Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

This is the Year of Faulkner for me, I guess. Faulkner is just one of the notable authors I've neglected in my reading life, but I'm catching up now. This summer I read As I Lay Dying and Soldiers' Pay, and now I've finished this one. I think I prefer Dying.

Most are familiar with the MacBeth quote that provides the title to this book, but I'll supply it here for those who aren't:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I admire the hell out of what Faulkner did with this story, but two of the reasons I couldn't really enjoy it are contained in that quote. First: the first ninety-odd pages of this tale are told by an idiot. By Benjy, the retarded man-child. Faulkner nails the character and the narration, but while I admired this accomplishment it was flat-out painful to read. The next hundred pages are narrated by Benjy's suicidally depressed brother Quentin. It's stream-of-consciousness, and easier to follow than the first section, but still doesn't feel like it goes anywhere. I really admire what Faulkner did with this section, though. In the first, he's employed a narrator who can be easily identified as an "idiot." Quentin's no dummy, though. He's a freshman at Harvard, and until his emotional troubles had been getting good grades. Quentin is more literally an idiot than Benjy is, though--at least in the classical sense. The original definition of an "idiot" is one who behaves as though he is the only being of real worth, who disregards the considerations of others and acts unilaterally in all matters. In this sense, Quentin is the true idiot.

My second problem reading this story is that the tale signifies nothing. The Compsons are the guttering candle, and they are small, petty people. This story is a masterpiece of demonstrating the shallowness and insignificance of life, but in the end you've experienced something that, by design, doesn't matter.

This really is a monumental piece of literature, worthy of study and emulation, but I don't know if I'll ever open it again. As I Lay Dying is just as impressive and it's enjoyable, to boot.

Next up: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

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