The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

I read The Sound and the Fury because it’s on my unified list of 100 best novels. I haven’t come across any Faulkner previously, and the only comments I’ve had from others haven’t been positive.

It tells the story of the (disintegration of the) Compson family, relating two specific periods: a day in 1910, and three days in 1928. There are four chapters, each recounting one of those days.

The first chapter (April 7th 1928) is written from the perspective of Benjy, ‘a simpleton’, and son of the family. He has no concept of time, so this chapter is a stream (more like a babble) of consciousness. The only aid is the font switching between roman and italic at discontinuities in his babble. At first I tried hard to make sense of it, but in the end I just let it wash over me, assuming or hoping it would make sense later, as suggested in the introduction.

The second chapter (June 2nd 1910) is written from the perspective of Quentin, ‘the son who went to Harvard’, on the day he killed himself. I only know that because the introduction told me. It wasn’t clear from reading it myself, though you might guess it. This is certainly clearer than the first chapter, but there are still flips between roman and italic, and I wasn’t always entirely sure what was going on.

The third chapter (April 6th 1928) is written from the perspective of Jason, the son who stayed at home. He’s a bad egg, and has manipulated various circumstances for his financial gain, at the emotional cost of others. A lot more things became clearer with this chapter, and bleaker.

The final chapter (April 8th 1928) is written in the third person, and covers another major fracturing of the family, relating to Quentin, the daughter of Jason and Benjy’s sister.

It’s a bleak story, and I didn’t find myself interested in it, or any of the characters. I only stuck with it because it’s on my list, and I found myself watching the pages tick by. Some books have started like this, or had pages, but very few have maintained that right to the end.

I don’t usually read introductions, at least before reading the book, as they tend to be long-winded, and often give away major elements of the story. But this one (by Richard Hughes, in the Vintage Classics edition) is only two pages, and makes life a lot easier if you’ve read it first. It does reveal things, but without some of its pointers I would have been more confused, I’m sure.

One sentence from the introduction I want to comment on; he’s referring to the third and fourth chapters:

It is here this curious method is finally justified: for one finds, in a flash, that one knows all about them, that one has understood more of Benjy’s sound and fury than one had realized: the whole story becomes actual to one at a single moment.

Well, there was no flash of realisation for me, more a gradual rolling back of mist. But the mist never did entirely dissipate. Hughes also suggests that the book will reward a second and further readings. I’m sure I’d get more the second time round, but for full value I think you should roll straight back from the last page to the first, and I just didn’t want to. Life is too short – I shouldn’t have to read a book twice.

In summary, reading this was hard work, and it didn’t really feel like it paid off. Yes, Faulkner was clearly a talented writer; I just didn’t enjoy what he did with his talent on this occasion, and it won’t be on my personal list of “100 best novels”. I’m curious whether all his books are like this?

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2 Responses to The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

  1. Dear Sir,

    Yes, much of Faulkner is like this. However, I would never have suggested that anyone start with this novel, which is probably second to Absalom, Absalom! in sheer difficulty. I would say a better beginning might be either As I Lay Dying or The Unvanquished, both of which are pretty approachable.

    The Sound and the Fury is one of my absolute favorite books, but it does take time and a certain “seasoning” for the reading to make sense. It is definitely a challenge for one not used to Faulkner or Stream-of-consciousness in general. I’d say, try As I Lay Dying and then take another look at The Sound and the Fury.

    Thank you for sharing your reading experience.

    shalom,

    Steven

  2. mercuryreviews says:

    I too read this recently because it made your mostly-fantastic top 100 list. My own impression mirrors yours exactly: colorful writing, but to what purpose? I usually enjoy stream-of-consciousness, but here it feels almost schizophrenic. Thanks for your compilation of lists, it has served me well to the half-way point.

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