Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner

49 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Oh, my. Requiem for a Nun is brilliant. It is a follow-up to Sanctuary, which I blogged about yesterday. You don’t have to read Sanctuary first in order to understand Requiem, but it sure helps. Reading the two together makes them both mean so much more.

In Sanctuary, Temple Drake was abducted, raped, and help captive in a Memphis brothel. Requiem takes place 8 years later. She is now married to Gowan Stevens, the young man who was with her when she was abducted. Their six-month-old baby has been murdered. The story starts the day that Nancy, the Stevens’ children’s nurse, is convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

In an effort to help Nancy, Temple goes to the governor to confess. This isn’t exactly what it sounds like, though. Temple feels responsible for her baby’s death because she did do things that contributed to the circumstances in which the baby died, but she did not literally kill the baby. She keeps saying that she killed her baby the day she slipped away from school with Gowan Stevens, the day of her abduction 8 years prior. She thinks the element in her own character that wanted the adventure of sneaking off with a boy has been propelling her toward tragedy all this time.

If Sanctuary was about the nature of evil and the ironies of what we call justice, Requiem is about nature of forgiveness and all the demands it makes upon us.

Gowan married her after her ordeal, but he did so as much because it was the gentlemanly thing to do as for any other reason. He married her to seek her forgiveness. He too feels responsible for everything that has happened. If he had not been drinking, if he had not been seeking out bootleggers, she would not have been abducted. Yet along with her forgiveness of him, he wants her to seek his forgiveness. He wants her gratitude.

Meanwhile she feels that her kidnapping and captivity were her own fault. She was a virgin who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but she ended up there because she wasn’t where she was supposed to be. She also didn’t try very hard to get away.

It gets complicated.

This is the book where we encounter Faulkner’s famous line: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

Temple’s past is not past. It is part of everything she does. Thus, she ends up making questionable choices as a wife and mother. She did not kill her child, but she feels like she did because of these choices, because of things she has kept from her husband.

This book is part novel form and part play form. The novel portions are histories of the towns of Jefferson (fictional) and Jackson (real). The histories, to be honest, didn’t much grab me, though they were filled with extraordinary prose. The play portions are Temple’s interactions with her husband, her husband’s uncle (defense lawyer for the baby’s killer), and the governor. These scenes are just downright powerful.

Faulkner wrote Temple’s follow-up story 20 years after writing the story of her abduction. I’m grateful for every one of those years because they mean he had plenty of time to decide what would become of her. When I read the first of Temple’s scenes in Requiem for a Nun, I thought, “Of course. Of course that’s what happens. Of course that’s how she feels. Of course that’s how Gowan feels.” Of course I wouldn’t have been able to guess any of this on my own. It took Faulkner’s genius to reveal it to me.

This stuff is pure brilliance. I’m in awe, and I’m more ashamed than ever that it took me so long to get around to reading the most celebrated literary genius of my home state.

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