Friday 1 May 2009

'blood always tells'

The Sound And The Fury
by William Faulkner

Knowing that a book on my TBR pile was heavily influenced by Faulkner's 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury, I thought it best to get my groundwork in first. My previous experience of Faulkner is limited to just the one novel, Light in August, which is of course brilliant; a richly detailed and complex novel which vividly conjured both an era and a place for me and dealt with the issue of race in an almost fearless manner. My ignorance was total in regard to this earlier novel which meant that I found myself quickly baffled by the opening pages which are notoriously (I now understand) tough, written in a stream of consciousness style and narrated from the point of view of Benjy Compson a thirty three year old man suffering from some form of mental retardation. Some sections are italicised, the change signifying a shift in time (though not necessarily confined to the section in that style) and I'll be honest and say that for the most part I could make neither head nor tail of it. The novel's title comes from Mac- ahem, the Scottish Play

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

For the first 60 pages or so this was a tale not only told by an idiot but being read by one too.

I needed some help, just to get a handle on things, so I admit I had a quick scan of Wiki and thank god I did. No wonder I was confused. Not only was I contending with a fractured narrative, multiple narrators, stream of consciousness and time jumps but there were two characters with the same name (and not even the same sex!) and the narrator of the first section (remember our friend Benjy?) is also known by an entirely different name which he shares with his uncle!

(deep breath)

So, bolstered now by some basic knowledge I felt better equipped to continue (not that it makes it any easier for me to give any kind of general synopsis however). The four sections deal with the fall of the Compson family, focusing for the most part on an Easter weekend in 1928, although of course the family's story lies very much in the events that have brought us up to this date. After Benjy we hear from his brother Quentin, a Harvard student who commits suicide. Faulkner really lets fly with the stream of consciousness in this section, illustrating the unravelling mental state of Quentin as he struggles to deal with the 'loss' of his sister Caddy. As the pages flow by the punctuation slowly disappears, the dream-like state becomes all pervasive, the novice reader who thought he'd found his footing is briefly tempted to throw himself into the Charles River along with the narrator before revelling in the stylistic achievement. Quentin's relationship with Caddy is wonderfully complex. There are hints towards incest, which I think are false, merely an attempt by him to implicate himself in sin with her so that he might rescue her from dealing with the fallout from her real sin (falling pregnant). The unreliability of the narrator is so marked in this section and yet so unimportant because the truth of what he says lies not in whether or not it happened as he tells it, but that what he describes is the absolute truth of his thoughts and feelings.

Back in 1928, the third section is narrrated by Jason Compson, the son Mrs Compson feels is most closely related to her maiden family of Bascombe, and a thoroughly repellant bully he is too. This is perhaps the most conventional section of the book; linear in structure, domestic in outlook, helpful in narrative terms and in fleshing out the wider family story. As their fortunes have dwindled so Jason's avarice has increased, and with it his bitterness and rancour. He has his sights set firmly on Quentin (no, not his deceased brother but the daughter of his disgraced sister) and the relish with which he exerts control over her life is sickening, like watching a smirking child pull the legs off a fly.

Finally on Easter Sunday we have the third person narrator, this section focusing on Dilsey, the black maid who has remained a constant in the family's recent history, and almost immediately Faulkner shows in a single sentence what he is capable of; showing us this woman.

She had been a big woman once but now her skeleton rose, draped loosely in unpadded skin that tightened again upon a paunch almost dropsical, as though muscle and tissue had been courage or fortitude which the days or the years had consumed until only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts, and above that the collapsed face that gave the impression of the bones themselves being outside the flesh, lifted into the driving day with an expression at once fatalistic and of a child's astonished disappointment, until she turned and entered the house again and closed the door.

When Dilsey makes her way to church we see the faith, the support, the family that the Compson's could only dream of. The nobility still contained within the eroded body that Faulkner so clearly illustrates above is still considerably more than that which resides within the entire family of her once noble employers. A book which is so clearly dominated by its literary style requires at least a second or a third reading before yielding anything close to its true content. I suspect that it says far more about 'the South' than it seems to at the moment and that those opening 60 pages are ripe with meaning and information, but that will have to wait until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...


Trevor 2 May 2009 at 02:02  

What book is in your TBR pile? I read Lark and Termite earlier this year and found several connections.

William Rycroft 2 May 2009 at 12:26  

Spot on Trevor. I'm reading it on your recommendation so no pressure!

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