Breaking the Rules

A 21st-century writer could probably never get away with this sentence:

So for the first sixteen years of her life she lived in that grim tight little house with her father whom she hated without knowing it–that queer silent man whose only companion and friend seems to have been his conscience and the only thing he cared about his reputation for probity among his fellow men–that man who was later to nail himself in his attic and starve to death rather than look upon his native land in the throes of repelling an invading army–and the aunt who even ten years later was still taking revenge on the fiasco of Ellen’s wedding by striking at the town, the human race, through any and all of its creatures–brother nieces nephew-in-law herself and all–with the blind irrational fury of a shedding snake; who had taught Miss Rosa to look upon her sister as a woman who vanished not only out of the family and the house but out of life too, into an edifice like Bluebeard’s and there transmogrified into a mask looking back with passive and hopeless grief upon the irrevocable world, held there not in durance but in a kind of jeering suspension by a man (his face the same which Mr Coldfield now saw and had seen since that day when, with his future son-in-law for ostensible yokemate but actual whip, Mr Coldfield’s conscience had set the brakes and, considering his share of the cargo, he and the son-and-law had parted) who had entered her and her family’s life before she was born with the abruptness of a tornado, done irrevocable and incalculable damage, and gone on–a grim mausoleum air of puritan righteousness and outraged female vindictiveness in which Miss Rosa’s childhood (that aged and ancient and timeless absence of youth which consisted of Cassandra-like listening beyond closed doors, of lurking in dim halls filled with that presbyterian effluvium of lugubrious and vindictive anticipation while she waited for the infancy and childhood with which nature had confounded and betrayed her to overtake the precocity of convinced disapprobation regarding any and every thing which could penetrate the walls of that house through the agency of any man, particularly her father, which the aunt seems to have invested her with at birth along with the swaddling clothes) was passed.

Absalom, Absalom! pages 71-72

Faulkner does this in dialog, and it’s a beautiful thing, if a bit of a challenge to parse. I can’t help but be fascinated by the rococo structure, utilizing both em dashes and parentheses, not to mention the vocabulary. I especially like “dim halls filled with that presbyterian effluvium of lugubrious and vindictive anticipation.” The multiple parentheticals and frankly ungrammatical semicolon in the middle are strict no-nos for a contemporary writer. Not only that, but a good chunk of the plot is summarized in this one sentence as well. We’re told to “show, not tell” and this is a huge chunk of amazing telling that gets reinforced by other passages,

I guess that’s all I wanted to say this morning. It just struck me. I feel something a bit more formal coming on though as I think about this passage more.


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