The Sound and The Fury, by William Faulkner

Despite its notoriety, I didn’t find The Sound and The Fury that difficult a read. It helps of course that I’ve read it before, and know the structure and the plot; and that I’ve read a lot of Faulkner and know his wiles. I remember last time being frustrated at the character Quentin, who seemed the most unstable and even to change sex; – but these days I’m aware of Faulkner’s penchant for multiple characters with the same names (see too his previous novel, Sartoris / Flags in the Dust) – of which in this novel we have (at least) three sets: Quentin, of course, and Quentin; then the two Jasons (the son and narrator of part three, and also the father); and there’s two Maurys (Uncle Maury; and also Maury is Benjamin’s given name – from which it is changed, I think maybe, in retrospect, at the will of the mother, so that Benjamin is less associated with her family – Uncle Maury is her brother, generally mocked by the Compsons). The latter two pairs are just by the by: at the most they lead to a full sentences’ worth of puzzlement.

Of the four parts, Part One, told from Benjy’s point of view, is the most notorious; but if anything I found certain passages of Part Two (told by Quentin the brother) more difficult. The difficulty in Benjy’s section is more around time-shifts: the action takes place over part of a day, but in reality mostly takes place in Benjy’s mind, scenes from the past which are brought back in his memory; – yet Faulkner puts in enough clues to make all this comprehensible: in particular, you can begin to gauge when a scene took place by the presence of certain secondary characters. Part two is similar in general structure, but there is much more concentration, on Quentin’s part, on the world immediately around him, and the forming of a clearer and coherent picture of the past, though again not everything is explained (and I would say, never is).

These two passage are bordering on stream-of-consciousness, but I didn’t think any of the book was told in a pure stream-of-consciousness manner: Faulkner fills in the picture a lot more than, say, Joyce; and his consideration in this respect is much appreciated; – indeed, in general I feel with Faulkner that he pushes things, but always gives the reader just enough information that he doesn’t become wholly frustrated and annoyed. The last two parts, the first told by Jason and the second for the most part merely narrated, are much easier going; and in fact, I found, much less interesting: firstly, because Jason himself is less interesting as a person, and has a much less interesting world-view; and secondly because the story has already been told; they don’t add much; – the fourth part, in particular, struck me as nothing but an unnecessary coda to the rest – though giving Faulkner a chance to return to his more baroque style, which he tragically eschews for the most part of the narrative.

I commented in my review of Flags in the Dust that that book was marred (and criticised and left unpublished) because Faulkner’s viewpoints were split into too many different narratives which didn’t really cohere; and perhaps he took this criticism on board, since The Sound and The Fury sticks with those multiple viewpoints (as do all his novels up to this point), but concentrates them now on a single narrative; – which I think is more successful, but suffers – as I feel do all such books – from in the end being measured by the worse rather than the better of those narratives.

All of which is in terms of style and structure, but there’s an awful lot of content in The Sound and The Fury too. I became intrigued after a time by the notion that Faulkner was heavily influenced in this book by Zola. (I know he was into French writing – but more poetry, I think; – the symbolists). This notion though of a family degenerating over several generations through the function of heredity is pure Zola – the Compsons are just the Lantiers – the Rougon-Macquarts; – the mother, particularly in the latter half of the book, perceives everything in the Compson (father’s) side of the family as morally evil and inherently selfish (even while defending Quentin the daughter, who is the Nana character and very much a Compson); – and this is for me the true centre of the narrator: for Faulkner portrays them as quite the opposite: Caddie is the truly loving, selfless character – as fundamentally seen in her attitude to Benjy; for it is only really Caddy who cares for Benjy; and as a consequence Benjy only really cares for Caddy; – his mother, you feel, would rather he hadn’t been born, and only ever complains about his presence; Jason – who is throughout the novel portrayed by Faulkner as utterly selfish – would have him locked away in an institution; neither Quentin’s attitudes to Benjy are ever fully established; and the father remains ever a distant, ironic figure; – but it is clear Faulkner’s sympathies remain with Caddie and the latter three, and we are to see the mother as wrong, deluded.

Ah, there’s so much more than this too.

Next up: As I Lay Dying, which was the first Faulkner I read.

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3 thoughts on “The Sound and The Fury, by William Faulkner

  1. I finally read this a month or two ago for my first brush with Faulkner in almost 30 years! I thought it lived up to the hype and was less demanding than expected with the exception of the dual Quentin thing and the occasional random passage here and there. Having read many Onettis and in particular several Saers over the last half dozen years, I felt more attuned to Faulkner’s invigorating stylistic shenanigans and melancholy ambiance than I would have when I was a relative youngster. In any event, looking forward to reading more by him and more about him from people like you in the semi-near future (thinking about Saer, might be time for some Robbe-Grillet too).

  2. Unsurprisingly I haven’t got any further with Faulkner. I’m ambivalent about As I Lay Dying; I’ve started reading it, but at some time have mislaid the book and haven’t spent much time trying to locate it again. In fact, I’m much more interested at the moment in breaking off from this chronological regime and reading the Snopes trilogy instead, which at least would be different and more akin to my blog, since I guess most people haven’t read it and haven’t much inclination to read it.

    Onetti and Saer are both writers I once enjoyed but I find I’ve struggled with of late. I tried to read Saer’s La Grande, but found it too boring (nothing happens) and that one about Washington (same); and Onetti’s No Man’s Land (I read 70 pages, but the next time I picked it up, maybe a week later, I literally could not remember one thing about it, so gave up).

  3. Sorry I have taken so long to catch up with some of your earlier posts. I do generally read your posts, though don’t often comment, as I don’t these days have much energy to get into below-the-line discussions: the advancing years are taking their toll on me, I fear! That, and my day job, that drains me of all energy but which I am not wealthy enough to retire from. But enough of that…

    Faulkner is a favourite of mine, and I do like re-reading favourites, so it’s a bit of a mystery why I haven’t re-read this one since my first reading over 30 years ago. At that age, I was enthralled by – I suppose – the novelty of it. Now that I am much older, the experiments of modernism don’t perhaps seem that remarkable, but when you’re only 18 or so, and the fiction you are accustomed to are generally 19th century novels, this seemed to me cutting-edge, and I found it thrilling. I followed it up with various other Faulkners. What I think I tried to do then was to re-arrange in my mind the various pieces of the jigsaw (presented out of sequence, with many pieces missing) into some kind of coherent picture. I tried, in effect, to imagine what this would have been like had it been a traditional novel. “The Sound and the Fury” would have been like some huge family saga – not unlike the Rougon-Macquart series you mention (I had not considered this connection before, but, now you mention it, it makes a lot of sense). It would have been good material for a blockbuster movie, or a television mini-series. Nowadays, I am not so concerned with putting the pieces in place, and trying to work out the plot: I prefer now simply to enjoy the pieces for what they are, and enjoy also the effects Faulkner gets from juxtaposing pieces that, in an ordered narrative, would not have bene placed next to each other. The whole thing may be an unmade jigsaw with missing pieces, but that, I now think, is the point: why try to re-create the entire picture in one’s mind when Faulkner himself seemed to think that not too important?

    In Faulkner, more than in any other novelist, I think, there is just that touch of madness. I like that: it appeals to me. I also like the fact that a novel entitled “The Sound and the Fury” starts, quite literally, with a tale told by an idiot. I really must revisit Faulkner…

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