William Faulkner, The Hamlet (1940)

January 15th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

He had quite possibly been a foreigner, though not necessarily French, since to the people who had come after him and had almost obliterated all trace of his sojourn, anyone speaking the tongue with a foreign flavor or whose appearance or even occupation was strange, would have been a Frenchman regardless of what nationality he might affirm, just as to their more urban co-evals (if he had elected to settle in Jefferson itself say) he would have been called a Dutchman.  But now nobody knew what he had actually been, not even Will Varner, who was sixty years old and now owned a good deal of his original grant, including the site of his ruined mansion.  Because he was gone now, the foreigner, the Frenchman, with his family and his slaves and his magnificence.  His dream, his broad acres were parcelled out now into small shiftless mortgaged farms for the directors of Jefferson banks to squabble over before selling finally to Will Varner, and all that remained of him was the river bed which his slaves had straightened for almost ten miles to keep his land from flooding, and the skeleton of the tremendous house which his heirs-at-large had been pulling down and chopping up – walnut newel posts and stair spindles, oak floors which fifty years later would have been almost priceless, the very clapboards themselves – for thirty years now for firewood.  Even his name was forgotten, his pride but a legend about the land he had wrested from the jungle and tamed as a monument to that appellation which those who came after him in battered wagons and on mule-back and even on foot, with fling-lock rifles and dogs and children and home-made whiskey stills and Protestant psalm-books, could not even read, let alone pronounce, and which now had nothing to do with any once-living man at all – his dream and his pride now dust with the lost dust of his anonymous bones, his legend but the stubborn tale of the money he buried somewhere about the place when Grant over-ran the country on his way to Vicksburg. (pp. 731-732, Library of America edition)

One of the more striking features of William Faulkner’s writing is how well he establishes mood and setting with just a few paragraphs.  In this long second paragraph to The Hamlet (1940), he fleshes out the Frenchman’s Bend territory, located at the southern end of Yoknapatawpha Country, and makes its denizens into the hard-scrabble, barely literate heirs to antebellum nobility.  In this seeming-paean to the lost grandeur of a pre-Civil War planter, Faulkner does a clever bit of foreshadowing in hinting at the rise of the common classes with the fall of the established landed gentry.  By creating something almost epic about the movement of the Anglo-Celtic descendents of the Appalachian mountain people into northeastern Mississippi, Faulkner creates an environment in which the decline of Will Varner’s power due to the machinations of Flem Snopes becomes something more than just a changing of the guard; it is in miniature a palace coup in which a plebeian is raised up to become emperor.

Faulkner began developing the shrewd, nefarious character of Flem back in the 1920s, but it is in the 1932 short story “Centaur in Brass” where many of the events later covered in The Hamlet first occurred.  Flem’s accomplishments here, from rising above the shady past of his barn burning father to becoming first Varner’s store clerk and later his boss and son-in-law, do not quite possess the Machiavellian air found in “Centaur in Brass.”  Yet when viewed as a first act in another rise-and-all, Flem’s character here is impressive in his combination of detached coolness and ambitious shrewdness.  This Flem is a more nuanced, fleshed-out character and while he influences much of the events in The Hamlet, he does not overshadow some of the other important characters.

The Hamlet is divided into four sections, with the first, “Flem,” devoted to the Snopes family and their arrival at Frenchman’s Bend.  Some of Faulkner’s finest writing is found here, especially in his establishment of the “horse trading” prowess of the Snopes.  Two important characters, Mink Snopes and V.K. Ratliff, are introduced for the first time.  Mink’s own trading of notes proves to be vital for Flem’s later rise at the store, while Ratliff’s observations about local life serve as a sort of moral anchor against which the Snopes’ machinations twist and tug against.  The narrative is rich with the little details of Flem’s beginnings at the Varner store that enhance reader understanding of latter events.  One example of this is the story that Ratliff tells of the goat scarcity.  It is a humorous piece, a smaller brother of sorts to the “Spotted Horses” story that later formed the nucleus of the fourth part, “The Peasants.”  Yet it also reveals the Snopes’ deviousness without being too heavy-handed with the details; it manages to pull off being a funny interlude and a foreshadowing of future events without the narrative feeling stretched or overworked.

However, it is in the second part, “Eula,” where Faulkner’s skill at characterization truly is on display.  Eula is such an exaggerated caricature of early 20th century Southern femininity that it would be easy to dismiss her as being nothing more than a piece of meat for the local men to drool over.  Yet there is something within this lazy, sexualized woman that transcends the confines of such parodic characters.  Her effortless seduction of a previous schoolteacher, her desire to lose her virginity, and the series of events that leads her to become married to Flem are remarkable in that despite in most cases such events would be too wild to be narrated effectively, Faulkner manages to pull off the great feat of making this seem not only plausible, but also integral to the overall plot (it also contains connections to Eula’s unstated seduction in “Centaur in Brass”).

The third section, “The Long Summer,” is an interlude of sorts, as Flem and Eula are absent due to their honeymoon in Texas.  Yet the scenes involving the idiotic Ike Snopes and his love for Houston’s cow are hilarious, albeit in a slightly unsettling way.  On a more somber note, the Mink/Houston/wife/horse events that leads to Houston’s murder at the hands of Mink is presented in a more tragic, yet still memorable fashion.  Despite the absence of Flem, this section does not falter much in the way of narrative development, as the other Snopes, themselves in their own ways as much a danger to ordered society as Flem is becoming, prove to be interesting characters in their own right.

As noted above, “The Peasants” contains the nucleus of the story of Flem bringing back wild, unbroken ponies from Texas and engaging in a series of horseflesh tradings that enriches him at the expense of others.  Now the owner of the old Frenchman plantation house, Flem’s last exploit involves his manipulation of local legend regarding buried treasure to cement his new position as the new lord of the land.  The story ends with Flem setting off for Jefferson and the events chronicled in “Centaur in Brass.”  It is an effective conclusion to this stage in Flem’s rise to power, as it sets the stage for future events without feeling like the story was ending on a cliffhanger or hadn’t been developed properly.  The Hamlet can function well as an independent novel, albeit one full of references to other stories published both before and after its initial release.  It is not one of Faulkner’s greatest novels, but it certainly is an excellent story in its own right, full of well-developed characters and some of the funniest scenes in any of Faulkner’s fiction.  It sets the stage for several stories to follow, making it a valuable part of Faulkner’s œuvre.

Faulkner Friday: If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (The Wild Palms) (1939)

April 13th, 2012 § 3 comments § permalink

And the doctor wore a night shirt too, not pajamas, for the same reason that he smoked the pipe which he had never learned and knew that he would never learn to like, between the occasional cigar which clients gave him in the intervals of Sundays on which he smoked the three cigars which he felt he could buy for himself even though he owned the beach cottage as well as the one next door to it and the one, the residence with electricity and plastered walls, in the village four miles away.  Because he was now forty-eight years old and he had been sixteen and eighteen and twenty at the time when his father could tell him (and he believe it) that cigarettes and pajamas were for dudes and women.


Once (it was in Mississippi, in May, in the flood year 1927) there were two convicts.  One of them was about twenty-five, tall, lean, flat-stomached, with a sunburned face and Indian-black hair and pale, china-colored outraged eyes – an outrage directed not at the men who had foiled his crime, not even at the lawyers and judges who had sent him here, but at the writers, the uncorporeal names attached to the stories, the paper novels – the Diamond Dicks and Jesse Jameses and such – whom he believed had led him into his present predicament through their own ignorance and gullibility regarding the medium in which they dealt and took money for, in accepting information on which they placed the stamp of verisimilitude and authenticity (this so much the more criminal since there was no sworn notarised statement attached and hence so much the quicker would the information be accepted by one who expected the same unspoken good faith, demanding, asking, expecting no certification, which he extended along with the dime or fifteen cents to pay for it) and retailed for money and which on actual application proved to be impractical and (to the convict) criminally false; there would be times when he would halt his mule and plow in midfurrow (there is no walled penitentiary in Mississippi; it is a cotton plantation which the convicts work under the rifles and shotguns of guards and trusties) and muse with a kind of enraged impotence, fumbling among the rubbish left him by his one and only experience with courts and law, fumbling until the meaningless and verbose shibboleth took form at last (himself seeking justice at the same blind fount where he had met justice and been hurled back and down):  using the mails to defraud:  who felt that he had been defrauded by the third class mail system not of crass and stupid money which he did not particularly want anyway, but of liberty and honor and pride.

