Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Three Famous Short Novels

by William Faulkner

I wasn’t expecting that.

The great Modernist William Faulkner somehow manages to continually confound, as well as surpass, his reader’s expectations in the span of his shorter works. That is, the stories contained in Vintage’s 1961 collection, “Three Famous Short Novels” both delighted and disappointed me. These novellas, “Spotted Horses,” “Old Man,” as well as the rightly respected “The Bear” succeeded in surprising me, not just on a narrative level, but within a more concentrated incremental measure. As this was my first exposure to Faulkner, aside being assigned “A Rose for Emily” once in Honors English, I was expecting something much more mannered, more polite. Faulkner’s aesthetic, while obviously deliberate and thorough, comes off joyfully messy at times. He writes with that fine exactitude I encountered when I recently read Mishima, yet he is a much more inclusive writer- willing to take in a unity of dissonance and collision. Faulkner is more voraciously open.

The three stories all follow relatively straightforward plots. This establishes a certain accessibility, or perhaps the expectation of ease. In “Spotted Horses,” a legal dispute over the sale of a batch of ponies agitates a deeper fissure of gender and ownership (issues that cycle and resurface throughout the collection). Simple enough, right? “Old Man” is, in many ways, an adventure story pitting a serendipitously “escaped” convict against the Mississippi, alligators, and the Southern penal system, as well as women (again!). The centerpiece of the collection, though, is undoubtedly “The Bear,” a story whose sharp narrative propulsion –a boy’s maturation in the midst of a hunting expedition, is disrupted and complicated through anti-climactic revelations as well as a long, difficult passage that circles race, ownership and slavery. This all culminates in a rather lyrical description of the Gum Tree. The boy, Ike, who we accompany through the novella, arrives in a clearing at the story’s close and sees that “At first glance the tree seemed to be alive with frantic squirrels. There appeared to be forty or fifty of them leaping and darting from branch to branch until the whole tree had become one green maelstrom of mad leaves…” I’m reminded here of the bountiful tree of man and of life, as well as Goethe’s oak, even Artaud’s vision of a inclusive tree of community and experience. It’s a fantastic way for Faulkner to end a dense, difficult work, with this final yawp, as another hunter, Boon, shouts, in reference to the squirrels, “Get out of here! Don’t touch them! Don’t touch a one of them! They’re mine!” That is, here we have a final declaration of property in the face of a vast futility.

A pathetic curse of ownership resounds throughout each of the three novellas. This, of course, extends outwards to slavery – its moral difficulty, the thick repugnance of “owning” another’s life. One can recognize this injustice manifested in “Old Man” as well– one plump convict is struck with a close to two hundred year internment for a murder he didn’t commit. The plump convict is given two choices. He can either be tried in Federal court if he “…passed through the anteroom where the woman [that he came with] raged [and] he could take his chances on the lesser crime in Federal court, or by accepting a sentence for manslaughter in the State Court he would be permitted to quit the room by a back entrance, without having to pass the woman.” Again, gender disruptions surfaces to complicate the situation.

Yet ownership continues to further sabotage the possibility of an equitable human community. Look at how property gives rise to a submerged violence in “Spotted Horses.” The ponies in many ways represent a disruptive sexual force amongst the men of the sleepy town of Frenchmen’s Bend. This is a distinctly gender-specific sexuality. While the men gawk and fawn over the ponies, Faulkner repeatedly returns to the domestic Mrs. Littlejohn as she attends to her daily responsibilities. For instance, look at when she “…came out of the kitchen and crossed the yard to the woodpile, watching the lot. She picked up two or three sticks of wood and paused, watching the lot again.” Ah, here we also see the kitchen regimented as a gendered domain – the woman’s space. Later on in the story, one of the men, due to his excitement, forgets to lock the gate holding in the ponies. The men see one of the horses “…whirl and dash back and rush through the gate into Mrs. Littlejohn’s yard and run up the front steps and crash once on the wooden veranda and vanish through the front door… A lamp sat on the table just inside the door. In its mellow light they saw the horse fill the long hallway like a pinwheel, gaudy, furious and thunderous.” The pony has crossed the boundary of its domain and trespassed into a clearly delineated feminine space.

