James Gault reviews The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
We all know the great names of early twentieth century American Literature : Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway. But William Faulkner doesn’t spring to mind so readily. Having just read ‘The Sound and The Fury’, I think I know why. His writing is virtually incomprehensible.
Reading this novel, I felt stupid and angry at the same time. I imagined Faulkner sitting there, all those years ago, thinking with awesome prescience that in ninety years’ time some poor Scottish guy would be sitting there trying to take sense of his scribblings. I pictured his thoughts: ‘How can I make this as unintelligible as possible for the poor fellow? I know, I’ll write most of it in the obscure and impenetrable dialect of the Deep Southern United States.’ Then, realising that Hollywood might make this patois too accessible in the future, he decided to also employ the ‘stream of consciousness’ method of narration: random thoughts thrown on to the paper in any order. But, thinking perhaps back to Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and forward to Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, he decided even this wasn’t enough to ensure the obscurity of his meaning. So he added the ‘coup de grace’, the frequent and unannounced movements in time, often in the middle of sentences. Job Done! Try and make sense of that, old boy! I couldn’t.
As much as I could tell, it’s a sad story of a family on whom fortune has decided to frown. A hypochondriac mother; an alcoholic father, a severely mentally retarded son; another son for whom the family jewels were sold to pay for a Harvard education, for which he thanked his parents by committing suicide before even finishing college; a promiscuous daughter, rejected by her husband for bearing a child by another man; the resulting granddaughter following in the footsteps of her mother; another son, Jason, a habitual and resentful loser being taken to the cleaners by stockbrokers and his niece. Three generations in dire need of some ‘lucky white heather’, as we say in Scotland.
It’s not as if Faulkner is an untalented writer. His depiction of the Southern USA speech patterns is masterly. His ability to create characters using only what they say is outstanding. The mother’s moral blackmail with her repeated insistence that she wouldn’t be a trouble to them for much longer; Mrs Bland, the doting mother of a spoilt college brat; the son Jason’s hatred for the sister and niece who robbed him of his ‘chance’: all brilliant portrayals. And when he abandons pretentious literary tricks towards the end of the book, it all comes together really nicely into something quite engrossing and readable. But too late, too late!
So there it is. Great literature it must be (Faulkner won every major literary prize). But readers, be warned, it’s a challenge. This is a book to be read for academic enlightenment rather than instant gratification
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