Monday, July 13, 2009

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

"I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

Last year, after several aborted attempts, I finally made it through Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. It took some doing, but by the time I finished it, I was really enjoying Faulkner's mastery of the stream-of-consciousness style and especially his lyrical writing. I intended to follow up with The Sound and the Fury, but then I read Chris's review and, since it sounded approximately 10x more difficult than As I Lay Dying, I wussed out... until now.

The Sound and the Fury may be Faulkner's best known and most critically acclaimed work, and also his most complex, although this is coming before I've read Absolom Absolom. It follows one family, the Compsons, over about a decade. The actual storyline is a dark southern Gothic tale of family, betrayal, incest, and a mentally retarded manchild. So it's basically Anne of Green Gables.

The actual narrative is tough to summarize, and at some points, even to follow--I found out upon reading chapter summaries that I'd completely missed a major event; the book is really more about the characters and the way thy see and interact with one another than a storyline. Each section of the book is narrated by a different character, except the last which has an omniscient third-person narrator. The first section is narrated by Benjy, the aforementioned manchild who has no sense of time or place and whose narration skips from the past to the future without warning. The second is narrated by Quentin Compson, the neurotic, intelligent younger brother, and the third by Jason Compson, the cruel, cynical eldest child who takes an iron fist control over the family after the death of the father. Tying all these disparate narrators together is the enigmatic figure of Caddie Compson. Even with three different perspectives on her, we never get a firm grasp on what she actually is. To Quentin, she represents his repressed incestuous thoughts, but also his need for security and to protect. To Benjy, she is his only steady link to the real, linear world. To Jason, she is a thankless whore whose only contribution to the family was Quentin II, her illegitimate child and the bane of Jason's existence.

The Sound and the Fury is a tough book, both narratively and thematically. The Compson family and their neuroses are fully explored and the story itself is both intense and moving, but the actual heft of the book eludes me. At a base level, it seems to be about family and what constitutes it. Benjy, for example, is a much better brother to Caddie than Jason, and Dilsey, the Compsons' slave, is more of a mother to all the children than their own biological mother. I can't help but feel there's a lot that I'm missing here. Unlike Chris, I did feel myself connected to this band of misfits, but much like Benjy, I can't quite tie it all together.

I'm not sure my review makes it clear how much I enjoyed this book, but I thought it was great, and even enjoyed the Benjy section, which a lot of readers find offputting. Faulkner is a master stylist, and it was worth reading just for that, even if I can't quite figure it all out.


Christopher said...

The Brent streak continues!

Billy Bob said...

Greatest book of all time. Well, top 10 anyway. Top 5? Top 2?
It’s been a few years so bear with me, but essentially, this is a story of loss and redemption. Other than Quentin's section the story takes place over an Easter weekend, culminating in the fourth, or Dilsey's, section on Easter Sunday; The day of redemption. Dilsey is the only redemptive character that is why she is the focus of the last section.
If you’ll recall the scene in which Caddie climbs the tree to look in the window at their dying grandmother, from below we see that Caddie’s bloomers are muddy. This is the central image of the novel. Caddie has climbed “the tree of knowledge”, wherein she has become aware of death. At this point we see that Caddie is unclean. Later, Caddie sells her honor cheaply. Quentin’s Southern ideals of honor for himself and purity for his sister are destroyed by Caddie’s promiscuity, their father’s cynicism regarding those ideals and Quentin’s inability to defend her honor. Quentin becomes lost unto death.
If there is a protagonist it is Caddie. First, she is the only one who is able to care for Benjy effectively, and then because she is the only one to rise above the death and decay of the Compson family. Unfortunately she abandons her daughter to her brother Jason, but the daughter eventually follows in her mother’s footsteps, exacts her revenge and flees.
Through it all, Dilsey perseveres, and through her perseverance, redeems.
I could go on I suppose, but I’d hate to be a bore.
This may be my favorite book, but Absalom, Absalom is probably the best book I’ve ever read.

Nihil Novum said...

Thanks for the analysis, Billy Bob. I'm definitely adding Absolom Absolom to the queue. How would you say it compares in terms of difficulty?

Billy Bob said...

Nihil Novum,

You’re welcome, though it wasn’t much of an analysis I’m afraid. As you know, there are folks who’ve made careers out of analyzing Faulkner.

Before I answer your question about Absalom, Absalom directly, please allow me to give a little background. When I read Faulkner for the first time it was in the structured environs of a Faulkner class. Having a guiding hand whilst reading Faulkner the first time ‘round is most helpful. The curriculum of the class was structured in a way that lead us through seven of Faulkner’s novels in a particular order; Absalom Absalom, The Mansion, The Hamlet, The Town, Go Down Moses, The Sound and The Fury and finally, The Reivers. I think this is extremely important because Faulkner viewed his body of work as a cohesive unit. When read in this order, even though they weren’t written in this order there is a natural timeline and progression that is achieved.

