Clifton Fadiman, reviewing Absalom, Absalom! for The New Yorker in 1936, wrote the following: “Seriously, I do not know what to say of this book except that it seem to point to the final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent… this is a penny dreadful tricked up in fancy language and given a specious depth by the expert manipulation of a series of eccentric technical tricks. The characters have no magnitude and no meaning because they have no more reality than a mince-pie nightmare.”
This fragment is curiously appropriate for this time of year given the culinary reference; it would feel facetious to quote from Light in August. Faulkner may seem like an odd choice given how lauded as a Southern writer he once was, and his international recognition in the form of the Nobel Prize in 1949, however today his reputation is rather less well established.
His less than generous portrayal of women as breeding cows, dervishes and hags is problematic, together with Faulkner’s good ole boy person as a genteel, diminutive drunk distracted from his writing by a series of affairs, leaving his family in Mississippi for several years to peddle scripts in Hollywood. His use of violent religious language and apocalyptic imagery to depict the screaming South in all of its dysfunctional glory may no longer have a place. I was less than impressed at his abuse of the word shibboleth while wading through his 19 novels and 125 short stories, even less so by the extent of secondary criticism on Faulkner: he was the most discussed author in my university library stacks aside from Shakespeare.
However, the fact that his middle name is Cuthbert, together with the fact that no one has come close to writing anything remotely comparable to The Sound and The Fury are factors to consider before banishing him to stand in the corner next to Ms Rand. The sense of unease permeating the page as the coffin slowly makes its journey through As I Lay Dying, and the tissues of symbolic reference he builds up throughout The Snopes trilogy are a form of private language in of themselves. He wrote under constant pressure of insolvency, aware of the fact that he was not physically able to take up a more standard profession in order to support his family. As he failed to distinguish himself during the War, he fell back on storytelling to sustain him and enrichen his existence. The result dilutes the reader’s conception of the true South and of the author’s true self, but enables the delivery of a hurtling slideshow into a mythical country inhabited by men riding furiously in pursuit of revenge and lust, always hopelessly, that almost amount to a dirge in their rhythmic fanaticism.
The land that he created amounted to a desperate blur, finite by definition, however it takes a certain amount of skill in order to craft such a compelling world within a world. The critical canon is a testament to the task of attempting to analyse how he managed it. I would maintain that it is still very much worth a try.