Friday, July 1, 2022

Summer of Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury

I just finished watching the third season of My Brilliant Friend, the HBO series adapted from the Elena Ferrante novels. In this season, the main character—also an author named Elena—has written about how women are fashioned by men (her "book" is only 70 pages and she’s not sure what it is but of course her publisher will take it!). It’s a feminism manifesto of sorts, about how women were formed to be like men and yet, are required to live by men’s definitions and requirements (this is a simplification).

But wait. You’re thinking: I thought you were reading Faulkner. I am! I’ve finished the first novel on my list, The Sound and the Fury, the story of an aristocratic, Southern family’s attempts to retain their (supposedly) unvarnished legacy, steeped in the moral and cultural ideals of the time. But Faulkner was no optimist, and so they fail, and the story is one of loss; over time, the family falls from grace. And in writing terms, the “inciting incident” for this widespread tragedy is a localized one—the downfall of the family’s only daughter, Caddy.  

When people think of Faulkner, they think of alternating points of view and jumps in time that have no signal and often seem to make no sense. This book has all of that! The novel employs three, first-person perspectives, those of the three Compson brothers: Benjy, Quentin, and Jason, and a third-person POV which focuses on the perspective of Dilsey, the household cook and stand-in mother for the brothers and Caddy. And it occurs to me that the restraints and expectations felt by Caddy in the South during the first quarter of the twentieth century were probably not unlike the gender expectations at the half-mark of the same century and beyond in Naples, Italy.

Much is often made of Faulkner’s characterization of Benjy, the “idiot” of the family, a thirty-three-year-old man who must be supervised around-the-clock because of the severity of his condition. Endless scholarship has examined possible diagnoses for Benjy (modern consensus is probably severe autism), but everyone believes him to be entirely unable to process information (he is not), and some even think he’s deaf—in terms of a writing device, it makes for an interesting POV that is almost omniscient in the sense that no one takes him as a witness of any sort.

And the way Faulkner has expressed Benjy’s voice is, of course, provocative, but each point of view is uniquely drawn and remarkable in its own way, and the sun holding these planetary points of view in its gravity is Caddy, always Caddy. Each brother takes a particular interest in her, according to the image of her he has constructed (and this is where Elena's writings come in)—whether it be nurturer, idealized womanhood, protected charge, or something else. The Compson parents are mostly absent—the father’s an alcoholic, the mother is selfish and often takes to her bed, leaving the children to Dilsey’s supervision. As the oldest, Quentin assumes responsibility for the family, especially for upholding honor where his sister is concerned, Jason is not well-liked and is simmering pot of bitterness, and Benjy, as mentioned, has the capacity of a toddler and imprints like a duckling after his sister. And when Caddy begins to behave promiscuously and eventually becomes pregnant, the cogs are set in motion for each to meet his demise in one way or another.

The novel’s about the southern states, of course, and what some saw as the deterioration of the upper class after the Civil War. The choices available to the brothers were perhaps those Faulkner felt were his: go away to an eastern school, stay on the land enmeshed in the noble tradition of farming, or retreat into an idiotic ignorance of the situation. Having read the Faulkner biography before this novel, I couldn’t help but draw lines from Faulkner’s parents to the elder Compsons, and from Faulkner himself to the frustrations and convoluted messaging about morals embedded in the behavior of the Compson siblings. Like Caddy, Faulkner suffered a series of thwarted relationships and engaged in sexual misconduct. And in the repetition of process that occurs when Caddy’s daughter grows up to be rebellious, discontent, and primed to repeat the tragic, downward trajectory of her ancestors, one can sense the general dissatisfaction and expected doom that started Faulkner on the road to severe alcoholism at the tender age of fourteen.

Does the book sound depressing? I suppose in some ways, it is. But where the tragedy of the Compson family grows heavy, The Sound and the Fury is lifted, almost a century after its first printing, by the genius of William Faulkner’s vision and execution. I didn’t find it difficult to follow what was happening—at least, not nearly as much as when first read it. The changes in point of view are inspired, each in its own way, and the whole thing engages you along the ride, even if it’s downhill. It’s an amazing work of fiction, and a great start to my summer reading.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka