Review: Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner

I read this book over almost a year (with a pause of about 4 months). It was one of the hardest I’ve read and not just because it’s challenging, but also because of the way I read now – trying to make sure I’ve got every meaning, to do away with every ambiguity before I move onto the next sentence. When you’re trying to uphold this standard while you’re dealing with diminished capacity for concentration, the result is a really drawn-out read, and that’s not in the interest of my communion with the book. But, it is what it is, I’ll try to calibrate these metrics for other Faulkner books in the future.

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This is halfway between a collection of short stories and a novel. Faulkner himself insisted it was a novel and the „and other stories“ part of the title soon fell out of newer editions. Each of these stories can stand alone as an independent piece and lose nothing by being removed from the context of the other stories. They don’t read or behave like chapters of a novel, they are completely self-sufficient. At the same time, put together, all stories but one form a bigger story about the McCaslin family’s three branches – the white one, the black one and the female-descended one, ranging from the 1860s to the 1940s. And since the stories themselves, in a typical Faulkner manner, and typically for Modernist works in general, jump time periods (usually without any warning or even any sort of marker, be it literary, linguistic or graphic) within their own structures, the fact that their order is not chronological can’t be an argument against calling Go Down, Moses a novel. Nor can the fact that the stories tell different stories – not just about different time periods and thus characters, but tackling different topics. What makes the book an eligible novel candidate, for me, is its thematic unity and the gradation of meaning achieved through the seemingly random sequence order of the stories. For a collection of short stories, this order would work just as well as any other; if we see them as a whole, though, as a novel, the order is crucial, because it serves the thematic idea of the whole work.

The first story is Was, which introduces the main character, Isaac McCaslin – the only surviving legitimate, male-descended heir of the McCaslin clan – in the first sentence, even though the story is about events that took place before he was born (as the title indicates). The story is about a crucial event in the 100-year McCaslin saga, which set in motion the chain of events that produced both Isaac and the Black branch of the McCaslin family. The following story, The Fire and the Hearth is about the Black family descended from the old McCaslin, the Beauchamps, and their relationship to the female-descended part of the family, the Edmonds – both on the edge of legitimacy as heirs, both profiting more from the McCaslin inheritance than the only fully legitimate heir. It’s mostly about marital commitment, but the general themes of shame (Faulkner’s obsession, it seems), honour, the legacy of evil and the ubiquitous human weakness of superiority and pridefulness make for strong thematic undercurrents. Isaac’s story is told in the heart of the collection, in the three consecutive stories The Old PeopleThe Bear and Delta Autumn, which make up the bulk of the book in terms of length and deal prominently with these major themes of the book, exposing, along with Isaac’s point of view about his heritage and legacy, the major cornerstones of the McCaslin history. They also provide the explanation for Isaac’s removal from the direct line of the McCaslin clan, both in terms of material inheritance and continuation of the bloodline – this explanation makes up the thematic crux and center of the book and sheds light in both directions, on the past and the future; and on the previous and following stories. The collection ends with the chronologically latest story, Go Down, Moses, which puts a mournful and hopeless finish to the whole thing.

Faulkner bounces his favourite themes off various characters, situations and settings, united by their inescapable bond to the bloodline and the cultural heritage of Carothers McCaslin, the ancestor who left them a troubled, even cursed, legacy to deal with. I think he does it best in the stories about Isaac, because he’s the only character whose thoughts we are privy to, serving as a sort of a guide to the tenuous, broken or inescapably marred connections between the generations of McCaslins, to their past and to each other.

One of the stories, Pantaloon in Black stands out from the others, because it has nothing to do with the McCaslin clan – it’s about a black man, Rider, mourning the untimely death of his wife of six months. It’s an exquisitely tender story and could be taken as a breather from the rather bleak tone of the rest of the stories, which could create a feeling of doom in a reader.

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