As much as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha stories are effective in creating a realistic setting with complex characters spitting into the winds of culture, family history, and fate, there is still the threat of narrative fatigue.  After a few stories on the Compsons, Snopes, Sam Fathers, or Doom, the reader already has a general idea what to expect from these characters when they are confronted with certain situations.  After 1929, Faulkner wrote very few non-Yoknapatawpha stories, but his 1939 novel, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (originally entitled The Wild Palms) stands out as perhaps one of his five most accomplished and moving novels.  If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem features two separate narratives, each connected only thematically by how the protagonist responds to moments of crisis.  Alternating chapters, “Wild Palms” and “Old Man,” tell the stories of a rich country doctor and a convict caught up in the aftermath of the 1927 Mississippi flood, as each battle against social conventions, desire, and fate.

The two quotes above underscore Faulkner’s use of parallel structure.  The doctor, Harry Wilbourne (itself a telling name), is trapped.  He becomes a country doctor, willy-nilly, just as he acceded to his father’s wishes and married the woman selected for him.  He is slotted into his father’s old role, with little say in the matter.  He doesn’t wear pajamas because his father disapproved of them.  He smokes cigars because that was expected of doctors in the 1930s.  His entire life is circumscribed by others’ expectations of what he, a doctor, ought to be, never mind what he himself might enjoy.  It is this growing frustration with his assigned social/occupational role that leads Henry to partake in the ultimate transgression for his social milieu, that of a clandestine affair and later flight from the village where he had lived virtually his entire life.

Contrast this with the convict described in the second quote.  He is younger, twenty-five at the time of the events of 1927, yet he too finds himself bound.  His binding is not that of a society expecting him to occupy a prestigious position against his will, but rather he is shaped by the pulp fiction dime novels that he reads.  This convict, for whom there is no name given in the “Old Man” chapters, rails against the deceptions that society has imposed upon its denizens through the dissemination of fictions that feature rogues and gentlemen thieves.  Condemned to serve fifteen years at Parchman State Penitentiary (itself a vast plantation worked by convicts under the watchful eyes – and guns – of guards) for armed robbery, this convict feels deprived of liberty, honor, and pride by the very institutions that instilled such notions into his young mind.

The alternating structure of the “Wild Palms” and “Old Man” chapters allows Faulkner to explore the different (and similar) paths Harry and the convict take in dealing with their crises.  For Henry, his love affair with Charlotte (herself a married woman) leads to a flight to the Gulf Coast, where both attempt to abscond not just from their spouses, but from the restrictions that their social class has imposed upon them.  It is as much a confining prison as that which the convict discovers at Parchman, where the freedom to choose how to live one’s life has largely been taken away by a society that expects total conformity to its rules and conventions.  Harry and Charlotte struggle to find happiness, feeling even from afar the scathing contempt born of their transgression.  Fear of further loss and agony over Charlotte’s pregnancy and what that might mean to even the shredded remnants of their reputations leads to a desperate attempt by Harry to abort Charlotte’s pregnancy.  Even though this ending, where the lovers cannot have full, “true” happiness due to their violation of social standards regarding the sanctity of marriage, risks having a cliched ending, Faulkner goes further and explores just how those implacable forces against we struggle can create something more than just a tragedy, something that is worth remembering even in grief and suffering because both are superior to nothingness.  The very last paragraph of “Wild Palms” states this eloquently:

So it wasn’t just memory.  Memory was just half of it, it wasn’t enough.  But it must be somewhere he thought.  There’s the waste.  Not just me.  At least I think I dont mean just me.  Hope I dont mean just me.  Let it be anyone thinking of, remembering, the body, the broad thighs and the hands that liked bitching and making things.  It seemed so little, so little to want, to ask.  With all the old graveward-creeping, the old wrinkled withered defeated clinging not even to the defeat but just to an old habit; accepting the defeat even to be allowed to cling to the habit – the wheezing lungs, the troublesome guts incapable of pleasure.  But after all memory could live in the old wheezing entrails:  and now it did stand to his hand, incontrovertible and plain, serene, the palm clashing and murmuring dry and wild and faint and it the night but he could face it, thinking, Not could.  Will.  I want to.  So it is the old meat after all, no matter how old.  Because if memory exists outside of the flesh it wont be memory because it wont know what it remembers so when she became not then half of memory became not and if I become not then all of remembering will cease to be. – Yes he thought.  Between grief and nothing I will take grief.

The tall convict’s story in the “Old Man” chapters approach issues of freedom and love from a different angle.  This unnamed convict, identified by his height through these chapters, finds freedom of a more literal sort when during the Mississippi flood of 1927, the inmates of Parchman are evacuated and his skiff (where he had rescued a woman from a tree) is forced apart from the rest of the crew.  Whereas Harry and Charlotte’s flight is from extra-legal conventions that bind perhaps even harder than the legal restraints that the tall convict escapes, his situation becomes perilous due to the very real danger of being killed as a fugitive or bound to serve even more time if caught.  He and the woman (who is pregnant) go up and down the river, trying to find Parchman, only to spend weeks separated.  Traumatic events frequently bring people closer together and the tall convict and the woman do form a bond, even though he is bound and determined to return to finish his sentence.

There is a connection here between the flooded Mississippi (the “old man” of the story) and the streams of human lives that intersect it.  Outside of rare tumultuous times, both flow from point to point with nary a pause.  The convict’s struggles against the river, against this inexorable tide that pushes against his desire to return to his familiar penitential life, is seen in a telling passage near the end of the penultimate “Old Man” chapter:

The lake was behind him now; there was but one direction he could go.  When he saw the River again he knew it at once.  He should have; it was now ineradicably a part of his past, his life; it would be a part of what he would bequeath, if that were in store for him.  But four weeks later it would look different from what it did now and did:  he (the old man) had recovered from his debauch, back in banks again, the Old Man, rimpling placidly toward the sea, brown and rich as chocolate between levees whose inner faces were wrinkled as though in a frozen and aghast amazement…

Yet for the tall convict, as for Harry and Charlotte, fate proves to be fickle and treacherous.  Although the tall convict turned himself in voluntarily, he discovers that he now has had an additional ten years added to his sentence for escaping, even despite his intent to return.  While he receives this stoically, accepting it as part of fate, it is the betrayal of his female companion that angers him most, as she quickly moves on from their shared bond and forges a new one, despite her initial agreement to wait out those ten years for him to be free.  Here, there is a bitterness that tinges the earlier resignation to fate, a sense that despite what the tall convict had stated throughout the narrative, that there is still a spark of resentment and perhaps even an eagerness to resist what fate has had in store for him.  It is a sobering way to close If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, yet the tall convict’s “Women, shit” comment provides a sense that this tragedy is not the end of his life; he will continue to endure.

In a 1958 Paris Review interview, Faulkner made the following remark:

“No one is without Christianity, if we agree on what we mean by that word. It is every individual’s individual code of behavior by means of which he makes himself a better human being than his nature wants to be, if he followed his nature only. Whatever its symbol — cross or crescent or whatever — that symbol is man’s reminder of his duty inside the human race. Its various allegories are the charts against which he measures himself and learns to know what he is. It cannot teach a man to be good as the textbook teaches him mathematics. It shows him how to discover himself, evolve for himself a moral codes and standard within his capacities and aspirations, by giving him a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice and the promise of hope.”

This quote fits neatly with the characters of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem.  Harry, Charlotte, and the tall convict all try to go beyond what their natures/society have dictated them to be.  Although each fails, there is something to be said for that desire to strive to do his or her duty, whether it is to love and cherish or to remember grief in honor of that lost love.  It is tempting to label the two stories contained within If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem as tragedies; after all, they do hold up the ideal of humanity as greater than its quotidian actions and desires.  Yet there is more to it than the inevitable failure of those goals.  We see characters striving to change the equation, to rewrite the rules and conventions and to forge something different.  There is a nobleness in those deeds, which Harry and the convict will likely not forget, that brings Faulkner’s original title, “If I forget thee, Jerusalem,” full circle.  That reference to suffering and loss also contains the germ of hope, as this suffering and sorrow will come to bear new fruit.  Like Harry, between grief and nothing we choose to take grief.

