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Reading Faulkner’s The Hamlet in 2020 USA: Part I

By Genese Grill and Greg Gerke.

Introduction:

I always get more out of a reading experience when it is shared and I sometimes invite other writer friends to read a book and, as in the case of Gaddis’s JR, a dialogue resulted. Since I started corresponding with Genese Grill last year, I’ve recognized a kindred spirit, even a sister-spirit, and as I’ve read her Robert Musil translations, we’ve shared other work, met once, and eventually, I interviewed her. We wrote about how nice it would be to send physical letters during the lockdown, but, failing that, an epistolary exchange (even emailed) about art seemed our destiny. I had planned on reading Faulkner’s The Hamlet (1940) for some time. It’s often thought to be his second-last great work, followed by Go Down, Moses two years later. It was the first book in the Snopes Trilogy ( the Snopes are a family who takes over a pocket of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County from the previous settlers), with The Town and The Mansion to follow in 1957 and 1959, though the latter books are not as strong. William Gass and J.M. Coetzee have both celebrated it over the years and I thought the book, not knowing of its episodic nature, might speak to us. It certainly did.

– Greg Gerke

Part I

Dear Greg,

I hadn’t read any Faulkner in about thirty-five years, but I remember where I was when I did read As I Lay Dying, Light in August, maybe The Sound and the Fury. Still in high school, it was summer time, and I can still feel the hot sun and remember the searing atmosphere of the books. My mother, who not only studied French and Russian literature in college, but who came from Germany, via Belgium, where she was a hidden child during WWII, must have been what connected me more with European literature even as a teenager, while most everyone else around me seemed only to be reading the Americans. But Faulkner touched me, maybe because he, too, had European (literary) roots? And there it all is on the first pages: the depth of thematic tensions: Europe and America, wild jungle chaos and the struggle to tame and civilize, borders and lack of borders, legends and myths, and the images: these concrete images, descriptions of objects, persons, places, whose physical attributes seem to be so deeply symbolic, reverberating.   Now, all these years later, I am astonished from the first, with how much Faulkner gives us in such a small space. Uncertainty, Rumor, Foreboding. A sense of being caught in the grips of fate and the necessity of proceeding with great caution.

The Old Frenchman (French man’s) house is the skeleton of the man who lived there, pulled down and chopped up over thirty years (walnut newel posts and stair spindles). These aesthetic European fragments of elegance that no one cares for anymore. Oh, America. Land of utility and rigorous hard-scrabble morality.  What was once art is now only good for firewood. The plantation, with its borders obliterated, as nature comes back to reclaim its rights.  A river bed that was kept straight for ten miles by slaves to keep the land from flooding. Frenchman’s Legend: How he wrested the land from the jungle and tamed it, compared to the paltry life of newer settlers: Protestants, Democrats, Prolific. Order, Slavery and land ownership are pitted against Post-bellam chaos, the latter representing a sort of wild and dangerous freedom. What comes after Frenchman (i.e. what comes after European civilization)?  The one- and two-room cabins of those who took over the land. Twice we read that they are not painted. No slaves, but also no highboys. They come in battered wagons, on muleback, on foot. Federal officers, sent in to maintain order, disappear, the only thing left of them is the bits of their clothing seen on settlers’ backs. Wild justice. There is no question that essential human freedoms have been gained; but it would be dishonest to deny that something has been lost, too.

Will Varner, reigning patriarch, is thin as a fence rail. He has, instead of highboys and carved settees, a chair made of an empty flour barrel, wherein he sits, “on the jungle-choked lawn of the Old Frenchman’s homesite…against the background of fallen baronial splendor…trying to find out what it must have felt like to be the fool that would need all this…just to eat and sleep in”. The estate is his one mistake: “only thing I ever bought in my life I couldn’t sell to nobody”. The uselessness of the splendor.

Enter Ab Snopes. Barn Burner. Barn burning a potent image. Fire. “Hellfire, hellfire” is repeated by Will’s son Jody as a common curse. “Fire seemed to follow [Snopes] around, like dogs follow some folks”. There is mystery here; lack of clarity, no proof.  Rumors. Innuendo. Another mysterious threat: Jody’s sister, Eula, at thirteen: definite breasts…eyes like cloudy hothouse grapes”. A small drop of something dangerous, incomprehensible, but well-known.  For along with American utilitarianism comes American Puritanism, a suspicion and a demonizing of the sensual and of the feminine who is seen as its embodiment.

