their breathing vaporised faintly in the cold room.”  Four pages after this and the imagery receives a second coat: “They stared at each other…their quiet regular breathing vaporising faintly and steadily in the now tomblike air.”

Three pages later and there is another touch-up: The room is as “quiet as the visible murmur of their vaporising breath.”  Further on in the chapter, having presumably allowed for drying time, the artist dabs on a few final licks of pigment to the steamy exhalation concept—“[e]ven while they were not talking their breaths in the tomblike air vaporised gently and quietly” (p. 260)—while adding on a fresh overlay of tomblike air.  At one point even, it’s almost as if the author is replying to a sarcastic question from the audience: Hey, so is the room pretty tomblike?  Answer, page 275: “The room was indeed tomblike.”

The conversationalists here are Quentin and Shreve, hashing out the tangled family history at the center of the book’s narrative.  So vividly do their reminiscences evoke the memories of their subject—the decades-old story of Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon—that at times it’s as if the tellers of the tale are sharing the stage with the players in their story.  (I say, “at times.”  It’s at a lot of times.)

This not-at-all-confusing fictional device—that Quentin and Shreve somehow accompany Henry and Charles during their various circa-Civil War experiences, just as the latter share space with the former in their early-1900s university settings—is rendered thusly: “in the cold room where there was now not two of them but four” (p. 236—hey, the whole gang’s hanging out in the dorm!) and so: “not two of them there and then either but four of them riding the two horses through the iron darkness” (p. 237—whoosh, now everyone’s on the battlefield in the 1860s!).

If this notion seems a tad fuzzy, allow the author to elaborate: “So that now it was not two but four of them riding the two horses through the dark…four of them and then just two—Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry” (p. 267).  Now allow him to elaborate some more: “So it was four of them who rode the two horses through that night” (also p. 267).  And a bit more after that: “[They were] still not talking since there was nothing to say, the two of them (the four of them)”—(yes, still p. 267).

So—the story of Henry and Charles (and Quentin and Shreve) continues: “So it was four of them still who got off the boat in New Orleans”; “four of them who sat in that drawing room”; “four of them there, in that room in New Orleans in 1860 just as”—Gentle Reader, are you getting the idea yet?—“in a sense there were four of them here in this tomblike room in Massachusetts in 1910.”  (Where do I begin—that all four of these “four of them” quotes are from the same page, or about the return of tomblike?)

And, no, the author is not done yet.  At a certain point after this, our tale-tellers Quentin and Shreve are yanked abruptly out of their story and back into the present such that they are no longer “participants” in the recollection—“[f]irst two of them, then four; now two again” (p. 275).  This not-at-all-confusing development is helpfully explicated on the following page as “two, four, now two again, according to Quentin and Shreve, the two the four the two still talking”—until they all find themselves “the two the four the two facing one another in”—where else but?—“the tomblike room.”

Ah, and with that last brushstroke in place—fini!