The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

What is the magic of these words that some 85 years on they still draw us with such poignancy and verve?


Photo credit: Manhattan Rare Book Company

 

“He would be
sort of grand too, pulling in lonely state across the noon, rowing himself
right out of noon, up the long bright air like an apotheosis, mounting into a
drowsing infinity where only he and the gull, the one terrifically motionless,
the other in a steady and measured pull and recover that partook of inertia
itself, the world punily beneath their shadows on the sun. Caddy that blackguard that blackguard Caddy”

“Once a bitch
always a bitch, what I say. I says you’re lucky if her playing out of school is
all that worries you. I says she ought to be down there in that kitchen right
now, instead of up there in her room, gobbing paint on her face…”

 

What is the magic of these words that some 85 years on they still draw us with such poignancy and verve? From Quentin’s neurotic reveries at Harvard as he prepares his exit from the burden of time, to Benjy’s mute witness to the family’s decay, to Caddy’s self-destruction and to Jason’s bitter despair, Faulkner’s writing is unfailingly poetic, intimate and humane. Only an author of his talent could so empathetically capture the inner feelings of characters as disparate as the embittered Jason, the neurotic Quentin, their hypochondriac mother and dipsomaniac father, the self-destructive Caddy. Only an author of his talent could use the word “apotheosis” as slickly (and as frequently) as popping mints, and as readily string gut-wrenching sentences longer than paragraphs, entirely without punctuation. And those signature negatives: unregenerate, unrepentant, unyielding, insentient and intransigent! In the end, what makes it all work is Faulkner’s concept of literature’s goal as portraying the human heart in conflict with itself. That credo is what unifies the two quotations above, the first being Quentin’s jealous rumination over smooth Southern scion Gerald Bland, the second being the opening of Jason’s quick-paced diatribe against his niece (the other Quentin). Two such disparate hearts, yet each portrayed so emotively.

The Sound and the Fury is a classic tale of faded grandeur, where you can empathize with the gentry, whose egos deflate faster than soufflés. You can sense the false burden of accomplished ancestors (generals on horses) and taste the bitterness of the abject failure of their heirs (store clerks).There is compassion, but you will only find it in the hearts of downtrodden servants and failed whites: Caddy consoling her brother, Quentin, and caring for Benjy, the idiot; Dilsey, the stalwart, caring, archetypical mammy, weeping, “I seed de beginning, en now I sees de endin.”

What did Faulkner think of The Sound and the Fury? “It was the one that—that I anguished the most over, that I worked the hardest at… Like the parent feels toward the—the unfortunate child maybe. The others… I don’t have the feeling toward any of them that I do toward that one because that was the —the most gallant, the most magnificent failure.”

Lucky us to only experience the magnificence!

Andrew Imbrie Dayton co-authored The House That War Minister Built(Octavio Books, September 2011) with his wife, Elahe Talieh Dayton, and is a contributing editor for The Washington Independent Review of Books.


 

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