Faulkner Friday: “Centaur in Brass” (1932)

April 6th, 2012 § 3 comments § permalink

One notable feature of Faulkner’s writing is that there are very few true “villains.”  Yes, there are characters such as Light in August‘s Joe Christmas who do reprehensible deeds, yet their portrayals allow us enough insight into their characters that we feel sympathetic, at least in part, toward them.  Faulkner’s thematic explorations into how history and place affect character motivations and actions tend to leave little ground for characters that are truly repulsive or “evil.”  One possible exception might be the Snopes family.  Ever since the first Yoknapatawpha novel, Sartoris (later revised as Flags in the Dust) in 1929, members of this family have come to represent souls who have been banished to the outskirts of polite society, left there to scrounge for themselves, largely outside the influence of others.  Ab Snopes, the horsethief and resentful barn burner of The Unvanquished and “Barn Burning,” is shady enough on his own, yet it is his second son, Flem, who perhaps is the coldest, least sympathetic recurring character in all of Faulkner’s fictions, with the possible exception of Sanctuary‘s Popeye (yet even he has his moments of near-redemption).  Flem appears briefly in Flags in the Dust and is referenced in the 1930 novel As I Lay Dying, before playing a central role in the “Snopes Trilogy” (The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), The Mansion (1959).  He is described as having “eyes the color of stagnant water” and his small nose somehow manages to have the hooked appearance of a raptor bird.  He is more shrewd than his father, having moved from a position of poverty toward a powerful position in Frenchman’s Bend, located in the southernmost part of Yoknapatawpha County.

“Centaur in Brass” (1932) represents Flem as a half-legendary character whose amorality baffles and annoys the townspeople of Jefferson, yet whose ability to turn a trade into something favorable to him has made him an object of grudging admiration.  The anonymous narrator of “Centaur in Brass” certainly displays this as he recounts in the first quarter of this twenty page story some of Flem Snopes’ exploits:  the way he went from being a country store clerk to having the former store owner work for him; the fashion in which he “won the hand” of that same store owner’s beautiful daughter, Eula; their elopement in Texas and return just in front of a pony trader who sells the locals unbroken ponies; Flem’s rapid rise to prominence, first in Frenchman’s Bend and later in Jefferson.  There are hints of unscrupulous acts, such as the one involving Eula and the new Jefferson mayor, Major Hoxey:

Not impregnable:  impervious.  That was why it did not need gossip when we watched Snopes’s career mount beyond the restaurant and become complement with Major Hoxey’s in city affairs, until less than six months after Hoxey’s inauguration Snopes, who had probably never been close to any piece of machinery save a grindstone until he moved to town, was made superintendent of the municipal power plant.  Mrs. Snopes was born one of those women the deeds and fortunes of whose husbands alone are the barometers of their good name; for to do her justice, there was no other handle for gossip save her husband’s rise in Hoxey’s administration.

But there was still that intangible thing:  partly something in her air, her face; partly what we had already heard about Flem Snopes’s methods.  Or perhaps what we knew or beleived about Snopes was all; perhaps what we thought to be anyway, when we saw Snopes and Hoxey together we would think of them and adultery in the same instant, and we would think of the two of them walking and talking in amicable cuckholdry.  Perhaps, as I said, this was the fault of the town.  Certainly it was the fault of the town that the idea of their being on amicable terms outraged us more than the idea of the adultery itself.  It seemed foreign, decadent, perverted:  we could have accepted, if not condoned, the adultery had they only been natural and logical and enemies.

Yet “Centaur in Brass” is not about Snopes adding to his list of triumphs.  Instead, it is a tale in which the shrewd, almost reptilian, calculating Snopes gets the tables turned on him as he tries to make a profit by having brass parts from the power plant turned into a profit by having the two fireman, Tom-Tom (day) and Turl (night), portrayed as being guilty parties of stealing parts from the plant for their own personal profit.  Yet these two firemen, after a heated confrontation leads to mutual awareness of what Snopes has done, manage to turn the tables on him, forcing him to pay for the purloined parts.  It is a well-written inversion of the opening section of the story:  the con man is conned; the menial labor one-ups the superior.

Revealing this does not weaken the story, as it is as much a fuller introduction to Flem Snopes’ character than it is a clever tale of deceiving the decepter. One thing is notable here, however.  The Flem Snopes of “Centaur in Brass” is not quite as developed as he became in the later Snopes novels.  We only hear of his exploits, but do not see them executed.  There is not yet the sense of cold, almost malicious intent in his actions; here, he only is after a profit and nothing else.  His wife, Eula, barely factors here, compared to her role in the novels.  It is as though Flem Snopes were an idea that Faulkner had had for some time (viz. his appearance in Flags in the Dust), yet there were still questions of how best to flesh out this character.  Despite this sketchy quality to Snopes’ character, “Centaur in Brass” is a very effective story because of its contrast of the legend and the reality of Flem’s character.  We do not admire his behavior or his motivations, but there is something about the audaciousness in which he operates that captures the readers’ attentions, making them want to read more about this character and to try and understand just how this cold, calculating person operates.  This, when combined with the contrasts noted above, make “Centaur in Brass” a story that loses very little when read multiple times.

Faulkner Friday: The Unvanquished (1938)

March 30th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

For most of the thirteen years leading up to the publication of The Unvanquished (1938), most of Faulkner’s short fiction and novels kept circling around the Ground Zero of Yoknapatawpha County:  the Civil War.  In “A Rose for Emily,” passing mention was made of Colonel Sartoris and his form of charity toward Emily.  Flags in the Dust (1929) follows the Sartoris family in its decline after the Civil War.  In Absalom, Absalom! we learn a bit more about the Compsons and their connection to the settlement of the county and their involvement in the Civil War.  “Barn Burning” introduced us to Ab Snopes, whose muddled role in the Civil War was, incidentally enough, first explored in The Unvanquished.  There are further ripple effects, forwards and backwards in Yoknapatawphan time, as the complex, tragic mix of pride, stubbornness, racism and classism, and the struggle of the everyperson to make his/her way through an often unforgiving environment all center around the real and fictional events of 1861-1865.

The Unvanquished, through seven episodes, tells the story of the Sartoris family during the second half of the Civil War, July 1863-April 1865, and into the Reconstruction years, ending in 1872.  Six of these seven episodes originally were short stories published between 1934-1936, with the seventh, “An Odor of Verbena,” appearing only with the complete novel.  It is told through the young twelve year-old eyes of Bayard Sartoris, Colonel John Sartoris’ eldest son, as he remains at home on the Sartoris plantation while his father and the other Yoknapatawpha men join the Confederate Army of the Mississippi in battles north and east of Jefferson.  The story begins with Bayard and the young slave Ringo playing a mock battle of Vicksburg when an older servant, Loosh, comes in and informs the boys that Vicksburg has fallen and that the Yankees are advancing through northeastern Mississippi toward Jefferson.  Soon enough, the two spot an advance Yankee patrol and Bayard pulls down a musket from the wall and shoots at him, killing a horse.  This opening episode, “Ambuscade,” reveals not just young Bayard’s naivety (he does not yet understand that there is an element of fear as well as respect in how Ringo and the other slaves treat him and his family), but also that turning point in the war where the advancing Union forces have begun liberating the slaves in the captured territories following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.    Faulkner later reveals the depth to which the slaves knew of Lincoln’s proclamation in the third section, “Raid,” through this eloquent passage:

We never did overtake them, just as you do not overtake a tide. You just keep moving, then suddenly you know that the set is about you, beneath you, overtaking you, as if the slow and ruthless power, become aware of your presence at last, had dropped back a tentacle, a feeler, to gather you in and sweep you remorselessly on. Singly, in couples, in groups and families they began to appear from the woods, ahead of us, alongside of us and behind…men and women carrying babies and dragging older children by the hand, old men and women on improvised sticks and crutches, and very old ones sitting beside the road and even calling to us when we passed; there was one old woman who even walked along beside the wagon, holding to the bed and begging Granny to at least let her see the river before she died.

The path of human migration was not limited to the slaves moving toward the Mississippi River (where the Union Army was stationed) but also to the movement of refugees driven from their homes by the fighting.  During the last full year of the war, Bayard’s family leaves the Sartoris plantation behind, as the Colonel has ridden into town and urges his mother, the Granny, to take the family silver to Memphis for safekeeping from looters from both sides of the conflict.  As Granny, Bayard, and Ringo travel toward their destination, they are waylaid, saved only by the fortuitous arrival of the Colonel’s cavalry as they try to chase down the thieves, who manage to escape but without the silver they had taken.  There are several funny events in the middle episodes, such as when Granny later goes to the Union forces and petitions for the return of the silver that the soldiers had later taken from the plantation after another patrol came upon it while searching for the Colonel’s troop.  Through a series of shrewd negotiations, abetted by the shady Ab Snopes, they have engaged in a mule smuggling/selling operation that allows the family to make back the money lost.  In this episode, there are shades of actual events late in the war where soldiers on both sides and civilians would sometimes engage in a series of complex and perhaps illicit trades in order for the latter to survive as their crops were devastated by the fighting and lack of labor for harvest time.

