August, a month so associated with William Faulkner, meanders along with waves of heat broken by rain and stormy winds. I'll mark this late summer, when global warming grows deeper, with the reading of Faulkner's "The Hamlet."
I'd known of Faulkner's Snopes family saga and read a good part of it, such as the fine short story "Barn Burning," which a lovely Louisiana lady explained to me at the Faulkner conference at Ole Miss. But I'd never read the novel trilogy, "The Hamlet," "The Town" and "The Mansion." Someplace I'd read a quote by Gabriel García Márquez that "The Hamlet" is among the greatest Latin American novels, and that lit my desire to read the book, the first part of the trilogy.
As with other Faulkner books I've discovered over the years after my college reading of the standard "great novels" of "The Sound and the Fury," "Light in August" and "As I Lay Dying," I was thankful to have read it. My life would have been significantly lessened without this great book. "The Hamlet" joins "Absalom, Absalom" and "The Wild Palms" as Faulkner books I've read for the first time relatively late in life.
"The Hamlet," published in 1940, is one of Faulkner's great works. In it, Faulkner displays a wonderful rough-edged humor, as rich and knowledgeable about frontier life as Clemens. The book can stand with "Huckleberry Finn" as a comic masterpiece. As with Clemens, "The Hamlet" shows the mastery of a variety of different dialects. It also shows an astonishing range of literary forms in one book: the tall tale, the joke, magical realism, the Victorian novel, 20th centry "stream of consciousness," the Western, the mystery, the potboiler, the Southern gothic.
After savoring the novel', I was taken even higher by the writing in the last section, "The Peasants." The novel details the life of "Frenchmen's Bend," the rough settlement near Faulkner's central location of Jefferson. The novel often shows the farmers and workers of Frenchmen's Bend sitting and talking on the front porch of the country store, the center of Flem Snopes' rise to power and the steady accumulation of other members of the clan. The dialogue in "The Peasants" shows a perfect ear for Southern speech and the rural rhythms of life in Mississippi after the Civil War. The funny, amaazing stories that unfold show an ineffable narrative gift.
The qualities of the book continue. The variety of their characters, and the sure touch of their names, matches Dickens. In fact, although Faulkner is often celebrated, or derided, for his modernist narrative disjunctions of chronological time and point of view, I found the book at its best when he uses the standard narrative techniques of 19th century masters like Dostoyevsky and. Turgenev.
Among the many wonderful characters in the book, a couple stand out. V.K. Ratliff, the "sewing machine agent," is the book's moral center. He is prone to wheeling and dealing and the pursuit of money, at times with nearly shady acts, yet he also shows compassion toward others, humor and the responsibility of preserving the tribal heritage of the place. Ratliff, with his knowledge of every inch of the territory from his travels on his buckboard selling sewing machines, and his desire to be the chief storyteller, has a consciousness similar to Faulkner's. One weakness of the book is that at the end, he is deceived by Flem Snopes in the funny, amazing denoument of the novel. Although Faulkner tries to address this problem, I am not convinced that Ratliff would fall for Snopes' strategem; he is just too smart, too canny, too wise. This problem is not serious enough to ruin the book, but it is one of the few places where Faulkner missteps.
Another character whom received extra affection from Faulkner is the young boy with the amusing name "Wall Street Panic" Snopes. Again, the boy's wild energy, curiosity and ability to survive hair-raising adventures reminded me of Clemens' Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. I had the feeling that Wall Snopes is Faulkner's image of himself as a boy, running around Oxford Mississippi and environs.
Now, on to the other parts of the Snopes trilogy, "The Town," published in 1957, and "The Mansion," 1959. The last two books were published late in Faulkner's life, and I fear they will show a lessening of powers. Even if I find "The Town" and "The Mansion" don't reach the heights of "The Hamlet," I trust they will stand above most books.
Faulkner's imagination was taken by the Snopses throughout his career; he first conceived of the stories in the 1920s. He loves all of the families and characters he created, but he has a special, rough affection for the Snopeses. I look forward to completing the journey.
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