Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Mansion, by William Faulkner

This is the third volume in Faulkner's Snopes family trilogy; it was the one that Anthony Burgess added to his 99 best novels list.  I skipped the first two books, The Hamlet and The Town, and jumped right into the third. Faulkner's comments in the introduction made it clear that it's not a tightly-knit trilogy -- he was 34 years in writing them. I felt all right about starting with (and maybe ending with) the final novel, The Mansion.
...there will be found discrepancies and contradictions in the thirty-four-year progress of this particular chronicle; the purpose of this note is simply to notify the reader that the author has already found more discrepancies and contradictions than he hopes the reader will -- contradictions and discrepancies due to the fact that the author has learned, he believes, more about the human heart and its dilemma than he knew thirty-four years ago; and is sure that, having lived with them that long time, he knows the characters in this chronicle better than he did then.
I've spent a fair amount of time in Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner's fictional stomping ground in Mississippee, thanks to earlier novels like The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Sanctuary. The almost feudal control that one family exerts over a county in the deep south comes through in The Mansion. The Snopeses aren't from old money, and their gains are nearly all ill-got. They seem to have reached their status as lords of Jefferson, Mississippee by old-fashioned wiles and thuggery.  At the top of the heap is Flem Snopes, who has taken over the titular mansion from his late wife's clandestine lover, who fled the property rather than face scandal. By similar means, Flem has also assumed the presidency of the local bank.  Just say that name a few times:  Flem. Snopes.  Main character he may be, but no hero would ever be named Flem Snopes.

Not all Snopeses, however, have Flem's cunning.  As the novel opens, Flem's cousin, Mink Snopes (yes, picture a weasel) is on trial for murder, hoping in vain that Flem will step in to save him. Mink reflects on other people -- They and Them -- including his cousin Flem, who have talents and horizons denied him. Me? I marvel at all Faulkner conveys in this one remarkable sentence.
Then the twin ruby lamps on the last car diminished rapidly together in one last flick! at the curve, the four blasts came fading back from the south crossing and he thought of distance, of New Orleans where he had never been and perhaps never would go, with distance even beyond New Orleans, with Texas somewhere in it; and now for the first time he began really to think about his absent cousin: the one Snopes of them all who had risen, broken free, had either been born with or had learned, taught himself, the knack or the luck to cope with, hold his own, handle the They and Them which he, Mink, apparently did not have the knack or the luck to do.
Faulkner steps back and forth in time, giving us back-story. Mink had murdered another white man -- a rich, hard, white man who had humiliated him -- in the early 1900s. Being poor and not too bright, Mink was only a small notch above the local black folks in social standing.  He notes that the Negros had decent enough lives, even if lacking in "right and justice", but he still feels entitled to walk into any of their houses when he needs a place to sleep.
...then a section all Negro homes, even with electric lights too, peaceful, with no worries, no need to fight and strive single-handed, not to gain right and justice because they were already lost, but just to defend the principle of them, his rights to them, but instead could talk a little while and then go even into a nigger house and just lay down and sleep in place of walking all the way to the depot just to have something to look at until the durn mail carrier left at eight oclock tomorrow.
Today America is convulsed with debates on gun ownership. Mink Snopes, at the turn of the last century, goes into a general store to buy the buckshot with which he intends to kill his enemy, and the shop owner provides the screening that so many people today are asking their legislators to require.  (The Senate voted yesterday, 18 April 2013, and failed to pass a more comprehensive screening law.) Seems the United States needs more Mr. McCaslins.
"What do you want with two buckshot shells?" McCaslin said.
"A nigger came in this morning and said he seen that bear's foot in the mud at Blackwater Slough."
"No," McCaslin said. "What do you want with buckshot shells?"
"I can pay you soon as I gin my cotton," Mink said.
"No," McCaslin said. "I aint going to let you have them. There aint anything out there at Frenchman's Bend you need to shoot buckshot at."
As he does in many of his novels, Faulkner also switches between narrators.  V. K. Ratliff is a lifelong Jefferson denizen. He's a keen observer with no shortage of mother wit, and a friend of attorney Gavin Stevens, whom he refers to simply as Lawyer.  Ratliffe is not a highly educated man, as his speech reveals, but he's no fool, either.  Here he talks about Lawyer's experiences after leaving Heidelberg University's law school to fight in WWII. Not everyone in Yoknapatawpha County is a yokel.
...the modern German culture since the revolutions of 1848 never had no concern with, and if anything a little contempt for, anything that happened to man on the outside, or through the eyes and touch, like sculpture and painting and civil laws for his social benefit, but jest with what happened to him through his ears, like music and philosophy and what was wrong inside of his mind. Which he said was the reason why German was such a ugly language, not musical like Italian and Spanish nor what he called the epicene exactitude of French, but was harsh and ugly, not to mention full of spit (like as the feller says, you speak Italian to men, French to women, and German to horses), so that there wouldn't be nothing to interfere and distract your mind from what your nerves and glands was hearing: the mystical ideas, the glorious music--Lawyer said, the best of music, from the mathematical inevitability of Mozart through the godlike passion of Beethoven and Bach to the combination bawdy-house street-carnival uproar that Wagner made--that come straight to the modern virile northern Aryan's heart without bothering his mind a-tall. Except that he didn't join the German army. I dont know what lies he managed to tell the Germans to get out of Germany where he could join the enemy fighting them, nor what lies he thought up for the English and French to explain why a student out of a German university was a safe risk to have around where he might overhear somebody telling what surprise they was fixing up next. But he done it. And it wasn't the English army he joined neither. It was the French one: them folks that, according to him, spent all their time talking about epicene exactitudes to ladies.
On the other hand, not all Mississippian efforts to speak the 'epicene exactitudes' of French are successful....
And for her first eighteen years Eula breathed that same Frenchman's Bend mill-yew atmosphere too...
By the end of The Mansion, the reign of the Snopeses was at its end, but I'd soaked up about 50 years of the mill-yew that Faulkner created with exquisite skill. His ear for dialect has to be one of the world's finest. 


  1. I read "The Sound and The Fury" years ago. Quite horrifying and compelling. Stories of old money families in the Deep South are always compelling. It's like watching a train wreck.

    1. A slow-motion train wreck! Yes, the deep south is a world unto itself, remarkably different from the rest of the country, and it's produced some fabulous writers, most of whom write these gothic train wrecks of tales. :-)


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