The Review: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)

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Title: The Sound and the Fury (TSATF)
Author: William Faulkner
Date Of Version Reviewed: 1995
Publisher: Vintage
RRP: £8.99
ISBN: 978-0-099-47501-9

What the book is about…

Depicting the gradual disintegration of the Compson family through four fractured narratives, The Sound and the Fury explores intense, passionate family relationships where there is no love, only self-centredness. At its heart this is a novel about lovelessness – ‘Only an idiot has no grief; only a fool would forget it. What else is there in this world sharp enough to stick in your guts?

Waking from a dream one tends to catch only snippets from our sleeping, internal world. We grasp onto a face, a place, a time, something that we desire or hate or fear. These can be terrifying, exhilarating… peculiar. Imagination is augmented by snatches of reality, a conversation that we had that day, a situation which we took only a fleeting interest before it passed us by. How do we know what is real and what is imagined? TSATF combines several narratives, often with contradictory or fragmented viewpoints into a startlingly challenging novel.

TSATF is a beast of a novel; a shape shifting, kaleidoscope of a tale expertly weaved together by the divisive Faulkner who – depending who you ask – is either a literary genius or an extremely over-rated teller of tales. The first part of the novel comes through the eyes of Benji – a intellectually challenged man of 30 something. Many readers get stuck and give up during this first section as Faulkner’s exploration of time is not linear, bouncing backward and forward between the present and the past. The mind boggles at the whole process and the natural urge is to resist the time lapses, snapshots (often of seconds) in the mind of Benji and the apparent lack of sense which is evoked. I personally found the novel hard work and it was only by placing aside my rigid beliefs about what ‘should’ be – a story that has a beginning, middle and end in a logical structure – and enjoy the ride. Each paragraph is created with care, the only way to appreciate the genius of the work is to ride the wave and read each paragraph (or even line) as something that just ‘is’ without judgement.

As the story unfolds the fog begins to clear in the mind of the reader; we begin to experience a clarity about the events depicted in the earlier sections and understand how each character relates to one another. Faulkner is a master of creating character and the most loved of all is Benji. The novel is a heart-wrenching account of sadness, loneliness and self-centred hopelessness which provokes the paternal/maternal instincts in the reader to protect the vulnerable protagonist from life’s trials. At every turn Benji wails, his mother sobs and Jason becomes an increasingly unpleasant and uncaring leader within the household. Mrs Compson personifies the ultimate in self-centredness; complete with feelings of being ‘unwell’ that border on munchausens syndrome. There are few pages between her cries of needing to rest for feeling so overwhelmed by her family and her over-reliance on that same family for support is nauseating.

The novel does have it all… suicide, misogyny, racism, threats of violence and selfishness… not what you could call uplifting novel of the century. Written in 1929 and set in the American south it is difficult to understand the context in which the novel was created. That said Faulkner captures the social taboos of sexuality, promiscuity and race beautifully though the tone of the novel may strike some readers as being deeply bigoted. One can only assume that the thoughts and experiences demonstrated in the novel are not the inner beliefs of Faulkner himself but an exaggerated version of life in the decades preceding its creation. One has to remember that more than 60 per cent of Americans lived just below the poverty line in the 1920s. Life was particularly hard for African-Americans in the Deep South states where the majority of black people endured a combination of poverty and racism. Although some women were able to enjoy more independence and wear the latest fashions, the reality was that most women were poorly paid and were employed in roles such as cleaners or waitresses.

Final Thought: This is a tremendous piece of work by one of the great writers in American literature. It is, however, a hard read. My advice would be to take this challenge with the knowledge that you will be rewarded for the effort in spades. Place aside your beliefs about how novels ‘should’ be written; abandon all ideals about linear time and immerse yourself in a weird, fractured world where confusion is king.

What folks at Goodreads said…

“Deciphering TSTF is like reassembling a shattered mirror; difficult, and likely to end in pain.” Ryan 2/5

“This is a book made for rereading; an American masterpiece, undoubtedly.” Bram  5/5

“I couldn’t finish this book. It has to be the most painful and pointless book I have read since The Sun Also Rises.” Jim  1/5

“It’s one of the most difficult books to read, but if you do your patience will be rewarded and Faulkner’s hero will be forever in your mind.” Kostas Kinas  5/5

“I pat myself on the back that I did finish this book, even if I needed the Cliff Notes crutch. If you are a fan of Southern Gothic, a uniquely American twist on the gothic genre, in which the decaying manse on the moor is replaced by the decaying southern mansion, but the same elements of insanity and breakdown within family. If that is your thing, you should read this book, and maybe you will understand it better than I did.”  Danielle The Book Huntress  3/5

“I loved this book. I found the Benjy section the most profoundly heartbreaking. Faulkners ability to tell this story through the minds thoughts of a severely mentally challenged man is so amazingly accurate, heartbreaking, insightful and poignant.” Karen  5/5

“This William Faulkner novel was highly experimental in its time and still has a reputation for confounding readers. If you’ve already read it—or at least attempted to—the idea of putting it on a perennial reread list might sound slightly masochistic. I had tried to read it several times before over a course of years and, as near as I can recall, never really made it past the first chapter.” Mark 4/5

“This is a mesmerizing display of authorship.”  Brad 4/5

“One of the most important works of American literature this century’  Observer 

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