Dearth of supplies and food, while featured at times in these stories, takes a secondary role to Bayard’s personal development.  Near the end of the fighting, Granny is killed by the sinister ex-Confederate bandit, Grumby, as she tries to ply on him her mule-trading scam.  Betrayed by Snopes, Grumby has her killed.  Bayard and others in the household begin tracking down Grumby’s men, when they stumble upon Snopes, who had been tied up and left for dead by Grumby.  Eventually, Grumby is cornered, killed, and one of his hands is chopped off in retribution for the treatment Granny received.  In this, we see Bayard progressing from a callow youth to a young adolescent who is fierce in his defense of family honor.  Later, in the final episode, set in 1872, we see this sense of honor tested, with Bayard learning that sometimes there is a time and place for fighting and another for peacemaking for a good greater than that of the family.

The Unvanquished is difficult to discuss without laying out the events that occur.  Faulkner skips ahead months, if not years, between the seven episodes and at times the narrative is comic and at others very somber.  This likely is due to the episodes originally being six short stories that were later edited together to form a mosaic novel.  In places, such as the shift from the plantation to the family engaging in the mule-trading business, the transitions are very abrupt and feel rough and underdeveloped.  Yet on occasion this sense of disjointedness actually serves to accentuate the confusion and calamities of the final years of the Civil War and the massive disruptions and displacements that took place.  While Bayard’s growth into the future leader of the Sartoris family is a key unifying thread, there is much here about how the Jefferson blacks viewed the war, how there were unscrupulous individuals like Snopes and Grumby who profited from the war, as well as how chaste love, such as that shared between Bayard and Drusilla, serves as a thematic counterpoint to the fighting and hatreds that spilled out.  By itself, The Unvanquished is not one of Faulkner’s best written or developed story sequences.  But as a sort of quasi-prequel that ties together the references made in his earlier fiction, it serves to unify the disparate threads found elsewhere and to give a sense of loss, privation, and pride even in defeat that became the hallmark of so many of his post-Civil War-set characters and stories.  For that, it is an invaluable part of the larger tapestry of Faulkner’s fiction, even if by itself it is a weaker work.

Faulkner Friday: “The Tall Men” (1941); “Adolescence” (posthumous, released in 1979)

March 23rd, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Much has been made in previous Faulkner Friday entries on how Faulkner’s characters relate to their time and locale.  At times, this take risks suborning characterization too much to the demands of theme.  Yet whenever the individual characters are considered, from Addie to Emily to Joe to Quentin to Sam Fathers and so forth, there is a quality about them that makes them seem “real” outside of the constraints of the particular tale in which they appear.  A composite image forms of characters who have suffered, who have grieved, who have spat into the wind and dared to take another step when exhaustion threatened to end their existence right then and there.  Faulkner references this in his Nobel acceptance speech, where he said:

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Endurance in hope of fulfillment and justification drives many people to suffer not just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but also the ebbs and flows of bounty.  Faulkner’s characters have known better times; they strive for their return, even if they know it may never happen again.  If this were all that Faulkner’s characters were about, however, they would be more archetypes or distortions than true dynamic representations of human people.  Sometimes, these qualities of hope and steadfastness are recognized within the characters (as that of McCallums in “The Tall Men” or the half-orphaned girl Juliet in “Adolescence”) or are seen in opposition through the views of their antagonists (such as the government official in “The Tall Men”).  Even when misunderstood or unrecognized by other characters, these qualities capture and hold our attention.

“The Tall Men” (1941) is set during the last years of the Great Depression, as the country readies itself for possible entry into World War II.  A government official, Pearson,  has been sent to Jefferson to arrest two of the McCallums for draft evasion.  As he travels into town, irked that a local marshal has already told the two men to expect to be arrested, this investigator muses about the local situation in language that might sound familiar to those who have ever heard someone rail against public welfare:

The investigator drew up behind the other car and switched off and blacked out his lights.  “These people,” he said.  Then he thought, But this doddering, tobacco-chewing old man is one of them, too, despite the honor and pride of his office, which should have made him different.  So he didn’t speak it aloud, removing the keys and getting out of the car, and then locking the car itself, rolling the windows up first, thinking, These people who lie about and conceal the ownership of land and property in order to hold relief jobs which they have no intention of performing, standing on their constitutional rights against having to work, who jeopardize the very job itself through petty and transparent subterfuge to acquire a free mattress which they intend to sell; who would relinquish even the job, if by so doing they could receive free food and a place, any rathole, in town to sleep in; who, as farmers, make false statements to get seed loans which they will later misuse, and then react in loud vituperative outrage and astonishment when caught at it.  And then, when at long last a suffering and threatened Government asks one thing of them in return, one thing simply, which is to put their names down on a selective-service list, they refuse to do it.

Over the course of “The Tall Men,” we see this presumptive opinion altered by Pearson’s encounter with the uncle and father of the two young McCallums.  Agricultural laborers and, in the case of the father, a World War I veteran, the elder McCallums talk of not taking anything from anyone but giving freely (in the form of service to land and country, whether it be that of their own father who walked across a thousand miles to join a Confederate regiment in Virginia or Buddy McCallum’s service in World War I) when asked.  Some of their attitudes, such as their refusal to accept crop subsidies and their circumvention of being rewarded for no service may seem quaint to modern readers, but it lies in direct opposition to the opinion expressed earlier by Pearson.  Pearson is forced to confront the truth that there are some who do not shirk duty as much as embrace it to such a degree that mere government directives pale in comparison.  As he prepares to leave the McCallum household, his preconceptions shattered, the local marshal who accompanied him drives this point home with this observation:

So the investigator put the bundle down on the brick coping and the marshal began to dig, skillfully and rapidly, still talking in that cheerful, interminable voice, “Yes, sir.  We done forgot about folks.  Life has done got cheap, and life ain’t cheap.  Life’s a pretty durn valuable thing.  I don’t mean just getting along from one WPA relief check to the next one, but honor and pride and discipline that make a man worth preserving, make him of any value.  That’s what we got to learn again.  Maybe it takes trouble, bad trouble, to teach it back to us; maybe it was the walking to Virginia because that’s where his ma come from, and losing a war and then walking back, that taught it to old Anse.  Anyway, he seems to learned it, and to learned it good enough to bequeath it to his boys.  Did you notice how all Buddy had to do was to tell them boys of his it was time to go, because the Government had sent them the word?  And how they told him good-by?  Growned men kissing one another without hiding and without shame.  Maybe that’s what I am trying to say.

Just as Pearson too readily judged the McCallums because of the letter of a law being broken, too quickly do we often look down upon those who fail to behave in the manner which we prescribe to them.  “The Tall Men” could have been set anywhere in the South (it has barely any connection beyond the Jefferson setting with the rest of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County stories) or any American rural area for that matter.  It is the character of the fictional personages that speak to us, reminding us of character traits that we too often dismiss from our fellow human beings.  There is a veracity to “The Tall Men” that makes it powerful without there being any great dramatic scene; the drama that unfolds is between humans who come to understand each other just a little bit more.

“Adolescence” is not on the par of “The Tall Men,” but this short tale, likely composed in the late 1920s or early 1930s, also is a character-driven tale.  Faulkner begins this tale by opening with the cruel fate of young Juliet Bunden’s mother, whose dreams and aspirations were slowly crushed by marriage to the shiftless Joe Bunden and the pains of childbirth in an age before modern prenatal treatment:

The first ten months of her married life – a time of unprecedented manual labor – failed to destroy her illusions; her mental life, projected forward about her expected child, supported her.  She had hoped for twins, to be called Romeo and Juliet, but she was forced to lavish her starved affections on Juliet alone.  Her husband condoned this choice of name with a tolerant guffaw.  Paternity rested but lightly upon him:  like the male of his kind, he regarded the inevitable arrival of children as one of the unavoidable inconveniences of marriage, like the risk of wetting the feet while fishing.

