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.