Against this flammable tinder, something we can count on, the perennial Ratliff, sewing machine salesman. His wagon is a dog kennel, painted as a human house with windows and faces looking out. Not only the wagon, but his work itself consists in substitution, switching, trading of odd objects for trade and sale. A trade in news and gossip, as well. There is something going on about borders, gateways. How things, ideas, people are traded, transported from one place, one ownership, to another. The passageways are more or less clogged, more or less secure against intrusion: weed-choked paths, the undergrowth and the overgrowth. There is the newly forged gate at the Old Frenchman’s place, designed by Varner with his blacksmith (who designed his chair)—a “clever passage…operated like a modern turnstyle by the raising of a chained pin instead of inserting a coin”.   But then there is the gate at Ab Snope’s, the alleged barn-burner’s place, “…in a fence of sagging and rusted wire. The gate itself or what remained of it lay unhinged to one side, the interstices of the rotted palings choked with grass and weeds like the ribs of a forgotten skeleton”.

Snopes’ “…sagging broken-backed cabin sat in its inevitable treeless and grassless plot and weathered to the color of an old beehive”. Amazing that it is still standing at all. But  amidst this near-collapse of civilization and order, Faulkner paints us a surprising picture, artistically framed:  A vignette really,   of the women at the well,  a well that is compared to a gallows: “Two big absolutely static young women beside it, who even in that first glance postulated that immobile dreamy solidarity of statuary…one of them had hold of the well-rope, her arms extended at full reach, her body bent for the down pull like a figure in a charade, a carved piece symbolizing some terrific physical effort….”(italics mine). And then, on our way out of the collapsing, hopeless chaos, ringed all around with doom and decay, we are given some of the first of the incredibly expressive tree-women who stand, almost like a Greek chorus, along the grim and dusty roads of fate trod by Faulkner’s people:  “Blanched dogwoods stood among the darker trees with spread raised palms like praying nuns….”

Flem, whose name is the title of the first book, only appears for real at the very end of the first section. Waiting along the road, in just the right place so as not to be seen by his people, who would hold him back from the transformation he will soon effect, chapter by chapter. At the shop, where Flem is now the clerk, before his advent there was an honor system:  a cigar box inside a circular wire which protects the cheese: as if the box, “the worn bills and thumb-polished coins” were baited itself. A significant image of a rigged-up trap, a kind of protection which does not really stop people from doing something, but symbolically, mystically has the power to keep the money from being stolen. Like the fence by the Old Frenchman Place, which also presumably, would not be effective to keep people out. Like, we will see later, the corset that tries to keep Eula’s body reined in, in vain.

And oh, that line of chairs outside Littlejohn’s Hotel: people gather to look at Varner’s store at closing time like they would “look at the cold embers of a lynching or at the propped up ladder and open window of an elopement”—something already done, the scene of a crime, because the hiring of a white man as a clerk was unheard of. Would contemporary readers have understood that this was shocking? Faulkner shows us, in any case, as Homer shows us how beautiful Helen is, by the reaction of the watchers, even the old men.

And Flem has a kind of semi-mystical power held by certain other people in the book—a presence, an atmosphere. Ab Snopes, his father, is not only maybe a Barn Burner, but was a Horse Trader too, a fated mystical occupation, which compulsion followed him for a time, to his fall, as the fires did; willed by the Lord. Fatal. Fated. Will Flem escape the sins, avoid the mistakes of his father? (I see now that there are two sets of father-son relationships in this book, both oblique, elusive. As Flem Snopes slowly becomes more of a son to Will Varner than Jody, and Ab Snopes is all but forgotten, but perhaps for inverse reasons: Flem is dishonest, not in the bitter, desperate way of his father, but in the same way as Will Varner, a businessman’s kind of dishonesty; while Jody seems to lack the will to any kind of deceit.) The perennial trading, cheating, simulating, swapping: a burlesque of business ethics, with its own strange laws. The absurdity is well-illustrated by the wild scenes of Ab Snopes and Stamper, as Snopes tries to cheat Stamper. They both use the same tricks, but both manage to fool each other (though Snopes gets the brunt). The horses are made to look better, stronger, with fish hooks and even by blowing up with a bicycle pump! One horse literally changes color on the way home, and then deflates. All of which begs the question of what is real and what merely show. Whom can you trust?  Apparently no one.

