The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family
by William Faulker
I thought after Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner would be a nice way of continuing the southern theme. So, on my way to work this morning I took The Hamlet, which has been lying on my desk in my "to read" pile for a couple of months. Am I glad I did! I haven't read any Faulkner in a few years (the last was Absalom, Absalom!, I forget if it was one or two years ago); I had forgotten what a pleasure it is to get lost in his long, lush paragraphs.
And this book, as it turns out, is a very good follow-up to TVBA; there are a lot of similarities in atmosphere and pacing -- I immediately recognized the harshly distrustful way the characters interact. I think it's going to be a lot more complex, based on the Faulkner books I've read; and I know it's going to be a much slower read. Those long, lush paragraphs are easy to get lost in!
I read through the end of part 1 today. I'm really surprised by how well I'm getting to know the characters -- one of my fears in reading a novel is often that I will not be able to get straight and remember who's who. As I walked to the subway this morning, I was going over in my head the cast of characters and their relationships; this after not having read it since Friday. I found I had a pretty good picture formed of at least Jody, Flem, and the sewing-machine salesman, and a fair idea about William and Ab.
Well, in the reading I did today it seems like Flem is the central character at least of part 1 and maybe of the whole book too, and the sewing-machine salesman (for some reason I never think of him by name; it's Ratliff) has approximately the same point of view as the narrator. I wonder what happened to Ab; he is not even mentioned again after the first 20 pages or so.
I was a bit puzzled by something (Spoiler warning!): When Ab was asking Jody about his rental terms, Jody said (among other things), "Furnish out of the store here. No cash." But when Flem starts clerking in the store a few days later, it is an entirely cash business. Maybe the "no cash" applies only to home furnishings? Anyways, I was a bit confused.
I got midway through part 2 ("Eula") today. I'm glad to see it's not going to be just a book about Flem; I liked reading about him but I didn't really think his biography would be enough to hold my attention. On the other hand I'm itching to see how Flem and his family tie in to the story of Eula. (Okay, I admit it, I second-guess authors as I read them, or try to...)
Jody seems like a completely different character in part 2 than he did in part 1 (the two parts cover the same time period). In part 1 he was pleasant and easy-going (albeit corrupt); I think Faulkner even called him "Rabelaisian" at one point (that would fit his father better; but I think it was Jody). In part 2 he's petty, jealous, and precious. What gives? Maybe it's because in part 1, he was shown interacting with people outside his family, and his affect within his family is totally different.
At the end of part 2 there is a beautiful piece set in Hell; Flem is negotiating with the Prince of Evil over the price of his soul. Also: early in part 3 is a section told from the point of view of Flem's retarded brother Isaac; I'm guessing (not clear on the chronology here) that this is a precursor to that famous section of The Sound and the Fury.
Part 3, in general, seems to be about the toughest reading so far; impossibly dense syntax and imagery. It's very tempting just to surrender to it, and float along on the current of the language without understanding.
I'm in awe of Faulkner's story-telling ability. Last night and this morning and this afternoon, I just kept reading the story of Isaac, with no idea where it was headed or how it fit in with the rest of the story. Sometimes I would get distracted and try to figure out what was going on, but mostly I just took it in, with a blind faith that it would all make sense later. Then the point of view switched back to Ratliff, and before I even realized what had happened, everything I had been reading made sense. That ability to pull disparate strands together into a seamless whole is a beautiful attribute for a novelist...
Getting towards the end of the story... today I realized I'm hitting the point I always get to in a long story, where I can see the end coming and I start turning the reading process into a race to get to the end. I don't want to do that this time around, so I'm trying to take precautions against it.
The way Flem has been present in this book, like I said up above he's the main character in part I; in parts 2 and 3 he's also in a sense the main character, except you don't see him at all. More like an ominous presence hovering over the page -- you can see how he figures in events even though he's absent. Now midway through part 4, he's back, but somehow he's still a presence more than a physical being: in the scene from page 311 to 317, sitting on the stoop in front of the store, he is there sitting among a group of men, but all references to him are in the third person -- it's very eerie to read.
I just now read the last page. A good ending, but with a feeling of incompleteness to get me to read The Town, the next book in the trilogy. I liked it a lot.
A question that's been nagging at me, especially toward the end, is whether the Old Frenchman's Place is the same as the house Colonel Sutpen builds in Absalom, Absalom!. My memory's kind of hazy on it but I seem to recall his mother was from Haiti, so he could have been the old frenchman... But somehow the time interval doesn't seem long enough to me -- I mean, Sutpen must have died in the mid- to late-1860's sometime; The Hamlet from what I can tell takes place in the 1920's or so -- it doesn't seem like a long enough time for such a transition to occur. But what do I know? The enclosing story of Absalom, Absalom! was set in the early 1900's, and Sutpen's Hundred had already become a legend. (Faulkner buffs forgive me -- correct me! -- if I'm mangling the facts too badly.) I reckon Sutpen's Hundred and Frenchman's Bend are not the same place; in Absalom, Absalom!, I don't remember there being settlers on Sutpen's land. Nope! I just checked it out at Faulkner Online; they say Sutpen's Hundred is in the northern part of the county, Frenchman's Bend in the southeast; the old frenchman was Louis Grenier, who predated Sutpen by about 50 years.
Time to look for something new to read... I want to move away from the South. Maybe I'll find something English.