Wednesday, May 15, 2013

That Flem: Faulkner's THE HAMLET

As a novel, Faulkner's The Hamlet is something of a cobbled-together affair, built in part of some free-standing stories, but it's also expansive about elements that don't seem central to whatever the larger plot might be, thus confounding those looking for a novelistic experience. Nevertheless, there's a narrative arc at work, a moral trajectory that tracks an immoral trajectory, the progress of Flem Snopes in taking what he will from the people of Frenchman's Bend.

I read this novel during my freshman year in college for a course in 20th-century American literature, my prior reading of Faulkner having included things I'd loved ("The Bear," the long version) and a novel I'd failed to get through (The Sound and the Fury). I knew of the other two novels in the trilogy (The Town and The Mansion), but until recently, I didn't own both of those. Now that I do, I though I'd try the entire "Snopes sequence."

I recalled only three moments from The Hamlet: a teacher who has developed a terrible crush on a student puts his face to her vacated classroom seat; a mentally retarded man is observed in an indelicate situation with his one true love, a cow; and Flem Snopes, in response to something done by Ratliff, the sewing machine salesman, spits on the ground. The grotesque sexuality aside, the gesture by Snopes summed up the novel for me: Snopes did what he would, brushing aside anyone who got in his way.

Rereading the novel, I find Snopes's evil to be less direct than I remembered. He is rapacious, but like a force of nature. He doesn't run wild, unlike the wild horses he unloads on the town through an intermediary; he also doesn't possess the kind of seductive charisma as Eula, the nymphet who draws men the way a magnet draws filings. Rather, he is smart and methodical, though never overtly so. He brings to the town an absurd and never-ending series of relatives—even Ratliff, the moral center of the book, can't keep track of them, which means the reader is also at a loss—and they seem more an expression of the vegetative advance of his family rather than expressions of his will. They often complicate matters for him, in fact. Yet Flem pushes onward, working hard at what job he aims to do yet also possessing a kind of effortlessness that never reveals how hard he's actually working and how far ahead he has planned.

Snopes doesn't intend ill toward anyone, but that's why his brand of evil is so distressing: there's no motive except acquisition. Bad things will happen to people, but Snopes hardly sees the people except as means to his ends, and the ends constantly shift beyond what anyone might expect—as indeed there can be no "end" to acquisitiveness.

Faulkner gives us some of his finest writing, and some of his finest comic writing. The chapter describing the beautiful, vacant, disturbingly voluptuous Eula, daughter of the prosperous Varner clan, is worth endless rereadings, as Faulkner rhapsodizes in tones both horrified and elevated, presenting Eula as a jiggling mass of flesh that won't be contained and a kind of goddess. Naturally, once she's found pregnant and, thus, somewhat damaged good, she ends up with Snopes. Other astonishing scenes include sale and escape of the wild horses (Faulkner slowing down the action, accelerating it, reversing it—whatever he needs to do to capture the terrific and baffling violence); a murder and its aftermath, as the murderer can't seem to properly dispose of the body or the weapon; and the loving pursuit and abduction of the cow (another love goddess) over many miles and days.

Through it all run themes of desire without check, the way even the smallest amount of money can bespeak a person's whole self, and the careless violence of both nature and humans. It's a great performance that embraces a variety of narrative styles, a symphonic piece that, though it drops its familiar motifs for long stretches, never forgets, as Snopes never forgets, that the long game is what matters, that everything returns and comes to fruition in the final movement.


Unknown said...

Give us an update on your writing. Are you on the fourth "Old Man" story?

William Preston said...

I am indeed "on" it. I hope to get quite a bit accomplished this weekend. I've also done some work on the fifth (and final) story.

Mark Pontin said...

You've gotten a small taste there -- not of the money, alas, but only of your readers' demands -- of what folks like George Martin must deal with, I guess.

William Preston said...

Yeah, that was somewhat rude, wasn't it?

"Write faster about the Old Man, old man!"

William Preston said...

The money is sure to follow . . .

Mark Pontin said...

Well, the request was brusquely phrased, but from a reader who wants to read more of your work. Rude probably isn't the word you want to use.

Save 'rude' for when you get a deliberately, truly nasty review.

William Preston said...

In combination with the anonymity, I did think it the opposite of "polite," though, yes, had it truly been "rude," I wouldn't have answered. I also wondered if it came from a non–English speaker. Still, come on: a person ought to, at least, say hello and introduce himself. It made me wonder if it's one of the people who illegally reposts my stories.

. . . Maybe he didn't even like the stories. He just wants to be forewarned before another shows up.

Anonymous said...

Hi William,

Sorry. I didn't mean to offend you. I should have started off with "Hello I'm a big fan," and then lead to "what next for you?"
And no, I'm not illegally reposting your stories.

William Preston said...

My apologies in return. I wasn't offended at all. I was just joking around with Mark.

Thanks so much for returning to say hello. I'm glad you've enjoyed the stories. I'm at work on the final two. I have a non-Old Man story coming out in the December Asimov's, but it's quite a different kind of creation.

Best wishes,