Juliet’s mother soon dies and when her father remarries, he sends her to live with his mother, who attempts to rear this headstrong girl, after she is sent away by her stepmother for open defiance and antipathy.   “Adolescence” traces the story of Juliet’s development, as she comes to fall in love with a boy, Lee, she meets one day, and whose changing body and moods come to reflect a deepening distrust of the patriarchal world in which she lives.  Her grandmother, and later her father, try to force her to accept the subordinate role that women had been forced into in Southern (and by extension, American) society.  When her grandmother dismisses Lee as a scion of a worthless local family, Juliet flies into a rage, screaming and cursing at her grandmother.  The two eventually come to blows over this years later, as Juliet turns fifteen, and she wants a cook to do the labor that her grandmother has enforced upon her.  As they argue, the core issue of Juliet’s refusal to accept societal conventions comes to the fore:

“Tech you!  Joe Bunden’ll do that a plenty when he comes, I promise ye.  And I bound ye the husband Joe’s picked for you’ll tech ye too; when he hears what folks say about you and that no ‘count Hollowell.”

“Husband?” repeated Juliet.  The other croaked into laughter.

“Husband, I tell ye.  But I hadn’t aimed to tell ye before every thing was ready, you’re so hard headed.  But I guess Joe’ll manage ye.  I sent word to Joe that I couldn’t manage you; and them folks of yourn dont want ye to home; so Joe’s went and found somebody to marry ye, though God knows where he found a feller’ll take ye.  But that’s Joe’s lookout, not mine:  I done what I could for ye.”

“Husband?” repeated Juliet idiotically.  “Do you think that you and Joe Bunden can both make me get married?  Much as I hate you, I’d rather be dead than go back home; and before I’d marry anybody I’ll kill you and Joe Bunden, too.  You cant make me!”

The story ends on an ambiguous note.  Her father turns up dead, shot by federal agents during a bootlegging run.  Juliet struggles to make sense of the world around her; she knows that she cannot continue as she is.  As the story closes, there is the hint of something momentous has happened, but with little resolution in sight.  “Adolescence” feels incomplete, as though there is more to Juliet’s young life to be explored, but perhaps that is part of the point that Faulkner makes, that of how all those storms and struggles of youth lead to something else, something that may or may not be for the better.  Yet even if this were the case, then perhaps Juliet Bunden’s struggles are worth considering all the more for their inconclusiveness than for what her fate might say?

There is much to consider (and perhaps, reconsider) in reading and re-reading this tale and that of “The Tall Men.”  Well-developed characters, just like people we have met in our lives, do not easily divulge their innermost secrets and motivations.  We change, we grow, we struggle to find a way to endure.  That lies at the heart of Faulkner’s Nobel speech and it certainly is an important part of his writings.  Empathy is a powerful force, if we could only grasp it fully, he seems to say in these tales.  It certainly is a quality that adds to these fictions.

Faulkner Friday: “A Justice” (1931); “Lion” (1935); “The Bear” (1935-1942)

March 16th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Readers familiar with Faulkner’s oeuvre are well-aware of his propensity to recycle characters and even stories to broaden the scope and to deepen the intensity of the thematic issues he wants to explore.  This certainly is the case with the three short fictions (or two, if one looks at “Lion” (1935) as being but a published draft of the later “The Bear”(1942 in its most familiar form) discussed here in this essay.  While each could be treated separately, perhaps it is best to consider the three together, linked as they are by the character of Sam Fathers, who perhaps is one of Faulkner’s more enigmatic and memorable characters.

Sam Fathers first appears in “A Justice” as a nearly century old half-Choctaw/half-black carpenter.  He is a mystery to a younger Quentin Compson (himself a repeat character from The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), as can be seen in how Compson describes him:

There was a long, low house in the grove, not painted but kept whole and sound by a clever carpenter from the quarters named Sam Fathers, and behind it the barns and smokehouses, and further still, the quarters themselves, also kept whole and sound by Sam Fathers.  He did nothing else, and they said he was almost a hundred years old.  He lived with the Negroes and they – the white people; the Negroes called him a blue-gum – called him a Negro.  But he wasn’t a Negro.  That’s what I’m going to tell about.

Fathers stops to talk to young Quentin one day, and this completes the framework for the narrative outside of the story’s main story, that of how Sam Fathers came to be born and how his Choctaw name came to be Had-Two-Fathers.  This birth narrative, set in the early decades of the 19th century, as Mississippi began to be settled by white plantation owners and their enslaved African servants, touches upon the foundation stories of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, first discussed in “Red Leaves” (1930).  We learn more about the Choctaw and their relationship to the enslaved blacks through the illicit relationship of the Choctaw Craw(fish)-ford with a female slave.  Faulkner weaves together a double narrative, that of the youthful Quentin and the aged Sam Fathers, to create a looping narrative in which the immoral actions of Craw-ford reflect a greater injustice that has befallen the blacks over the course of nearly a century, from the 1820s of the main action of the tale to the literary present of the late 1890s when Quentin is a boy of eight.  Faulkner contrasts the decision made by the chief Doom, with Craw-ford’s required recompense for fathering a child (Sam) on a married woman, with several of the inhumanities that were visited on African-Americans before, during, and after the Civil War.  “A Justice” can be seen as a thematic complement to not just “Red Leaves,” but also to Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! in how matters of racial and familial justice are meted out.

As noted above, Faulkner often would revisit characters at different stages in their lives in order to illustrate the interconnectedness of the peoples and cultures of his native Mississippi and how those relations in turn could stand for a greater human struggle against cold indifference.  One method of exploring this issue of humanity’s struggle against itself and nature is through the metaphor of the hunt.  Faulkner, like several other writers before him, was drawn to the power that can be found in the complex chess between the hunter and the hunted.  “Lion” is the briefest form of this hunt metaphor, extracted to its most mythical form.  Lion is Major de Spain’s hunting dog, yet he is more than that to those who are part of de Spain and Ike McCaslin’s party hunting the legendary black bear, Old Ben:

They were funny about Lion.  Neither one of them owned him or had any hope of ever owning him and I don’t believe it ever occurred to either of them to think, I wish I owned that dog.  Because you didn’t think of Lion as belonging to anyone, any more than you thought about a man belonging to anybody, not even to Major de Spain.  You thought of the house and the woods as belonging to him and even the deer and the bear in them; even the deer and killed by other people were shot by them on Major de Spain’s courtesy, given to them through his kindness and will.  But not Lion.  Lion was like the chiefs of Aztec and Polynesian tribes who were looked upon as being not men but both more and less than men.  Because we were not men either while we were in camp:  we were hunters, and Lion the best hunter of us all, and Major de Spain and Ike McCaslin next; and Lion did not talk as we talked, not because he could not but because he was the chief, the Sunbegotten, who knew the language which we spoke but was superior to using it himself; just as he lived under the house, under the kitchen, not because he was a dog, an animal, but for the same reason as the Aztec or the Polynesian whose godhead required that he live apart.  Lion did not belong to Major de Spain at all but just happened to like him better than he did any of the rest of us, as a man might have.

Contrast this portrayal of Lion with Old Ben:

Old Ben was a bear and we were going to run him to-morrow as we did once every year, every time in camp.  He was known through the country as well as Lion was.  I don’t know why they called him Old Ben nor who named him except that it was a long time ago.  He was known well for the shoats he had stolen and the corn cribs he had broken into and the dogs he had killed and the number of times he had been bayed and the lead which he carried (it was said that he had been shot at least two dozen times, with buckshot and even with rifles).  Old Ben had lost three toes from his nigh hind foot in a steel trap, and every man in the country knew his track, even discounting the size, and so he should have been called Two-Toe.  That is, that’s what they had been calling two-toed bears in this country for a hundred years.  Maybe it was because Old Ben was an extra bear – the head bear, Uncle Ike McCaslin called him – and everyone knew that he deserved a better name.

Here is a classic case of the immovable object of nature (Old Ben) clashing with the irresistible force of humanity (even though represented in the dog Lion).  Which would triumph and how would their battle affect the men who were part of that hunting party?  Faulkner adroitly mixes in the doggedness of Lion with the noble last stand of Old Ben to create a monumental clash which leaves both animals dying (Old Ben spills Lion’s entrails, while the man Boon finishes Old Ben off for the dying Lion) and the rest of the hunting party affected for the rest of their lives.  The challenge was met, but at a horrible cost.

Yet as powerful as “Lion” is by itself, Faulkner kept expanding the bear hunt motif in the intervening years, until by the publication of Go Down, Moses (1942) it had reached its final, full form.  Since this form of “The Bear” makes up an integral part of that novel, comments on how it differs from “Lion” will, by necessity, be brief.  “The Bear” widens the scope of the nature/civilization clash over a period of generations.  Sam Fathers reappears here in both the May 1942 short story and in the novel and he represents as much the falling away of the pre-war Choctaw and Chickasaw civilization as an active, vital character in the scenes that unfold.  “The Bear” stretches over nearly a century, with the Old Ben episode being the central nexus around which several related events occur.  “The Bear” manages to amplify “Lion”‘s atmosphere in such a way that many consider it to be not only one of Faulkner’s two or three finest short fictions, but one of his best writings in a career full of memorable characters, scenes, and denouements.

