Sunday, 1 July 2012

Book of the Month: The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner)

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner’s fourth novel, is considered by many to be his finest work. When Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize of literature in 1949, The Sound and the Fury was mentioned in glorious terms. This was apparently Faulkner’s favourite novel; he described it as his ‘most splendid failure’: the novel depicts the decline of the once aristocratic Compson family. In 1945, sixteen years after the novel was first published, Faulkner wrote an “Appendix” titled ‘Compson1699-1945’, describing the family’s aristocratic past, and update on some or more of the characters described in the novel. Over the years The Sound and the Fury has attracted an abundance of critical response. Vastly varied views on and interpretations of the novel exist. Books have been written on how to read and interpret the book. 

It would be fair to say that The Sound and the Fury is an important piece of twentieth century literary fiction. ‘Modern Library’ included the book at the sixth position when it announced its critical list of hundred novels of twentieth century.

The Sound and the Fury is a difficult read, primary because of deliberate obscurity of the form in the first two sections of the novel. The novel is written in four sections. The first section is the present: an April day in 1928, narrated from the point of view of one of the Compson brothers, Benjy, who has, in the politically correct parlance, a learning disability. The second section is set in 1910 and describes, what is revealed (in an indirect reference) much later in the book, to be the last day in the life of another Compson boy: Quentin. In the third and fourth sections we are back in April 1928: the third section is narrated by yet another Compson brother, Jason, while the fourth and the last section does not have a narrator from within the characters in the novel—it is told by the omniscient, invisible writer himself.

Benjy’s narrative is associative, and remarkable for the total lack of chronology of events described in the section, presumably to highlight the point that Benjy is several sandwiches short of a picnic. Benjy merely records the conversations and reactions of his family, unable to provide any deeper insights. Thus, while individual sentences, or even paragraphs, make syntactical and grammatical sense, the reader, certainly the first time reader, struggles to make sense of the narrative from the time perspective. The sheer number of characters that appear in this section, some of whom have the same name, further compounds the reader’s difficulties. What stands out, though, in this jumble, is Benjy’s animal-like devotion to his sister, Caddy. The author does offer some help by changing from Roman to Italic type when there is a change in time; however the general picture that emerges is utterly confusing. It is probably a prosaic point, but if the reader is expected to believe that Benjy’s learning disability is so severe that he is incapable of leading independent existence (he cannot even speak), the reader might wonder if he is capable of any kind of inner, mental life.

Things do not get any easier for the reader in the second section. Quentin, the narrator, is far more cerebral than the intellectually challenged Benjy. However, his recollections and reminiscences of the past, which seem to centre almost completely on their sister, Caddy—and the incestual passions she arouses, unwittingly, in Quentin’s mind as she grows up, engendering guilt—, are so fragmentary as to make them almost incomprehensible. There are long anacoluthic paragraphs, without any punctuation. There is an especially long stretch, a conversation, in Quentin’s head, between him and his father, at the end of the section, where his father (in the imaginary conversation going on in Quentin’s head) indicates that he (i.e. the father) might have committed incest with Caddy, which is almost impossible to read. As in the first section the author provides some help by changing from Roman to Italic type when there is a change in time, but such is the odd juxtaposition of words and sentences—at times the words in italics (Quentin’s reminiscences) come in the middle of sentences in Roman (dealing with present)—that this section, if anything, is more difficult to read than the first section. I guess the author, through these experimentations of structure and form is trying to convey the disintegration of Quentin’s mind.

The third and the fourth sections have linear narratives, and, it is in these sections the fog created in the first two sections begins to lift. In the third section we learn that Jason, the youngest of the Compson siblings, is now the head of what was once a great Southern family, in its declining years; that Quentin committed suicide in 1910; that the children’s father drank himself to death two years after Quentin’s death; that their mother, an old woman, now, is a cantankerous hypochondriac; that Caddy had an affair with a local boy and got pregnant prior to her marriage to a wealthy businessman, who, upon realizing that she was carrying someone else’s child, left her; that Caddy is ostracized by the family, although her daughter, also named Quentin, is staying with the family. Jason is a bitter, sardonic man who blames Caddy for ruining his job prospects (the wealthy ex-brother-in-law reneges on his promise of arranging a big job for Jason when he divorces Caddy), and does not get on with his niece. Jason’s section is a pleasure to read, not least because of the droll style of narration and black humour.

The fourth and the last section, sometimes called as Dilsey’s section because of the prominence given to the black servant of the family, Dilsey, is a third person narrative, in which the decline of the family, the ungratefulness of senior Mrs Compson towards Dilsey who has served the family faithfully over the years, and the moral turpitude of Jason (he is stealing the money Caddy sends for her daughter, to him—it is not explained where Caddy lives and what she does that enables her to send large sums of money on a regular basis—which is a bit strange, as Caddy, as she makes it clear in the earlier section, does not really trust Jason) is described vividly. Faulkner’s narrative prose is simply brilliant for its brevity; it is amazing how he can convey so much in so few sentences. Towards the end, Jason is hot on the trails of Quentin who has stolen his money (actually her money, as it was sent for her by her mother) and run away with a performer in the show. The novel ends with Luster, the black servant (most probably Dilsey’s son, although the relationship has not been made explicitly clear) taking Benjy to the graveyard (where Quentin, Benjy’s brother, and their father lay buried), and Jason arriving (having given up the futile chase of Quentin, his niece) there at the same time. But Luster goes past a Confederate soldier on the “wrong” side, which causes Benjy to start crying. Jason approaches, hits Luster, and tells him to take Benjy home. The novel ends with the words: “[Benjy’s] broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.”

The title of the novel is taken from Macbeth’s soliloquy in act 5, scene 5, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The title, I think, is ironical: the last two sections of the novel are supposed to bring together the formless, positionless (and even timeless) shapes of earlier two sections. As the fog rolls away, and the pace of the story quickens, the reader is supposed to understand and realize more of Benjy’s ‘Sound and Fury’, and appreciate what it signifies.

Obscurity in art, in my view, is justified when it is the only method possible of saying in full what the author has to say. It shouldn’t be that the hapless reader drills through long, arduous mountains of passages, only to find a mouse. Whether this is the case with Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury the reader will have to find out for himself.