My friends and I frequently like to quote “My mother is a fish,” but “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” is probably Faulkner’s best-known line. And it appears in Requiem for a Nun. And that is all I knew of Requiem for a Nun. I had in my head that it must have been one of the odd Faulkner books that do not take place in Yoknapatawpha County. However, it is thoroughly Yoknapatawpha.
This book simply somehow escaped my attention. I expressed a bit of disappointment in the previous book, Intruder in the Dust because it lacked much of the typical wacky narrative structure that most Faulkner books have. Requiem for a Nun makes up for it.
After picking it up from the library, my wife opened the book before I got to it. She furrowed her brown and cracked a smile: “Well, this looks like a doozy.” She then explained that it was a not a novel, it was a play.
Indeed, the main story line is presented as a drama, complete with instructions on how the lighting should be and explanations of what the staging symbolizes. Of course, the book doesn’t open as a play. It opens as a novel. The first fifty or so pages are about the building of the Yoknapatawpha Courthouse. We then switch to drama-mode, which is the main narrative, and learn that this book is actually a sequel to Sanctuary.
Temple Drake is now married and has two children. One of which has just been murdered. Sanctuary is dark and has a plot that’s off-putting and disturbing, to say the least. I would not want to say that Requiem for a Nun is any more pleasant.
Rather than rehash the storyline here (which I actually found implausible, and much of the book was lost on me), let me talk about the narrative structure. The opening scene, which details how the county courthouse came to be was a delight. It mostly involved finding a proper lock to fit a jail cell door and was appropriately light-hearted and filled with humor. Each of the sections written in prose, concern the history of the county. The drama section of the novel takes place in the county’s contemporary time.
The majority of the novel, and the main narrative, was presented as a play. And it mostly worked, as long as the characters were speaking. However the long passages of action were written as stage directions, and reading them becomes tedious after only a short while.
But it makes one marvel at the how effective the dialogue is at telling the story with emotion and depth. And knowing that Faulkner was writing scripts for movies at the time, I cannot help but wonder what influence that day job had on Requiem for a Nun.
In any case, I would call Requiem for a Nun a flawed book with a depressing story. But at this point, it’s good to see Faulkner “playing” with writing again.