Faulkner Friday: Absalom, Absalom! (1936)

March 9th, 2012 § 3 comments § permalink

Faulkner often jumped back and forth in narrative time from story to story.  His 1936 novel, Absalom, Absalom!, is, to some extent, a prequel to perhaps his most famous novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929).  In devising the reading order for the weekly Faulkner reads/reviews, I left his earliest novels, including The Sound and the Fury, for near the end in part because of my decision to follow the Library of America publication dates for their five volumes of Faulkner’s novels.  But it also is a benefit to cover a key character from that earlier novel, Quentin Compson, without having to refer explicitly to what happened to him in the earlier novel a narrative year (1910) after the concluding events in Absalom, Absalom!, as there is a mystery to him for readers unfamiliar with The Sound and the Fury that would otherwise be lost if they were already well-informed about his character and disposition (conversely, those who have read The Sound and the Fury first can derive enjoyment from seeing certain mysteries from that novel played out here in Absalom, Absalom!).

Absalom, Absalom! is a complex novel, perhaps one of Faulkner’s most difficult for neophyte readers to process.  It is a recounting in 1909 of events that took place over a period of time stretching from the early decades of the 19th century to the narrative present.  In it, Quentin, along with his father (whose outlook on life colors this novel as much as the earlier The Sound and the Fury) and a Canadian-born college roommate at Harvard, try to pry apart the mystery surrounding the Sutpen family.  Early on, it is revealed that the Compsons are descended from a close friend of Thomas Sutpen, who established the 100 acre Sutpen’s Hundred plantation on land bought from the Choctaws around the founding of Yoknapatawpha County.  In one sense, the piecing together of what happened to Sutpen’s family could be viewed as an analogue for what later occurred to the Compsons (themselves part of the former landed gentry who lost much of their wealth and prestige in the years following the Civil War), but Absalom, Absalom! is more than just a narrative of the decline of the antebellum Southern aristocracy.  It is a tragedy that envelops not just this particular strain, but also references in yet another light the complexities of black-white race relations in not just the South, but also the Caribbean (where Thomas Sutpen had lived for several years, with consequences that affected the generations that followed).  It can also be viewed (and the story’s title makes this rather explicit) as a filial rebellion similar to that of King David’s son, between two scions of the Sutpens, between Quentin and his family’s past, and between the older and newer Southern societies.

Fatality looms large in Absalom, Absalom!, as the characters, from Thomas Sutpen to his rejected eldest son to the odd relationship between that discarded child and Sutpen’s two children, all experience mortality in ways reminiscent of those surrounding the Biblical Absolom and his kin.  Heartache, anger, frustration at being cast aside for another, incestuous feelings – each of these is explored in the novel.  Faulkner does not make the connections directly, but instead he utilizes competing narratives pieced together by the two Compsons and Quentin’s roommate to create a mosaic portrayal of the Sutpen family and their amorous/homicidal tendencies.  To do this, Faulkner utilizes a running stream of conversation, as Quentin, his father, the roommate, Rosa Coldfield (herself the descendent of a family related by marriage to the Sutpens), and others to recreate (sometimes with purposeful discrepancies) those past events.  Below is a sample of this, dealing with Henry Sutpen, Judith Sutpen, and Charles Bon:

So Miss Rosa did not see any of them, who had never seen (and was never to see alive) Charles Bon at all Charles Bon of New Orleans, Henry’s friend who was not only some few years older than Henry but actually a little old to be still in college and certainly a little out of place in that one where he was – a small new college in the Mississippi hinterland and even wilderness, three hundred miles from that worldly and even foreign city which was his home – a young man of a worldly elegance and assurance beyond his years, handsome, apparently wealthy and with for background the shadowy figure of a legal guardian rather than any parents – a personage who in the remote Mississippi of that time must have appeared almost phoenix-like, full-sprung from no childhood, born of no woman and impervious to time and, vanished, leaving no bones nor dust anywhere – a man with an ease of manner and a swaggering gallant air in comparison with which Sutpen’s pompous arrogance was clumsy bluff and Henry actually a hobble-de-hoy.  Miss Rosa never saw him; this was a picture, an image.  It was not what Ellen told her:  Ellen at the absolute halcyon of her butterfly’s summer and now with the added charm of gracious and graceful voluntary surrendering of youth to her blood’s and sex’s successor, that concurrent attitude and behavior with the engagement’s span with which mothers who want to can almost make themselves the bridges of their daughters’ weddings.  Listening to Ellen, a stranger would have almost believed that the marriage, which subsequent events would indicate had not even been mentioned between the young people and the parents, had been actually performed.  Ellen did not once mention love between Judith and Bon.  She did not hint around it.  Love, with reference to them, was just a finished and perfectly dead subject like the matter of virginity would be after the birth of the first grandchild.

Most of the novel is told through long, convoluted paragraphs that would be a complete mess to read if they were used to convey anything else other than the shifting perspectives of the narrators and the narrated individuals.  As it stands, it takes careful reading to piece together what is being revealed in passages such as this recounting on the part of Rosa Coldfield.  We see there is a mystery behind Charles Bon, in reference to his age (believed to be a bit old for college), wealth (rich in a poorer part of the country), and parentage (no parents are known at that time, but with the hint of a reveal later).  There is an explicit comparison between him and the Sutpens, as if there were a connection deeper than Bon’s courting of Thomas Sutpen’s daughter Judith.  Rosa is recounting what her mother, Ellen, had to say about her nephew, niece, and one-time friend of the former.  It is a second-hand account, with traces of yet another level of storytelling to indicate that what was being recounted was through the viewpoint of a potentially biased person.  There are similar such passages seen through the perspective of others who knew the Sutpens, leading to the development of a narrative where the “truth,” if there could ever be such an “objective” thing in light of the competing subjective accounts, has to be filtered through several perspectives that may or may not be withholding or distorting information.

This creates problems within the text for the reader to puzzle out, if she were so inclined.  Faulkner never directly says, until the concluding chapter, anything really definitive about these characters.  Instead, the stream of consciousness-like discussions between the Compsons and Quentin’s roommate, with Rosa’s occasional input, tells and retells the basics of the past in a way that makes it clear that the overarching issues that fueled the tragic events between Charles Bon, Judith, and Henry Stupen and between Thomas Sutpen and a squatter’s daughter after the Civil War are still present within Southern society.  Thomas Sutpen, along with the majority of the Southern aristocracy, focused so much of their energy on “purity” and preserving bloodlines.  In one of the great ironies of the novel, it is this desire for both that leads to the tragedies that occur and the inheritance being passed down to a character that Faulkner characterizes as the likely future symbol for what will transpire for countless Sutpen-like people in the South.  This theme, introduced late in the novel, is not as well-developed as the Absalom-family tragedy connection, yet it is unsettling in how it presents a somewhat pessimistic view of Southern society.  It reinforces some of Faulkner’s thoughts expressed in Light in August (1932) on race, yet today it seems to ring a false note.

Absalom, Absalom! is not for the faint of heart.  It takes a lot of effort to plow under the textual surface and turn up the nuggets Faulkner has buried underneath the complex presentation.  But if the reader makes that effort, he or she may be rewarded with a rich, complex, and ultimately tragic family history that contains not just allusions to Faulkner’s previous stories or to the Civil War and its effects on Southern society, but also to one of the more tragic Biblical tales.  It is not Faulkner’s best novel and certainly not one to read first (or second, or even third or fourth), but Absalom, Absalom! is the sort of story that makes the reader take pause for a moment to consider what she has just read.  Perhaps this need to pause and to reassess what was just read is the greatest testament to the novel’s power that can be given.  After all, discovering that for some, that the past is never over, that it has not indeed ever passed, is a rather disconcerting notion.  But sometimes we need to be disconcerted and for that, Absalom, Absalom! is a remarkable achievement and one of Faulkner’s better-constructed novels.

Faulkner Friday: “Hair” (1931) and “Nympholepsy” (1973, posthumous publication)

March 2nd, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

This week’s two stories, “Hair” (1931) and “Nympholepsy” (posthumously published in 1973), illustrate the breadth and depth of his range as a writer.  The former is, on the surface at least, a study of a mysterious character while the latter is an exploration of character and life as seen through an intense magnification of a moment of struggle and despair.  Yet both, in their own particular way reference and reinforce several themes that Faulkner liked to explore in his fictions, novels and short fiction alike.