More later,
Genese

 

Dear Genese,

I’ve been reading your great notes. I should say I’ve chosen The Hamlet because it is a Faulkner—a little less celebrated than the cherished four (The Sound and The Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom [Sanctuary and Go Down, Moses] should probably be there too)—that still has quite a following. William Gass and J.M. Coetzee have spoken highly of it, the latter listing it in his personal library (though not finally included because of copyright), a project for an Argentinian publisher. In fact, in reading the first chapter, one can see parallels between how Faulkner drew his canvas and Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck, his first novel.

As you say, it is astounding how much Faulkner fits into a small space and the first six pages cast a spell of a type of pure fiction we hardly ever see anymore. Setting and character through images so strong they embolden on the page, as again and again he can draw a character in one sentence that is so forceful it’s uncanny: “…a soft ample girl with definite breasts even at thirteen and eyes like cloudy hothouse grapes and a full damp mouth always slightly open…” The descriptions of the eyes of many characters is as cunning. I see what you say about “the semi-mystical power of certain people.” The reader sees things clearly, but again doesn’t know what these people are really capable of. In Cleanth Brooks’s book The Yoknapatawpha Country, he writes, “…there are all sorts of ways in which the characters and scenes are formalized and stylized as in a Dutch genre picture.” I think this is why Faulkner is almost unparalleled, at least in American fiction—the way he describes things (or has a character describe them in first-person) and especially, action, is as indelible as those Vermeers.

The long story by Ratliff in the second chapter, part of the pastime of men sitting on a porch passing the hours, really took me out of our “joint of time” and how technology saturates our days, or at least, mine. It’s amazing to experience another world where the oral tradition kept people quite entertained—with the sociological and political aspects, as well, contained in the gossip and innuendo. But I am just old enough to remember that world and can well imagine the people that would go there just to listen, just because they wanted to hear the real world class raconteurs like Ratliff, “He laughed, for the first time, quietly, invisible to his hearers though they knew exactly how he would look at the moment as well as if they could see him…”

I’m glad you are going back to him after so many years. This is going to be something beautiful.

Best,
Greg

 

Dear Greg,

Yes! The oral tradition permeates this carefully-written work! The way that knowledge is passed about, gleaned, comprehended from small clues, bits, signs is reproduced in the narration, as the reader learns along with the observers on that porch. And then: “Something happened. It began rather, though at first they did not recognize it…” We find out, through the often wordless or at least sparsely worded signs, what is going on, along with the observers, who “could surmise what had now begun to dawn on them was that—”. Whatever it is slowly dawns on the reader too, a slow dawning, an object lesson of how the observers, wary and watchful, figure out the significance of the smallest changes and signs. There was “something in Jody’s eyes…shadow…speculation…foreknowledge.” The fact: that Jody is in the store while Flem is at the gin, signifies (we find out a few paragraphs on): that Flem had “passed” Jody.

And what is the first significant sign about Flem? His shirts. Newly cut and stitched at the beginning of each week, then soiled by weekend in exactly the same places. And then he adds a necktie: “a tiny viciously depthless cryptically balanced splash like an enigmatic punctuation symbol against the expanse of white shirt…postulated to those who had been present on that day that quality of outrageous overstatement of physical displacement which the sound of his father’s stiff foot made on the gallery of the store….”

To read so much into a tiny necktie. A little black mark. Like a word. Or a sentence. Displacing, deranging everything.

By some mystical, unspoken, irrational force, the presence of Flem combined with Jody’s fear of the destructive force of FIRE (hellfire?), allow for the gradual but certain transformation of the social power balance: “…it had actually seemed as if not only the guiding power but the proprietary and revenue deriving as well was concentrated in that squat reticent figure in the steadily-soiling white shirts and the minute invulnerable bow, which in these abeyant days lurked among the ultimate shadows of the deserted and rich-odored interior with a good deal of the quality of a spider of that bulbous blond omnivorous though non-poisonous species”.

