Wednesday, August 12, 2015

August's Book: The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Literature (1929 - 281 pp.)

It is funny the way location shapes our early experiences. As a child, I read plenty of Canadian fiction, but had never read another American classic until fall 2013, and had not read The Sound and the Fury until last week. As I tend to do with classics, I will refrain from being too academic in this entry considering so many others already have. Instead, I will share more personal observations, as well as anything connecting the book to the present day.

The book consists of four parts, titled with a nod to the passage of time. "April 7, 1928" is narrated by Benjy, "a man with the mind of the child" according to the back of my edition, which in 2015 parlance probably implies he has some sort of mental disability. He is mute, and never expresses a thought longer than about two lines, so Benjy's narration can never be appreciated in long form. Instead, what the reader experiences is a counterbalancing pull between a fast-reading, dialogue-heavy style that packs as many paragraphs per page as I have ever read, and a push toward having to read the section multiple times in order to properly understand it. As a reviewer on Goodreads put it, "Jumping into 'The Sound and the Fury' with no prior introduction is like driving through an impenetrable fog or into a blinding glare—you can't quite tell who is who; male or female; black or white; first, second, or third generation; relative or friend or stranger." Although I have a general anti-spoiler policy, with noted exceptions, I will spoil exactly one key detail of this book: there are two separate characters named Quentin. If you spend most of the first chapter confused about Quentin's gender, so was I. Quentin is the name of Benjy's brother, who narrates part two, and Quentin is also the name of their niece. As if to emulate the South of the period, Faulkner never employs a female narrator. I also took an inordinate amount of time figuring out who the black servants were, in large part because Benjy does not bother distinguishing them from the family members.

"June 2, 1910" is, in some ways, the book's literary pinnacle. Contrary to analyses that place Candace at the centre of the book, as intriguing as I found her character, I found Quentin (the Elder) the most compelling. His alternation between an easily followed style with excellent character description to an early example of stream of consciousness shows the reader how intelligent he is without being able to escape his emotions. A line like "The trout hung, delicate and motionless among the wavering shadows" (108) shows Faulkner's capacity, through Quentin, to evoke powerful images of the riverside in the Northeast. It feels strange that the book's first good setting description (sorry, Benjy) happens so far away from the South, which is the book's focal point. Quentin's Southern-ness is still evident, though, like when he calls a fellow Harvard student "as crotchety about his julep as an old maid". (134-135) The story of Quentin's chance encounter with a little Italian girl who does not speak English but who needs to be returned home (120-133) may be about how Quentin has been so far removed from his roots, but regardless, it is a consistent feat of Faulkner's - and Quentin's - sense of humour. The stream of consciousness scene that may or may not involve any of Quentin, Candace, and a whole bunch of water is the book's emotional high (low?) point, and gripped me the two or three reads I needed to fully grasp what was happening. (138) The most jarring part of Quentin's chapter is the end, which happens so suddenly I was surprised not to flip the page and hear from him again.

"April 6, 1928", Jason's story, presents the South's decline. So many of Benjy's memories are from happier days, and so much of Quentin's narrative is about his struggle to find himself while not even living in the South, that it is left to Jason to describe the woes that have befallen the Compson household. Jason is a miserable human being, to put it lightly, who, for example, opens his narrative by saying "Once a bitch, always a bitch, what I say" about his niece. (162) He then proceeds to threaten her with violence (166, 169), and then promptly says disheartening comments about blacks (169) and Jews (171). If the closeness of the page references alarms you, you may find it interesting to know those are only the first of them. As much as Jason's character could have been a caricature, Faulkner handles the negative stereotype of the historical Southern man very well, to the point that the reader becomes frustrated with Jason while lamenting how far the Compsons have fallen. The reader never gets a sense that Quentin would act this way, for example.

"April 8, 1928" is my least favourite chapter. This could be because it is the only chapter with a third-person omniscient narrator, meaning it lacks the personal touch any of the first three have. For whatever it is worth, it also has the least action. Other than Benjy being taken to a black church service, and Jason being his usual crazy self, not much happens, at least when compared with the mayhem of the first three chapters. That it occurs on Easter Sunday, and Jason is still so bitter, is a nice touch.

My experience with The Sound and the Fury was a good one. I loved Benjy's chapter as I read it, later resented that it was presented first rather than having Jason explain the family's situation from the start, but then came to appreciate the chapter order again. That the reader never gets to experience a chapter set in the South during the happier times (very late 1800s) without having to navigate Benjy's frustrating narrative style adds to the feeling of loss. The Compsons apparently once had a thriving property built around a farm. The reader's only guesses at that property are from characters speaking either incoherently or in the past tense. Perhaps most sadly in a book all about sadness, it is not so much the feeling of the Compsons' losses that permeates the reader so much as how buried in history their victories are.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 5

NOTE: Here is a PDF of Faulkner's appendix, written in 1945. It is useful for seeing some of Faulkner's opinions of his own characters along with a few historical notes on the family. Oddly, I like Quentin more than Jason, whereas Faulkner's words are both lengthier for Jason and generally more positive.

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