William Faulkner – Three Famous Short Novels – The Bear
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The most complex of these three short novels, The Bear, is an exploration of family ties and that family’s ties to the land they live on, built initially about a hunt for a bear, Old Ben, who despite his many wounds, has never been brought down by hunters. The hunt climaxes with Isaac, the young boy Faulkner surely had in mind at one point as the story’s central figure, joining with Boon Hogganbeck and Sam Fathers and a dog called Lion. It reveals little to tell you that Sam, Lion, and Old Ben die, only Isaac and Boon surviving.
Then Faulkner wanders into a grander story – Isaac’s inheritance of a plantation, which he refuses, ceding it to his cousin McCaslin. Perhaps the most important portion of this long novella is an extended conversation between Isaac and McCaslin about Isaac’s view of land ownership. In the course of this conversation, Faulkner slyly paints an everyman picture of the South, from the time of its early settlements through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and into the early twentieth century.
Isaac has decided to eschew land ownership, sensing it's the cause of the South’s demise as a bucolic Eden. Later in the story (and here Faulkner must have realized he had to bring something full circle), Isaac returns to the site of Old Ben’s death, the land now to be logged. Here, Faulkner paints a complex picture: Boon smashing his gun near the Gum Tree, as squirrels scurry frantically about on the tree’s branches. As he’s doing this, he screams at Isaac, “Get out of here! Don’t touch them! Don’t touch a one of them! They’re mine!”
Passages such as this final scene and the Isaac-McCaslin conversation are all the evidence we need of Faulkner’s genius as a storyteller. Still, he’s not without fault. While he has become perhaps the first impressionistic writer of fiction, and he has bequeathed an innovative writing style to several generations of Southern writers, he seems to be writing more for himself than for the reader. Reading these stories reminds me of Miles Davis turning his back to his audiences and playing, if not to his band, then solely to himself. Faulkner’s stories wander (many, I know, see the challenge in following such stories as part of Faulkner’s genius), his inferences are oblique, often to a fault, his characters strangely superficial, serving only as voices for his social and philosophical perceptions. Faulkner isn’t easy, and yet there’s plenty here to make you soldier on through his baroque prose.
My rating: 17 of 20 stars
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