The Sound and Fury
William Faulkner (1897-1962), the author of a dozen novels, countless short stories, a few screenplays and some poetry, received multiple Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959, is best known for The Sound and Fury (S&F). He is considered a giant in American literature, along with Hemingway, Steinbeck, Twain, (and Dreiser to my tastes) et al, and he is noted for advancing the dubious stream of consciousness techniques of Henry James and Virginia Wolfe, in which he wrote in long, complex, confusing sentences, devoid of punctuation, capitals, replete with spelling errors, meaningless random use of italics, extensive use of quotations of the lowest class vernacular, all in sometimes incomprehensible passages, as a simulation of the thought patterns of the human mind. As such, “great prose”, in this reader’s classically-oriented view, S&F clearly cannot be; however, as an introspective view of a decadent Southern family in the post-Civil War era of Mississippi, it is, at some level, edifying and interesting.
The characters, however grippingly real, are dysfunctional and foredoomed to abject failure. Tolstoy may have been right when he said “Happy families don’t make interesting subjects,” recalling the First Rule of Journalism: “Bad news is good news and good news is no news.” While this reader appreciates the merit of those statements, he does not wholeheartedly agree. To paint “reality” in prose, life’s tragedies cannot be ignored, but to dwell solely on those negatives is neither an accurate nor is it helpful to mankind. All is rarely bad in anyone’s life, and our happiness remains, for the most part, a decision we make – although this is not the case for patent imbeciles, such as Faulkner’s “Benjy” in S&F. Faulkner permits us only a lugubrious view of life. There is, sadly, a ponderous, crushing sense of hopelessness, a level of existentialism that leaves us, well, despondent and defeated. The very title of S&F stems from Hamlet:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
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,
Sadly, Faulkner was no Shakespeare. Shakespeare gave us the most beautiful English ever penned, while Faulkner emasculated, brutalized and trivialized it. While I subscribe to many aspects of existentialism, humanism and naturalism, there remains much joy to be found and savored, IF we will work for it, search for it and recognize it when we find it. Even the lovely malaise of the titanic 20th Century poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, put her despair in a more hopeful light:
“My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night,
But oh my foes and ah my friends,
It makes a lovely light.”
I shall not here burden these truncated notes re S&F with a synopsis of the plot(s) and the monumental maladjustments of the dysfunctional Compson family, that is the subject of this now much heralded “masterpiece”, nor shall I delve further into its themes of abysmal melancholy or the black-hole abysses into which the family devolves.
Upon receipt of his Nobel Prize for Literature, Faulkner allegedly commented that unless writers write the “truth”, their prose is meaningless. Sadly, his “truth” was a borderline suicidal despair. Had he cloaked his “truth” in beautiful Dickenesque prose, it might have been tolerable, but his prose is disjointed rigmarole, common, tedious and pathetic, and his theme is failure and defeatism. We know that such insoluble conditions abound on this planet, but what can we do about them? Suffice it to say that, the question or hurdle that faces the reader of Faulkner must be, “Are his tales of despair and woe sufficiently educational or thought provoking to justify the discomfort of reading him?” Unfortunately, for this reader, the answer is in the negative. Life is simply too short, especially what’s left of mine.