A transmuted sexual longing has here exploded beyond its perimeters and entered the domestic space – where it can only cause damage. See how Henry Armstid sacrifices the five dollars his wife saved for their livelihood, all in order to buy a horse for himself! Or the damage to the Lull’s wagon, and Vernon Tull, who on account of injuries given him by the rampaging horse is not able to work his farmland for at least two weeks. What’s worse, because of Vernon Tull’s temporary incapacity, his wife and daughters must now till his land, and these women must now trespass into the male space, in a reversal of the horse’s transgression upon bursting into Mrs. Littlejohn’s home.

The court case that ensues only superficially maintains a trapping of legality as it concerns itself with greater issues of gender and its containment within set societal boundaries. It is telling that the witnesses in Mrs. Tull’s case are all women – herself and her daughters. Faulkner describes one of the clerks, Ratliff, as a man who in his later years “…would be caught and married by a creature not yet seventeen probably, who would for the rest of his life continue to take revenge upon him for her whole sex…” This case then, is reconfigured as “…an outrage which curiously and almost at once began to give the impression of being directed not at any Snopes or at any other man in particular, but at all men, all males…” The schism exists upon gender lines. The court case becomes metonymic of a greater conflict within the community of Frenchmen’s Bend. The courts find the ownership of the horses to be ultimately unknowable. The initial whispering of the story’s opening, where the men wonder whether the horses belong to Snopes or the Texan, is amplified into a great ambiguity at “Spotted Horses” conclusion. But of course, within the courtroom, the stabilizing environment of an ingrained patriarchy, the ruling falls in favor of the male order as the Justice shouts “I can’t stand no more!... I won’t! This court’s adjourned! Adjourned!”

Faulkner appropriates the traditional intrigue and drama of a romantic love triangle in the collection’s final story, “The Bear.” Sam Feathers, an experienced woodsman with Choctaw and African blood, breaks in a wild Airedale, Lion, by starving him to the point where the hound will allow Sam to touch him. The dog is fiercely devoted to Sam until the arrival of Boon, another hunter with mixed African and white blood. Lion begins to sleep in Boon’s bed, which breaks the bond between the dog and Sam Feathers. The boy, Ike, “…wonders what Sam thinks. He could have Lion with him, even if Boon is a white man. He could ask Major or McCaslin either. And more than that. It was Sam’s hand that touched Lion first and Lion knows it.” Boon may have mixed African blood, but Sam has the blood of a native displaced people within him – that of the Choctaw. One can’t help think of the European’s violent acquisition of the North American continent. The extended fourth part of “The Bear” deals, to a great extent, with Ike’s growing distaste for the curse of property. Lion’s loyalty magnifies the difficulty of ownership onto a problematized, personal level. It is no wonder then that the story’s third part opens with the line, “So he [the boy] should have hated and feared Lion.” It is also worth noting Boon, Sam Feathers and Lion constitute an informal trinity – evoking an almost biblical dispute of property.

Faulkner crafts a strong and consistent vision of deep-rooted interrogation. Yet the pleasure and frustration of reading him, at least for me, was situated within his incremental cadence. A markedly Southern vernacular colors each of the three novellas. Faulkner’s interest in the conversational is a definite virtue, yet his attempts to correlate an earthy vernacular with a more mannered classicism left me cold, as when a gritty portrayal of southern life segues into Homeric allusion. This form of classicism was responsible, for the most part, for my lukewarm response to playwright Eugene O’Neill. Yet Faulkner’s progressive spirit, his surprises of diction and syntax, manage to excite me to such an extent that I willingly move beyond such hiccups. His punctuation and grammar fit the cadence of the story, rather than that of expectation or expectation. Passages such as “The Bear’s” fourth part thrill due to their openness and their opacity, as well as their deliberateness and clear cohesion. And always for their joyous surprise.

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