Saturday, 26 August 2017

Book Report Part 9: "The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner

Why has it taken me so long to read a Faulkner novel? I have no idea. More fool me. What a writer! As I Lay Dying was the Faulkner title on my list of 25 novels to read in the 12 months to 1st March, 2018 - but I came across a second-hand copy of The Sound and the Fury in a charity shop, and decided to go with it. The title was familiar, but I knew nothing about it, and my Vintage Books edition was bereft of any background information - no preface, no foreword, no quotes, not even a shout-line. All it told me was that the novel was first published in 1929. All I knew about Faulkner was that he was from Mississippi, that he drank, that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and that he did some work in Hollywood. (I seem to remember a story that he agreed to write a script as long as he could work on it at home rather than at the studio - only for the studio to realise too late that "home" to Faulkner meant Mississippi.)...

As I have subsequently discovered, The Sound and the Fury is notorious for the incomprehensibility of its opening section (92 pages in my copy), in which events on and around the Compson family household near Jefferson (i.e. Oxford, Mississippi) between 1898 and 1928 are described through the eyes of Benjamin Compson, a severely retarded 33 year-old male, one of four siblings. It becomes slightly less bewildering when you realise that the narrative is non-linear, because Benjy doesn't see the world in a linear way. Despite being borderline impenetrable, it gradually makes sense as the focus switches to, first, Quentin, the brightest of the four, as he prepares to commit suicide while attending Harvard; then Jason, the greedy, grasping, resentful, soulless materialist, who cheats and lies his way through life - only to have his ill-gotten gains stolen by his absconding niece; and, finally, Dilsey, a black female servant, the most senior of the six "niggers" employed by the Compsons (the word appears on just about every page - Dilsey habitually refers to her son, Luster, as "nigger boy"). The other main characters are Caddie Compson, whom Benjy and Quentin adore, who turns into a trollop and is married off to an up-market ne'er-do-well; the dipsomaniac father; his widow,  Caroline Compson (Miss Cahline), a spectacularly tedious and useless person, obsessed with dreams of faded prestige.

The Waltons they are not. The disintegration of the Compson family is evidently symbolic of the disintegration of the Old South - they've been losing money and land for generations. The only truly admirable, decent figure in the book is the old servant, Dilsey - and the relationship between blacks and whites, who inhabit parallel universes, is fascinating: I'm not a fan of phonetically-rendered patois of any kind, but here black speech patterns don't serve a degrading, comic purpose - they underline the fact that tthe blacks are essentially using a foreign language (although lines like "You tend to yo business, and let de white folks tend to deir'n" and "He been gwine on dat way ev'y since you sont us outen de house" become a little wearing after a while). I wonder, given America's current sensitivity concerning race, how Faulkner is approached in schools and universities these days - if he's approached at all, of course: his novels may well have been jettisoned in favour of works by Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. Never mind - the description of Dilsey's visit to church to hear a black guest preacher, with the idiot Benjy (who's been castrated by this time) in tow, is a mesmerisingly masterful and evocative piece of writing - no wonder Hollywood wanted to hire Faulkner.

The writing style varies throughout - there's lots of experimentation, including stream-of-consciousness sequences, variable grammar, and punctuation... all sorts. There's deliberate obscurity - I needed to reread the bit where Quentin appears to be admitting to an incestuous relationship with his sister, Caddy (relax - there wasn't one). And there's an almost wilful insistence on confusing the reader - for instance, the decision to name Caddy's daughter "Quentin", i.e. the same damned name as Caddy's beloved dead brother. But it's all deliberate - Faulkner is constantly snagging the reader's mind, drawing us in deeper, keeping us slightly off-balance, demanding our concentration. Well, he certainly got mine. The structure is...surprising? Start with the characters whose thoughts are the most confusing - Benjy and Quentin (the male one) - and end with the two characters whose thought processes are the clearest: Jason and Dilsey. And end the book with a pre-history of the Compson family from it earliest days (which would have been useful at the start) and a quick round-up of what happens to all the main characters after the story ends. The character around whom so much of the story and so many of the themes revolve - Candace/Caddy - doesn't get a section to herself: she's seen through the eyes of her brothers (while Benjy and Quentin adore her, Jason steals her money and emotionally tortures her).  Whatever, it works.

I've never been that fond of steamy Southern melodramas. Apart from A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams plays - or, rather, the film versions, tend to irritate me: for instance, the best thing about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was the opening title sequence. I love the American South, and I usually enjoy crime films set in the South - especially if there's a chain gang, bloodhounds and a chase through the swamps involved - but tales of  the emotionally unstable landed gentry tend to leave me cold. Reading Faulkner - presumably the fons et origo of the whole genre - may very well have converted me. I may have to give T. Williams another go.

The Sound and the Fury is a rich, knotty, difficult, maddening, exhilarating, utterly original novel written by a genius, sho nuff. Consider me awed.

I'll leave you with two snippets of information: William Faulkner's favourite television programme at the time of his death in 1962 was Car 54, Where Are You? - and the 1959 film of The Sound and the Fury stars that notable Son of the South, Yul Brynner, so I might just give it a miss.


  1. An excellent summary of an intriguing book which I would have found hard to explain. Years ago I was fascinated by it, and it led to my reading nearly all of his books. He seems to have fallen out of fashion at the moment, but I recommend "Light in August" as another thought-provoking novel.
    Years ago I met an American woman who said she had been in Jackson and had met someone who claimed to be Faulkner's half brother. She said there could be no doubt of it - he had exactly the same features as William Faulkner, but was black.
    Faulkner was apparently very devoted to his old nurse, and when she was dying he would go out at any time of the day or night and drive miles to get her the ice cream she craved.

  2. Studying Mr Faulkner's luxuriant hair I am confirmed in my theory that one rarely sees a bald alcoholic. I have tried to establish a link between the ingredients in alcohol and the nourishment of hair follicles, but my science lets me down.

    I first noticed this when I used to frequent an underpass in Park Lane for a number of years which housed groups of dossers clutching bottles of VP Wine or Meths and belting out "Mother Kelly's Doorstep". They all had great manes of hair.

    I gave "The Sound and the Fury" a miss after 3-pages.

  3. An intruder in his dust, I am trying to get Waterstones to commemorate the great man's 120th birthday on 25 September.

  4. Sorry, Helen. I did not see your comment. As you have recommended Faulkner I will give him another try.

  5. SDG. It's a powerful book but be warned - it's not a bundle of laughs. Understandable if you don't get past page 3 - but he does write lighter books too.

  6. Helen . He doesn't write any books. He is not typing or tippling these days.

    Faulkner , like the Southern School of which he was emblematic , is not extant.

    Are you Helen of Troy, MI?

  7. Yes. Substitute "did" for "does" (which I used in the sense of "still in print") and I would have met your exacting standards!
    And no, I'm the one who SUNK a thousand ships!

  8. I rather thought you weren't. Your response was infinitely laid back thus disarming my pouncing pedantry.