Task: Read an Oprah Book Club selection.
I hate to admit this, but I don’t think I had read anything by Faulkner outside of a “A Rose for Emily” in my tenth grade English class. I often think back to the course descriptions in the Carleton catalog, particularly the entry for the class on Southern Gothic literature, and I want to go back in time and shake my former self until past me registered for that one.
I’m still totally shocked with myself for not taking that class.
The truth is that I haven’t read a whole lot out of one of the nastiest, lushest, most exciting (to me) bodies of regional American literature. I wish I’d read The Sound and the Fury at Carleton with that particular prof, who I loved (why didn’t I take that damn class???), but that opportunity is gone.
Anyway, some fifteen years later, I’m actively trying to rectify this gaping hole in my literary knowledge, and so I tackled The Sound and the Fury for this task. I did it like a good English major, too, by buying a used Norton Critical Edition and diving in, note-taking pen in hand.
It became clear rather quickly that I was in over my head with the Benjy section. I dutifully looked at every word on each page but felt completely lost. I didn’t want a repeat of Cane from last year, though, so I started over, forcing myself to read slowly. The second time through, it started making a murky kind of sense. I figured out how to orient myself in Benjy’s memories by finding his caregiver, which was as good an anchor as Faulkner’s original idea of color coding the thing (that link also includes a quote from Faulkner describing S&F as “a real son of a bitch”). I got the general gist of the narrative. Or so I thought, until I read a Spark Notes-style summary upon finishing. “Wait, he got castrated? How in the hell did I miss that?”
I pushed through, though, encouraged by the Quentin section’s opening in which Quentin reveals a preoccupation with nice, linear, ticking CLOCKS. I figured I was in for a much more measured chronology. Ha. Haha. Hahahahaha. Again, I felt like I was drowning, briefly getting my head above the water during the oddly straight-forward scene where the little Italian girl starts following him around.
I was so exhausted after observing every typographical mark in the Quentin section without putting very much of it together that I put it down for about a month before gathering the fortitude to make another attempt. I started at the beginning, again, determined not to miss Benjy’s castration. This was also the round in which I figured out that the people “knocking balls” in his pasture were playing golf and yelling “caddie,” which was what was upsetting Benjy. Yes, this much I should have been able to graso the first time around.
During my third attempt, I also started listening to the really wonderful lectures at the Open Yale site, which helped quite a bit. I felt much more oriented in the text and in a much better position to appreciate it.
And I really did. I’m worried that everyone around me has had to listen about how I read The Sound and the Fury this year, because I’m so proud of myself for making it all the way through and for getting something out of it. Once I got the hang of reading it and some inspiration from Dr. Dimock, I felt like I could start to glimpse the shadowy meanings in between all the narrative threads. I still have a lot of lingering frustrations with the novel, mostly involving Faulkner’s decision not to give us a glimpse of Dilsey’s internal life, but even those are connected with literary questions that are fun to wrestle with.
I also felt off about Jason’s redemptive moment at the very end, simply because Jason was such a deeply repulsive character who reminded me quite a bit of current national politics. But I don’t know if it was truly a redemptive moment or an acknowledgement that the Compsons’ inability to change was the reason for their family’s epic collapse. Benjy can only drive around the statue (of a Confederate soldier no less) in a certain direction without going into a full throated fit. I want to think that Faulkner’s point was that anyone clinging to the Old South as understood by the Compsons had no place in the future, whereas tomorrow belongs to Dilsey and maybe Caddy too.
I feel a bit ridiculous writing a post about The Sound and the Fury, when it feels like I should have turned in a ten-pager that I really struggled to write and which I would have felt happy to have received a B+/A- on. But I am glad I applied myself a bit here. It felt good for my brain and good for my soul to get my drawers so thoroughly muddy in a book.
An inevitable five out of five twilit honeysuckle blossoms.