Four Rules for Reading Faulkner

I'm resurrecting this photo, mainly because it's in the creative commons.

I’m resurrecting this photo, mainly because it’s in the creative commons.

In November, I read Absalom, Absalom!

It was the second time I’ve tackled one of Faulkner’s novels—and I never thought I’d say this, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. That, and Absalom, Absalom! is slightly less disorienting than The Sound and the Fury (and slightly means a lot in Yoknapatawpha County).

While I’m still facing two more of his novels—there are more of Faulkner’s works on the List of 100 Greatest Books of All Time than any other author—this lineup is starting to feel somewhat less like a firing squad. Why? Because each time, I’m a little more prepared, and a little less naïve. And because, now, I come armed. Here are my Four Rules for Reading Faulkner, in case anyone else is tricked into reading him:

1. Study a detailed synopsis on SparkNotes beforehand.

Yes, this will obviously spoil the entire plot for you. Tweet a sad emoticon and then get over it. This is the first Rule for a reason: Faulkner tends to presume from the opening line of each of his novels that you, the reader, already know what happens later… so actually knowing what happens later is the only way to follow his twisting, turning, turbulent, tenebrous trains of thought.

Some may say this is cheating. I say that sometimes you have to cheat just to stay in the game… and in this case, the outcome is the same either way: Faulkner WILL get the best of you,* no matter how prepared you are. You might as well try to get something out of it.

*Noam Chomsky is the only possible exception to this, but I doubt he is reading this blog.

Noam Chomsky, if you are reading this blog, I love you and forgive you for obviously Googling yourself and clicking through thousands of results to reach this page.

2. Slow down.

Faulkner’s books aren’t long, but they are (very) dense. Set aside a chunk of time—at least half an hour—to sit down and consume them a handful of pages at a time (at a pace, in other words, that can barely be distinguished from “idle”). Whatever you do, don’t try to swallow them whole; take small bites and chew thoroughly. Faulkner’s prose can read gently and rhythmically, like all things aquatic, if you give it a chance. Otherwise it’s just a misshapen dump-heap of half-formed thoughts bombarding you all at once.

So slow down, you crazy child. And keep in mind that if you’ve only got five minutes to set aside for Absalom, Absalom!, or Light in August, or whatever, you may not manage to finish a single sentence. Which brings me to Rule Number Three.

3. Concentrate.

To illustrate this point, here’s a brief typical excerpt from Absalom, Absalom!:

I can see him corrupting Henry gradually into the purlieus of elegance, with no foreword, no warning, the postulation to come after the fact, exposing Henry slowly to the surface aspect–the architecture a little curious, a little femininely flamboyant and therefore to Henry opulent, sensuous, sinful; the inference of great and easy wealth measured by steamboat loads in place of a tedious inching of sweating human figures across cotton fields; the flash and glitter of a myriad carriage wheels, in which women, enthroned and immobile and passing rapidly across the vision, appeared like painted portraits beside men in linen and a little finer and diamonds a little brighter and in broadcloth a little trimmer and with hats raked a little more above faces a little more darkly swaggering than any Henry had ever seen before: and the mentor, the man for whose sake he had repudiated not only blood and kin but food and shelter and clothing too, whose clothing and walk and speech he had tried to ape, along with his attitude toward women and his ideas of honor and pride too, watching him with that cold and catlike inscrutable calculation, watching the picture resolve and become fixed and then telling Henry, ‘But that’s not it. That’s just the base, the foundation. It can belong to anyone’: and Henry, ‘You mean, this is not it? That it is above this, higher than this, more select than this?’: and Bon, ‘Yes. This is only the foundation. This belongs to anybody.’: a dialogue without words, speech, which would fix and then remove without obliterating one line the picture, this background, leaving the background, the plate prepared and innocent again: the plate docile, with that puritan’s humility toward anything which is a matter of sense rather than logic, fact, the man, the struggling and suffocating heart behind it saying I will believe! I will! I will! Whether it is true or not, I will believe! waiting for the next picture which the mentor, the corruptor, intended for it: that next picture, following the fixation and acceptance of which the mentor would say again, perhaps with words now, still watching the sober and thoughtful face but still secure in his knowledge and trust in that puritan heritage which must show disapproval instead of surprise or even despair and nothing at all rather than have the disapprobation construed as surprise or despair: ‘But even this is not it’: and Henry, ‘You mean, it is still higher than this, still above this?’

All of that is one sentence. A run-on, obviously, but still “one” sentence. Faulkner takes it for granted that you will patiently absorb this nearly page-long monstrosity of a sentence in one go; that you will claw your way to the meaning behind it with your superpowers brainpower; and that you will not be interrupted in either of these tasks by the oven timer, that super loud real estate agent who always sits by you on the subway, a call from your mom, an Amazon delivery, or a strong, sudden urge to pee. It (this presumption) may be a little rude of him (Faulkner), but there you have it. Don’t fight him on it. Remember: Faulkner ALWAYS WINS. He’s kind of an asshole that way.

4. Listen.

Even after you’ve read the SparkNotes, and slowed down, and concentrated, you may still have no idea what Faulkner is saying half the time. (By “you,” I of course mean “I.” But also you, unless you’re Noam Chomsky.) Faulkner’s style is abstract, crowded, and ambiguous—and if you let it, this can cause a lot of frustration. Don’t let it. Even if you don’t catch the meaning behind every marathon runner of a sentence, you can indulge in the beautiful, rolling, rambling power of his words. Faulkner’s prose is like music in a foreign language: you don’t have to understand the words to like how it sounds.


What Lies Beyond (the Rules)

Am I ever going to call Faulkner a favorite author? I doubt it. Do I like him at all? I haven’t decided quite yet. I’m certainly glad he’s dead, and can no longer create illustrious works of fiction quite so prolifically. (Four novels is plenty of Faulkner to commit to reading for this Challenge.) But I do admire him, like an incoherent grandfather figure, and that’s a start.

For those of you who read this entire post and are still thinking How bad can it be? I’ll just grab that copy of As I Lay Dying from my teenage son’s dusty bookshelf and give it a go!, don’t worry.

I’ll pray for you.


15 thoughts on “Four Rules for Reading Faulkner

  1. I am quite impressed with your blog. I have been carrying a similar aim to reading everything in the top 100 but often enough, I find a lot of them to be quite difficult and when you mentioned Faulkner’s one sentence above, I start wondering if I should even try. I like Dostoevsky a lot though and when I read Crime and Punishment, I really enjoyed reading every page of it. Let’s see how far I can go according to this list. All the Best to you though.

    • I definitely look at the List as a challenge (hence the name!). But it’s one I’ve enjoyed overall, even if I haven’t loved every individual book. The best moments are when I fall in love with a book I would probably never have picked up otherwise. And I agree with you about the Russians! I was surprised to find myself thoroughly enjoying Anna Karenina. Good luck to you!

      • Yes, when I read Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment, it sort of raised the bar for every other book I have read ever since, with the result that I have, in a way, learnt to differentiate between good and outstanding. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and happy reading to you too.

  2. Thanks for this! I’m gonna have to refer back to it when I tackle my next Faulkner novel. I recently read “As I Lay Dying” whilst on a holiday in Wales….wasn’t the greatest idea.

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