The Hamlet, the first novel of Faulkner's Snopes trilogy, is both an ironic take on classical tragedy and a mordant commentary on the grand pretensions of the antebellum South and the depths of its decay in the aftermath of war and Reconstruction. It tells of the advent and the rise of the Snopes family in Frenchman's Bend, a small town built on the ruins of a once-stately plantation. Flem Snopes – wily, energetic, a man of shady origins – quickly comes to dominate the town and its people with his cunning and guile.
As an added bonus, when you purchase our Audible Modern Vanguard production of William Faulkner's book, you'll also receive an exclusive Jim Atlas interview. This interview – where James Atlas interviews James Lee Burke about the life and work of William Faulkner – begins as soon as the audiobook ends.
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“’What’s a short way to New York from here?’”
The ways in which William Faullkner sets his novel in the isolated Frenchman's Bend, a few decades after the American Civil War had ended in 1865, and drops down the social scale from the Compsons, the Sartorises and other aristocratic or fallen families. He fastens upon a poor white family, the Snopes, and their seemingly irresistable rise, in order to tell the story of what happened to the South. The ruins of the ante-bellum plantation, the Old Frenchman Place as it had come to be called in Faulkner's account over many novels of his imaginary Yoknapatawpha County, are located not too far from the hamlet and give it its name. Insofar as there is a plot, the ruins figure in it near the end of the novel in one of the many tall-tales that take over from the broad historical narrative of the region.
Jack Houston. However, there is a wide cast of characters – the Varner family, Houston, V.K. Ratliff, as well as many members of the Snopes family – who come and go, sometimes situated with reference to their women and black servants and workers. In this way, a succession of stories and sketches builds up a remarkable picture of Frenchman’s Bend and the wider South, and particularly the Deep South of Mississippi. Locations recur, notably, the balcony of the store, where news is swapped, though in such a laconic and discontinuous way that “news” doesn’t seem to be the right word. Ratcliffe, a sewing-machine salesman, brings the outside world, or at least that of Yoknapatawha, to the hamlet. Mail order catalogues provide images of a wider world, as do characters who travel to the Far West and return. Hence my interest in Houston, who offers another version of Faulkner’s great theme of time and place: “He fled, not from his past but to escape his future. It took him twelve years to learn that you cannot escape either of them.”
The hunt for buried treasure on the Old Frenchman's Place.
Nothing - he manages brilliantly to convey both Faulkner's high style and the colloquial speech of the characters.
Inasmuch as plot resolves itself into the question What has happened? I found myself regularly wondering what was going on, partly because of Faulkner’s Modernist techniques (the use of a personal pronoun with only an occasional, in-passing, use of a name, and his extraordinary, excessive and even gothic style) but also because of the clipped yet drawled way of speaking of his characters that verges on, but never is, inarticulateness. Joe Barrett is a really great reader in the audio version.
As an instance of the high Faulkner, take this:
“He [Houston] grieved for her for four years in black indomitable fidelity and that was all. … vanished (from school) not only from his father's house but from the country too, fleeing even at sixteen the immemorial trap and was gone for thirteen years and then as suddenly returned, knowing and perhaps even cursing himself on the instant he knew he was going to return that she would still be there and unmarried and she was. He was fourteen when he entered the school. …
At fourteen he was already acquainted with whiskey and was the possessor of a mistress, a negro girl two or three years his senior, daughter of his father's renter and so found himself submitting to be taught his ABCs four and five and six years after his coevals. ... Invincibly incorrigible not deliberately intending to learn nothing but convinced that he would not, did not want, and did not believe he needed to.”
Although Faulkner isn’t writing about the leaders of the Old South or their descendants in “The Hamlet”, the high-style works well on different classes, though punctuated by an often-funny colloquialism. In this contrast between the muttered vernacular of the poor or rising classes and the complex and seemingly never-ending sentences in which Faulkner describes the inner life of his characters, an inner life which is the life of part of the post-bellum South, he proves himself to have a wider range than earlier Modernists, Henry James and Virginia Woolf – more like James Joyce in this respect.