“Hair,” like most of his fictions, is set in the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi.  Hawkshaw, a mysterious barber who appeared in town some years ago, appears to have at best an odd and at worst a disturbing relationship with a young orphaned teenaged girl, Susan Reed.  Their relationship is frequently the talk of the town, as the narrator, a traveling salesman, notes.  Yet there is much, much more to Hawkshaw than what is first revealed and it is in that slowly-revealed backstory that “Hair” develops into something much more poignant.

Faulkner never has Hawkshaw tell his own story.  Instead, we see his entire life through the eyes of observers, the salesman being the one who fills in the gaps over a thirteen-year period in which his traveling circuit across Mississippi and Alabama has allowed him to intersect with Hawkshaw and to discover just why the barber asks for two weeks off in early April every year.  Here is an example of how this salesman describes Hawkshaw:

A little, sandy-complected man with a face you would not remember and would not recognize again ten minutes later, in a blue serge suit and a black bow tie, the kind that snaps together in the back, that you buy already tied in the store.  Maxey told me he was still wearing that serge suit and tie when he got off the south-bound train in Jefferson a year later, carrying one of these imitation leather suitcases.  And when I saw him again in Jefferson in the next year, behind a chair in Maxey’s shop, if it had not been for the chair I wouldn’t have recognized him at all.  Same face, same tie; be damned if it wasn’t like they had picked him up, chair, customer and all, and set him down sixty miles away without him missing a lick.  I had to look back out the window at the square to be sure I wasn’t in Porterfield myself any time a year ago.  And that was the first time I realized that when I had made Porterfield about six weeks back, he had not been there.

Faulkner contrasts this staid, everyman look with the mystery behind his travels through Alabama, Tennessee, and finally Mississippi.  Why would a barber, generally one of the more rooted members in pre-World War II Southern society, be seen for a year or two at a time in at least eight different towns before asking for leave in early April for two weeks, only to skip town for good except for his final stop at Jefferson?  What is so important about a closed house in a flyspeck town on the Alabama/Mississippi border where the villagers would tell the salesman about this same barber?  By using anecdotes to flesh out this mystery, Faulkner sucks in the reader, inviting them to try and puzzle out why the house is so important, what is symbolic about a missing portrait and lock of hair, and just what might be the connection with young Susan Reed?

“Hair” works as a story because there is very little exposition that occurs outside of the salesman’s recollections and even that is doled out in accordance with the unfolding narrative surrounding Hawkshaw and the young girl.  Although by the time the final reveal many readers may have already puzzled out most of the mysteries, there is also a short, sharp finale that leaves the story hanging in such a way that the reader may find herself dwelling upon what had just occurred over the past eighteen pages of text.  Within that brief space, Faulkner explores loss, determination, honoring debts, and the viciousness of town gossip not through declamatory protest or acclaim, but instead through a subtle juxtaposition of character comments and actions.  There is a surprising amount of depth to this little story, one that is belied by its length (with the exception of “A Rose for Emily,” this is the shortest Faulkner short fiction, other than the second one featured in this commentary, to be reviewed to date here).

“Nympholepsy” differs significantly from “Hair” in that it focuses on a key, decisive moment in a farmer’s life.  The opening paragraph sets the tone for the climatic moment to a story about which the reader will know so little:

Soon the sharp line of the hill-crest had cut off his shadow’s head; and pushing it like a snake before him, he saw it gradually become nothing.  And at last he had no shadow at all.  his heavy shapeless shoes were gray in the dusty road, his overalls were gray with dust:  dust was like a benediction upon him and upon the day of labor behind him.  He did not recall the falling of slain wheat and his muscles had forgotten the heave and thrust of fork and grain, his hands had forgotten the feel of a wooden handle worn smooth and sweet as silk to the touch; he had forgotten a yawning loft and spinning chaff in the sunlight like an immortal dance.

It is a day like and unlike any other:  another day of toil and sweat complete, the desire for something compassionate in a seemingly harsh and unforgiving life dependent upon the whims of God/nature.  This farmer feels he is going to die, or rather, perhaps intends to die in order to leave this dreadful state of uncertainty:

The rotten bark slipped under his feet, scaling off and falling upon the dark whispering stream.  It was as though he stood upon the bank and cursed his blundering body as it slipped and fought for balance.  You are going to die, he told his body, feeling that imminent Presence again about him, now that his mental concentration had been vanquished by gravity.  For an arrested fragment of time he felt, through vision without intellect, the waiting dark water, the treacherous log, the tree trunks pulsing and breathing and the branches like an invocation to a dark and unseen god; then trees and the star-flown sky slowly arced across his eyes.  In his fall was death, and a bleak derisive laughter.  He died time and again, but his body refused to die.  Then the water took him.

Here the edges between reality and dream become blurred.  As the night deepens, the farmer seems to be drawn through water and death toward a woman in the distance, whom he seeks to hold in his hands.  There is a disappearance, followed by a long, slow return to the patterns of before.  The very title, “Nympholepsy,” hints at just what sort of woman the farmer found himself beholden to; the final part the type of encounter.  It is a direct, raw, hallucinatory story, very different in form from most of Faulkner’s fiction.  In it can be seen most clearly the elements of the magic within the purportedly realist milieu.  Faulkner is often cited as an influence on the great Latin American writers of the “Boom Generation,” and “Nympholepsy” certainly contains that ethereal, haunting quality found in the best of their works.  It is not as much a story as a moment of magic on earth, serving not to provide an escape route for the farmer, but instead a confirmation of what he has lived.

Faulkner Friday: Pylon (1935)

February 24th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

Pylon (1935) differs significantly from Faulkner’s other novels released in the 1930s.  It is not set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, but rather in a fictionalized New Orleans, New Valois, and rural Ohio during the heyday of the “barnstormers,” acrobatic biplane flyers who would do dangerous (and often fatal) stunts and races for the entertainment of the crowds who would follow them from town to town as they staged their shows.  In addition, Pylon revolves around the interactions of six characters who are part of these shows:  the reporter, whose recounting of events within the flying troupe serves ultimately to divide them; Laverne, the mechanic who is romantically involved with two of the troupe; Jack, Laverne’s son, who is easily angered whenever questions of his parentage arise; Roger Shumann, the main pilot of the barnstormers, who may or may not be Jack’s father; Jack Holmes, the show jumper, who has also been involved with Laverne; and Biggs, another mechanic who quirks and alcoholic binges help fuel the tragedy that concludes Pylon.

Faulkner had long had interest in flying and he himself took part in some air shows in the mid-1930s.  Through many of these characters’ comments, both in their internal thoughts and in their dialogues with others, there often is a connection between the freedom of flying and the attempts of the characters to liberate themselves from the shackles that they encountered when they would land after their last acrobatic feat.  It feels more personal than just an author attempting to get into the skin and discover the soul of the characters.  Certainly the first paragraph tries to capture this quality of freedom juxtaposed with mundane reality:

For a full minute Jiggs stood before the window in a light spatter of last night’s confetti lying against the windowbase like spent dirty foam, lightpoised on the balls of his greasestained tennis shoes, looking at the boots.  Slantshimmered by the intervening plate they sat upon their wooden pedestal in unblemished and inviolate implication of horse and spur, of the posed countrylife photographs in the magazine advertisements, beside the easelwise cardboard placard with which the town had bloomed overnight as it had with the purple-and-gold tissue bunting and the trodden confetti and broken serpentine – the same lettering, the same photographs of the trim vicious fragile aeroplanes and the pilots leaning upon them in gargantuan irrelation as if the aeroplanes were a species of esoteric and fatal animals not trained or tamed but just for the instant inert, above the neat brief legend of name and accomplishment or perhaps just hope.

Faulkner tells the interconnected stories of these daredevils in an episodic, seven chapter format, that moves across time and space.  There is a wealth of detail here, with aural and visual descriptions used to complement and reinforce the thematic connection between flight (and freefall) and human desire to escape fate.  One example of this can be seen in the public address announcer’s description of a show jumper’s fall from the plane:

“–still gaining altitude now; the ship has a long way to go yet.  And then you will see a living man, a man like yourselves – a man like half of yourselves and that the other half of yourselves life, I should say – hurl himself into space and fall for almost four miles before pulling the ripcord of the parachute; by ripcord we mean the trigger that –” Once inside, Jiggs paused, looking swiftly about, breasting now with very immobility the now comparatively thin tide which still set toward the apron and talking to itself with one another in voices forlorn, baffled, and amazed:

“What is it now?  What are they doing out there now?”

