Sunday, August 09, 2020

The Wild Palms (1939)

The title William Faulkner originally had for this unusual novel, one of my favorites by him, is If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, but his publishers had other ideas and these days it's seen both ways. I read it first as The Wild Palms and always think of it that way. The experimental aspect is that it is actually two long stories shuffled together in alternating chapters. The first is called The Wild Palms and involves a torrid hothouse love affair as perhaps only Faulkner could imagine it (see also Sanctuary). The other is called Old Man and tells the story of a convict put to humanitarian work in Mississippi during the 1927 floods. What I like is how straightforward, concrete, and vivid these stories are. It's from a few years after Absalom, Absalom!, arguably peak Faulkner (though I tend more to favor 1929 to 1932 as his peak). There's a sense of a writer in frenzy, with so much to tell and explain and so little time, continually forced into eruptions of detail that come in torrents. He commits amazing feats of balance with his long abrupt sentences. Perhaps, also, I like it because it's not elaborating the Yoknapatawpha County history. Both tales have obvious biblical sources—Adam and Eve and Noah's flood, to start. The Wild Palms story is not exactly depraved, but it is fairly wrong. She is married to another in what appears to be a free-love style open relationship. He's a self-destructive underachiever with medical training. I know these events are nearly a hundred years old, and different times, different times, but it felt to me like an alien toxic man-and-woman dynamic. I had a hard time buying it. I can believe the toxicity in a general way but this is nothing like anything I know. I recognized some aspects—Faulkner's descriptions of her fierce creativity rang true, very much, but I could never understand what these two were doing together. Old Man, meanwhile, works often and best like an adventure story with a rich dark vein of humor in it as well. The movements of the waters on the grand scale in a flood situation of the Mississippi River and its tributary system, the whole look and feel of being trapped in a boat in a flood of such scale, is really amazing stuff. When I was poking around for information, I found an interesting list of Faulkner in-betweener narrative pieces, such as "Spotted Horses," a long story that he later incorporated into The Hamlet (the first novel in a trilogy completed 20 years later), "The Bear" (a long story that is arguably a stand-alone and arguably part of what is arguably a novel, Go Down, Moses), and these two long stories, as novel or read separately straight through, which latter I've never done. I like the way Faulkner kept blowing up the very idea of what a novel is. This is one of the best and most rewarding examples.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

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