The Sound and the Fury. William Faulkner.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. Cape, London, 1929. F;8/19.

My favourite course as an English lit major in university was American fiction. We had a wonderful professor and read and wrote essays on many terrific novels, Melville, Hawthorne, Dreiser, but also Nabokov, Mailer, and Updike. But we never dipped into William Faulkner for some reason. This most-admired of his novels is certainly difficult. Finnegan’s Wake it isn’t, quite. Most of it is conventionally coherent. It’s just that you have to get through that first third that represents the world of a deteriorating southern family seen through the eyes of a mentally retarded man at various times in his life.

Somehow I guess the most creative people in the first half of the 20th century were – what – hiding? Musicians, painters, architects, and writers couldn’t continue to pretend, after the Great War, that life and its art made a whole lot of sense, and so produced sort of not-real things. You couldn’t just make a magnificent statement, you had to represent it as an absurd theatre, a stream of consciousness, atonal music, or non-representational painting. So to start things off we get 33-year-old Benjy reflecting at various and unclear times in his life on his childish impressions:

hands can see cooling fingers invisible swan-throat where less than Moses rod the glass touch tentative not to drumming lean cool throat drumming cooling the metal the glass full overfull cooling the glass the fingers flushing sleep leaving the taste of dampened sleep in the long silence of the throat…

The story’s plot is infamously difficult to summarize. The Compson family crumbles and collapses, the events of which are roughly outlined in chapters named after dates in the year 1928 but focusing on the three boys (Benjy, Quentin, and Jason), and a fourth chapter with Faulkner as narrator but focusing on black servant Dilsey. Quentin commits suicide as a student at Harvard University, survivor Jason is an old-fashioned authoritarian, and daughter Caddy and her daughter feature prominently in all chapters. There is financial intrigue, sexual promiscuity with its old-South consequences, car chases (!), and somehow through it all a gathering-together of emotion that doesn’t require a Mississippi 1930s sensibility to appreciate.

The novel, especially the first chapter, has been subjected to systematic concordance analysis approximately on the scale of the Holy Bible. I drifted a casual observer well above such detail. Did I like it? Not in the thriller or even post-modern charm sense, but even to my understanding it reflected human ambiguity and ambivalence deeply and accurately and left me impressed, beyond the way I might be if I saw in person the Queen or Oprah Winfrey.

Not for everyone. 9.3 (?)/9.4

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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