“Fella going to jump ten miles out of a parachute.”

There is something terrifyingly beautiful about watching stunts.  Knowing that if anything goes wrong –  even if the timing were off by a split second, that there could be a horrific crash or a body flattened by the ground due to a malfunctioning parachute – adds to the excitement of the viewer (and the participants, of course).  These reckless stunts serve as the perfect metaphor for impulsive, irresponsible relationships such as the ones Faulkner describes here in Pylon.  Just as what happens when the stunts are not executed properly, there are casualties in these type of relationships.  We see it through the belligerence of young Jack, who does not know if Roger Shumann or Jack Holmes is his father (or if anyone else is).  Laverne’s dithering between Roger and Jack (not to mention implied flirtations with others) creates dissension among the barnstorming troupe.  Roger’s unwillingness to settle down and (as it can be inferred although not proven in the text) be a father strikes sparks between him and others close to him.

It is this combination of high-flying stunts and risk-taking relationships that make Pylon a gripping read.  It is hard not to get caught up in the drama unfolding, as the characters seem destined for a messy, explosive denouement. Faulkner does a good job in laying out these characters’ flaws and how they combine to create a tragedy.  Yet there are places in the novel where the dialogue feels a little forced, as if the characters have been slotted into predetermined roles and that outside of Jiggs and the reporter, there is not as much character development as could have been done.  It is as though Roger, Laverne, and the elder Jack have their triangle subsumed into the concrete metaphor of the race and the pylon/tower around which they must make their sharp breaking turns.  The conclusion suffers due to this, as there is not the full, visceral punch to the gut that might be expected from the setup leading into the final two chapters of the novel.  This is despite a very elegant final paragraphs that attempt to show just how tragic the events leading up to the tragedy were.  Faulkner here had the makings of a remarkable novel, but due to the uneveness in the character portrayals, Pylon instead is relegated to a merely good yet lesser novel of his.

Faulkner Friday: “Shingles for the Lord” (1943) and New Orleans Sketches (1925)

February 17th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

In contrast to the past two stories discussed, “Red Leaves” (1939) and Light in August (1932), “Shingles for the Lord” (1943) is, on the surface at least, a lighter tale that does not explore the weighty issues of race and identity.  It contains more comic moments than most of the stories explored to date in this series, yet beneath that comedic exterior lurks a shrewd and cutting portrayal of human behavior, particularly that of individuals who are more willing to invent ways to shirk irksome duties than they are to accept their own shortcomings.  “Shingles for the Lord” is as much a fictional character sketch piece as it is a thematic story and in that it shares some elements in common with some of Faulkner’s earliest prose pieces, first printed in a New Orleans newspaper in 1925 and later collected in the late 1950s, with some edits, as New Orleans Sketches.

Faulkner often utilizes first person point of view to provide a witness’ account of the main protagonists and their ordeals.  Here in “Shingles for the Lord,” we experience the action through the lens of the son of Res Grier, a seemingly shiftless Mississippi farmer who reluctantly takes part in a community repair of the local Methodist church:

So pap told again about how Old Man Killegrew had been off fox hunting all night, and nobody at home to lend him the froe but Mrs. Killegrew and the cook.  And naturally, the cook wasn’t going to lend none of Killegrew’s tools out, and Mrs. Killegrew was worser deaf than even Killegrew.  If you was to run in and tell her the house was afire, she would jest keep on rocking and say she thought so, too, unless she began to holler back to the cook to turn the dogs loose before you could even open your mouth.

“You could have gone yesterday and borrowed the froe,” Whitfield said.  “You have known for a month now that you had promised this one day out of a whole summer toward putting a roof on the house of God.”

“We ain’t but two hours late,” pap said.  “I reckon the Lord will forgive it.  He ain’t interested in time, nohow.  He’s interested in salvation.”

Whitfield never even waited for pap to finish.  It looked to me like he even got taller, thundering down at pap like a cloudburst. “He ain’t interested in neither!  Why should He be, when He owns them both?  And why He should turn around for the poor, mizzling souls of men that can’t even borrow tools in time to replace the shingles on His church, I don’t know either.  Maybe it’s just because He made them.  Maybe He just said of Himself: ‘I made them; I don’t known why.  But since I did, I Godfrey, I’ll roll My sleeves up and drag them into glory whether they will or no!'”

This passage goes right to the heart of the conflicts played out between Res and the others gathered together to repair the church’s roofing.  Res is focused on why he could not do something at the time and place expected of him and the focus of his dialogue with Whitfield (whose surname is that of the famous 18th century minister associated with the Wesley brothers) is on self-justification.  Whitfield, whose comments are later echoed in part by the others gathered together for the shingle making, eschews such justifications.  Results and effort are what matter, not justifications for why someone has failed at a task.

Yet there is more to “Shingles for the Lord” than just this.  Faulkner describes in detail the milieu of these farmers/drafted shingle makers.  Apparently set during the Great Depression, there are references to the “work units” (parodied into “dog units” later on) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) being swapped or bartered as a means of exchanging effort for money in lieu of welfare checks.  Res Grier is a comic portrayal of the sort of person who lives on the margins of society, tolerated by his peers but viewed dimly for his perceived lack of real contribution to society.  However, there is more to Res than just his mishaps and complaints about how he is mistreated and misunderstood.  At the story’s conclusion, after we have witnessed his foiled efforts to do something despite the disparaging remarks of his peers, after we have seen the terrible consequences of his attempt to pitch in, after he has been castigated and cast out (if only for a while) from the group, there is a resolve there in his final comments that take the comedy elements and turn them into something deeper and more complex than just a blustery old fool trying to justify his actions (or the lack of them) to his family.  The reader is left imagining a Res Grier who may prove to be more than just a comically inept character, a personage who may have a bit too much in common with the rest of us for our comfort.

Nearly twenty years before “Shingles for the Lord” was published, Faulkner began the prose phase of his career (he first tried his hand at poetry, with mixed results) by writing a series of sketch stories for a New Orleans newspaper in 1925.  Gathered together over thirty years later as New Orleans Sketches, these short sketches show Faulkner experimenting with the form later expressed so eloquently in “Shingles for the Lord.”  Take for instance the opening paragraph to “New Orleans”:

“I love three things:  gold; marble and purple; splendor, solidity, color.”  The waves of Destiny, foaming out of the East where was cradled the infancy of the race of man, roaring over the face of the world.  Let them roar:  my race has ridden them.  Upon the tides of history has my race ever put forth, bravely, mayhap foolhardily, as my ancient Phoenician ancestors breasted the uncharted fabulous seas with trading barques, seeking those things which I, too, love.  Suns rise and set; ages of man rise and joy and battle and weep, and pass away.  Let them:  I, too, am but a lump of moist dirt before the face of God.  But I am old, all the pain and passion and sorrows of the human race are in this breast:  joys to fire, griefs to burn out the soul.”

In this story the embryonic structures for several of his late 1920s and 1930s novels can be found:  The quick-shifting point of view narratives (the first quoted is “The Wealthy Jew,” followed within a page by “The Priest” before covering other characters from all walks of New Orleans life) seen in As I Lay Dying, the attempt to state in a simple, pithy passage some of the themes found in Light in August, and the sense of sinister, ominous foreboding akin to that of Sanctuary.  Yet what “New Orleans” and the other sketches found in this initial prose period lack is a fully developed voice.  We get a broad sense of the characters and their situations, yet there is not quite the profundity found in these tales compared to even a lesser-known story such as “Shingles for the Lord.” 

New Orleans Sketches, however, is worth reading, if only as a coda tacked onto the study of Faulkner’s mature period of the 1930s and early 1940s.  Despite being his first published prose pieces, these sketches ought not be read before the reader is at least somewhat familiar with Faulkner’s prose and how he developed the themes found within New Orleans Sketches in his later novels and short fiction.  These pieces are a sort of juvenilia, as here the reader can see Faulkner working out how best to deliver the themes that interested him most (particularly issues of determinism and morality in a corrupt world), that point toward the fiction output of the 1929-1939 period.  They are not as polished nor as deep, but they are interesting to read, as much for how Faulkner described the people and situations he witnessed during his time in New Orleans as for how he developed as a writer.  One could even go so far as to argue that most of his most influential and popular stories were character sketches writ large, with a multitude standing in stead of a solitary human being.  In future weeks, this topic may be explored in more depth, as more of his “uncollected short fiction” is added to the discussion queue.

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