Absalom, Absalom!


What I felt, however, when I opened Absalom Absalom! that winter, 1964, was that this novel indeed carried the incommensurate to extremes in the representation of human life (though I couldn’t have said such a thing). It was an ocean. An ocean of words. Those long sentences, the parentheses and the italics (all of which apparently meant something, but not always the same thing, and in any case I wasn’t sure what). The confusing characters’ names (Bond? Bon?). The confusing generations. The author’s casual refusal to explain virtually anything (you just had to pick stuff up as you hurtled along). The brooding, Learish, enigmatic figure of Thomas Sutpen, who’d crossed the eastern mountains to tame the Mississippi swamps. The uncertain thread of the whole story (was it Quentin’s?). The furious set-pieces: the Negroes chasing the French architect through the cane brakes; Wash Jones, his pulchritudinous daughter, and the randy Sutpen in the murderous scuppernong arbor; the spooky house, the great fire at the end; Miss Rosa Coldfield spooling it out because she couldn’t not. It buoyed me, it sunk me, it turned me upside down. I loved it, I loathed it. It was familiar, it was alien. But I took on faith that this was a great novel. But what I didn’t understand was why it had to represent life in this way. Why all the word-storm and turbidity? Life seemed fairly knowable to me at nineteen. Hemingway seemed to have a much clearer and truer view of things.

more from Richard Ford at Threepenny Review here.