A major theme in that progression is redemption, while the overarching movement brings one from the tragic to the comedic. I believe Faulkner had this in mind even though his books were written in a completely different order. For example, as I previously mentioned The Sound and The Fury is essentially a story of redemption. It was written in 1929, seven years before Absalom, Absalom in which Quentin Compson appears as a character, though the main story is set many, many years before. So, if The Sound and The Fury hints at redemption, Absalom, Absalom sets the stage for that which needs to be redeemed.

Now to answer your question about the difficulty of Absalom as compared to The Sound and The Fury; it is more difficult and not as difficult.

Let me explain. For me Absalom was super tough initially from a simple comprehension standpoint. Again, this was my first Faulkner novel and it is technically difficult. By the time I got to The Sound and The Fury I had five Faulkner novels under my belt in a very short time. I was well adjusted by then and clipping right along, not to mention the fact I was being led by a very adept professor. Having already read As I Lay Dying and The Sound and The Fury, I think you will do well with Absalom from a technical standpoint. You’ve got the gist of Faulkner. (Note: I was taking a separate Novel class and two very reading intensive Theology and Philosophy classes that same semester and was reading between 1200 and 1500 pages per week. I immersed myself in a book and did nothing else until that book was knocked out.)

The second way in which Absalom is more difficult is from an emotional standpoint. Absalom is dark. Absalom is tragic. Absalom will make you despair. You are reading a book a week basically, which means you are going to plow through Absalom in a similar way I did; immersion style. Get ready.

I had a theory that since the Crucifixion one couldn’t really do tragedy. Shakespeare got close by simply killing everyone off, but even he always left a little glimmer of hope somewhere. Since the Greeks, I had never read anything truly tragic until I read Absalom. Absalom killed my theory. Absalom is tragedy. There is no redemption in Absalom.

So, reading Absalom in a week will be like giving birth to a hideous creature that you love despite its hideousness, because it is yours. Even if you take two weeks to read it, the effect is the same. When I finished reading this book I told my mother that it was the best book I’ve ever read. In a subsequent conversation with her and my sister, mother told sister it was my favorite book. I corrected her; it isn’t my favorite book, but it is the best book I’ve ever read.

I’ve reread Absalom twice since then and it remains the best book I’ve ever read. The Sound and The Fury after three readings is my favorite book. I think.

Get it. Read it. Just be sure you have something light to follow it up with.

Billy Bob

By the way, if you find yourself really digging Faulkner and wanting more, let me suggest you read, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country by Cleanth Brooks

Angie said...

Good for you for tackling a hard book. I've been shying away from them with my blog because I'm afraid I won't be able to write a good review afterward. But you did a great job with your review - and I enjoyed the quote that you put up.

Nihil Novum said...

Thanks Angie, always nice to hear when someone enjoys a review.

Billy Bob:
Thanks a lot for that. I wasn't aware that Absolom Absolom came before The Sound and the Fury chronologically (although I suppose, considering that it features Quentin, it would have to, right?) I'm taking a little break from Faulkner but I think I'm going to tackle Absolom Absolom in a month or so, so The Sound and the Fury will still be fresh.

What are your other contenders for greatest book, if I may ask?

Billy Bob said...

Angie's right. You did a fine job with Sound and Fury. I never could tackle Faulkner before I took a Faulkner class. I tried and failed. So, kudos to you for slugging it out.

As for other novels, here are a few I love for one reason or another:
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Ulysses & A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, James Joyce
The Iliad & The Odyssey, Homer
The Aeneid, Virgil
Crime & Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
The Moviegoer & Love In The Ruins, Walker Percy
Lord Of The Rings, JRR Tolkien
Atlas Shrugged & The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Wise Blood, Flannery O'Connor
Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
Anything by Cormac McCarthy
Light In August, Faulkner
Anything else by Faulkner

Some non fiction:
Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver
What's Wrong With The World, GK Chesterton, his fiction is good too
Leisure The Basis Of Culture, Josef Pieper
Liberty or Equality, Erik Maria Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn
St. Augustine, Confessions

I suppose I could go on, but...

What are some of your favorites?

Nihil Novum said...

We have some overlap in our lists. My favorites:

Moby Dick, Herman Melville
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
Don Quixote, Cervantes
As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
Underworld, Don DeLillo
Cloud Atlas, David Miller
The Power and the Glory, Monsignour Quixote, Graham Greene
The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

Books I've recently finished that will probably make the list:
Ulysses, James Joyce
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

I don't read a whole lot, but I love anything by C.S. Lewis.

The list never really ends though. I read relatively little that I completely dislike.

Anonymous said...

Billy Bob -- Thanks for the progression of novels. Any idea how the short stories would fit into that chronology?

-- Jason