Saturday, November 1, 2014

"An Odor of Verbena" by William Faulkner

Deal Me In Lite, Week 18: "An Odor of Verbena" by William Faulkner

This week brought the six of diamonds, and a story that I put on my list because I thought I ought to, not because I wanted to.

Let me preface my review by saying that I have never been a fan of Faulkner, at the risk of being drummed out of his home state (although I'd venture a guess that many of my fellow Mississippians feel the same way). I had to read Faulkner in high school, like most everyone, I suppose, and I didn't understand him then, and I don't understand him now. As I recall, we had to read The Sound and the Fury back then, and just the mention of that book still sends chills up and down my spine. It's a real horrorshow of a book, if you ask me.

The main thing I dislike about Faulkner is his writing style, which is a real shame since that's the very thing admired by people who actually like Faulkner. But it honestly seems like he tries to muddy the sense of his story by his style. Exhibit A from the story I just read:

Then he flung the door violently inward against the doorstop with one of those gestures with or by which an almost painfully unflagging preceptory of youth ultimately aberrates, and stood there saying, "Bayard. Bayard, my son, my dear son."

I have now read that sentence probably a dozen times and I still don't know what it means. Thanks, Faulkner!
Here's Mr. Faulkner thinking about how many words he can use to say "You're welcome."

Suffice it to say that I struggled mightily with this story this week. But I eventually made peace with it, and found the basic plot interesting... once I figured out what was going on. "An Odor of Verbena" is the last section of Faulkner's novel The Unvanquished, so it's not technically a short story. But it does stand pretty well on its own.

The story is told from the point of view of Bayard Sartoris, a young man who is away at law school. One evening he is told by one of his professors that his father, Colonel Sartoris, has been shot and killed. One of the family servants, Ringo, has come to accompany Bayard back to the family homestead as quickly as possible. It appears that the Colonel has been murdered by his business associate and longtime political rival, Ben Redmond. Now everyone in the family, including the Colonel's young wife Drusilla, expects Bayard to avenge his death by killing Redmond. But it soon becomes clear that Bayard doesn't exactly have in mind the revenge that everyone else thinks he should. In fact, he ends up confronting Redmond bare-handed, daring his father's foe to kill him just as he killed the Colonel (I guess?). It's hard to say, because Faulkner LOVES to have his characters just allude to things in passing, or even to leave them virtually unsaid. So many times I was left wondering exactly what was going on. The story does reach a resolution, however, and Bayard does find some redemption in his actions, so the reader feels relatively satisfied by the end of the story.

As you can see, I definitely had mixed feelings about "An Odor of Verbena." I think I might read it again sometime, or even (gasp) read the entire novel and see if it makes any better sense in that context. But I will say this though -- love him or hate him, Faulkner is one of the most distinctive writers that the South ever produced, and he probably deserves his place in the pantheon of Mississippi writers.


  1. I tell people who don't like "Faulkner" that they should read The Old Man which is very un-"Faulkner" Faulkner. It's a short novella that I thought was very funny.

    I enjoyed this review. You had me smiling.

    1. Many, many thanks for the recommendation! I want to like Faulkner, so I'll check it out.

  2. I enjoyed Faulkner's story "A Rose For Emily" a little while ago, but I completely understand where you are coming from. I am right now staring at a copy of The Sound and the Fury on my desk. It's the copy I had in high school thirty years ago. I never finished it and a few years ago I dragged it out thinking I would give it another try. It's still just sitting there.

    1. Ha! So it's NOT just me! :-)

      I'm glad you mentioned "A Rose for Emily" because (so far) that is the one thing by Faulkner that I truly like.

  3. I managed to get through high school and an English degree without having to read Faulkner. I have nothing against him at the moment aside from opening up some work or another, reading the first paragraph (a long one), and realizing that the first paragraph was only one sentence long. I might get to him one day...

    1. Interesting observation. But it leads to a burning question - with so many people NOT reading Faulkner, how'd he get so famous? Or has he perhaps fallen out of favor? Or are we all a VERY tiny sample size? :-)