Tuesday, 25 August 1998

William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury (1929)

Edition: Chatto & Windus

The Sound and the Fury must rank as one of the most cleverly written novels of all time. It is a stream of consciousness narrative, divided into four points each narrated from a different viewpoint. The plot concerns the decline and decay of a decadent family from the US South during the first half of this century. The cleverness lies in the way in which Faulkner manages to convince the reader that they are getting completely under the skin of each of the narrators in the first three parts (the final section is more of an epilogue, sketching in the conclusion of the plot). Three of the parts, the first, third and fourth, tell of three successive days in 1928, the second part is a flashback to 1910.

The first part is the greatest tour de force, being convincingly told from the point of view of a mentally handicapped young man named Benjy, who has no understanding of the events going on around him and a complete inability to comprehend chronology; all times are to him "now", as past events impinge on his present awareness. He haunts the local golf course, hoping to hear calls to a caddy, his vanished sister's family nickname having been Caddie (as we learn later). Faulkner thoughtfully marks transitions from one time to another by alternating normal and italic typefaces, a device without which it would be impossible to gater any idea of what is going on, as changes occur even in the middle of sentences as recollections occur to Benjy.

The narrator of the second part is Benjy's brother Quentin, telling the story of the day on which he commits suicide. Caddie's departure and his suicide have the same cause, we learn: an incestuous affair which leaves Quentin racked with guilt and Caddie pregnant.

The third part is narrated by another brother, Jason, telling of Caddie's attempts to get to meet her incestuous daughter, brought up by the family from which Caddie has been strenuously excluded. (The fact that the daughter is also named Quentin clears up confusion left over from the first part, where Benjy does not differentiate between father and daughter except to use masculine and feminine pronouns.) While not as overtly clever as the first two parts, Jason's miserly nature and hypocrisy - though of a different kind to that of the rest of the family - is skilfully brought out. This third part leads up to Quentin running away from home, taking her uncle's savings with her.

The corruption of this family is accompanied by a kind of Greek chorus of their coloured servants, who of course are never able to openly criticise despite their own comparative moral purity. The small town Southern atmosphere also comes across very clearly. All in all, this is a twentieth century classic, not surprisingly compared to Ulysses by the comments printed on the jacket and in the introduction to this edition.

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