A spider is good at waiting. Waiting for its prey.

Like that wire cheese trap and that turnstyle, the prevailing power structure does not stop the Snopes from invading, pervading, taking over, though before these strange sorts of simulated boundaries did keep people in their places. Why is Flem able to break down the barriers? Because of Jody’s fear of fire? Because he knows how to patiently, persistently wait. Something of the infuriating dumb patience of Bartleby the Scrivener.

So long for now,
Genese

 

Dear Genese,

A quasi-gentrification of Frenchman’s Bend. The country changes, but through the outside observer’s eyes (who sometimes becomes part of the action). In Brooks’s book there is an addendum: “How Ratliff outsmarted Flem,” but I’m still a little wobbly about what exactly happened. But in a way, this is how I read—I’m more interested in the language than what the language rationally says. Faulkner is so magisterial that I can see the images his words create as if I’m watching a film. “He was the smaller of the two of them; he walked steadily toward her with a curious sidling deadly, almost deferential, air until she broke, turned swiftly and went back toward the house…” This is the action of Mink Snopes, contrasted with his wife—the first we see of them. That caesura after “deadly” enlivened me, I thought: How the hell is he going to pull this sentence off? Faulkner is able to pause time there.

In Gass’s wonderful review of a Faulkner biography, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1974/06/27/mr-blotner-mr-feaster-and-mr-faulkner/, he writes, “Nothing was too mean for his imagination because he did not believe there was any insignificance on earth…He managed to give even the mute heart speech, and invest a humble, private, oftimes red-necked life with those epic rhythms and rich sounds which were formerly the hired pomp and commissioned music of emperors and kings.” Again and again, I see fiction-making apparently born of Dickens, Flaubert, Conrad, Joyce, and Eliot (Ford Madox Ford must be in there), where the words are charged and the images are paired down to syntax so sure of itself—as in Faulkner’s followers, Welty and O’Connor. But there is Shakespeare, too—of course, he already used The Sound and the Fury, who wouldn’t? (and then The Hamlet title itself)  “…his voice voluble and rapid and meaningless like something talking to itself about nothing in a deserted cavern.” This is also the second or third time in the book he’s used “meaningless” to describe speech. But this short excerpt shows how Faulkner’s narrator takes on those epic similes and metaphors from the Bard to Milton to Melville. Stanley Elkin said, Less is less and more is more. To add “in a deserted cavern” really cements something that is already so powerful without it, taking us into “covered wagon times,” which are very close to these years. But the large canvas of The Hamlet is like a Shakespeare play—a melange of characters (and we are only a hundred pages in [the “Flem” section of the book, which only has a few pages on Flem himself])—I’m thinking of the Henry IV plays with all the comic relief and the gentry.

I think you’ve nailed it with the FIRE commentary. The threat of fire also goes from Mink to Flem (cousins) when Mink gives the message to Ratliff about getting and then owning a hay barn—this is according to Brooks, otherwise it might have been lost on me. The whole enterprise has the air of mystery—one doesn’t know where it is going (as opposed to so many contemporary novels). Yes, one can read on the back cover that Flem comes to “dominate” the town, but even knowing that does not affect my enjoyment. Again, how it is said as opposed to what is said.

Best,
Greg

Part II will run tomorrow (find part II here), Part III (find part III here) on Thursday

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Genese Grill is a the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House,  2012); translator of a collection of Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (2015), of Musil’s Unions (2018), and Musil’s Theater Symptoms: Plays and Writings on Drama (forthcoming November 2020), all with Contra Mundum Press.  Her literary essays, translator introductions, and scholarly writing have appeared in The Georgia ReviewFiction MagazineNumero Cinq, Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics, The Missouri Review, The Rupture, and elsewhere.

Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and, Especially the Bad Things, stories were both published by Splice in the Autumn of 2019. Zerogram Press will release a new and expanded version of See What I See in April 2021.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 14th, 2020.