And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
June 11, 2004 7:27 AM   Subscribe

The Sound and the Fury. 75 years ago, William Faulkner finished his fourth novel. It was published later in the fall (October 7, 1929), and for the first fifteen years sales totaled just over 3,300 copies (an appendix was added in 1946, when most of Faulkner's books were out of print. Of course, a few years after that he was awarded the Nobel Prize). It was Faulkner's own favorite novel, primarily, he said, because he considered it his "most splendid failure". Many critics think it's the finest work of an American Master: the key to Faulkner, wrote Alfred Kazin (.pdf file), lies not only in the unflinching extremity of his God-blasted characters, but in the odd and unaccountable moments of redemptive human tenderness. The Internet is very kind to Faulkner's fans: we can check out the Faulkner home, his manuscripts and even his pipe, trivia from his Postmaster's days, we can read examples of his snarkiness (hurled against Hemingway and Clark Gable), we can admire the pages of screenplays from his Hollywood days. We can go to Faulkner academic conferences, too: in the USA and Japan. Want to know what Bunny Wilson and Ralph Ellison had to say about Faulkner? Here. (more inside, with Conan O'Brien)
posted by matteo (30 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The Sound and the Fury takes its title, of course, from the Scottish Play, Act V, scene v:

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,
Signifying nothing.

thirsty for unusual criticism? Conan O'Brien chose Faulkner for his Harvard thesis
posted by matteo at 7:31 AM on June 11, 2004

Alas, I read "The Sound and the Fury" in high school, while my brain was heavily loaded up with lead from a lead paint removal project. Appreciation of fine literature does not with lead dust well mix.
posted by troutfishing at 7:38 AM on June 11, 2004

trout, the great man himself was not exactly sober and clear-headed 100% of the time, either:

..."the urge to drink descended on him even more when he felt 'all of a turmoil inside' than when he felt trapped."{29} Author Sherwood Anderson, who Faulkner knew from his days in New Orleans, remembered how he behaved at the conference: "Bill Faulkner had arrived and got drunk. From time to time he appeared, got drunk again immediately and disappeared. He kept asking everyone for drinks." {30} The constant drinking brought out the rude side of him; he went to a party at the Farmington Country Club and began vomiting as people came forward to meet him.

posted by matteo at 7:41 AM on June 11, 2004

Faulkner was a legendary drunk. But man, could he write.

I am astonished at his ability to create a world so intricate and interwoven, to write in a style so idiosyncratic and yet so rewarding of the reader's persistence, and yet to create work of such stunning clarity and resonance. He's truly one of my idols. (I chose journalism school in no small part because I saw it as a stepping stone to writing like him.)

And for what it's worth, while Sound and the Fury is a fine book, I personally liked Light In August better, as a cleaner, more elegant allegory, as an example of the aching beauty he could evoke out of the pain and intolerance of his characters, and as a more self-contained primer on the best and most difficult of his work.

If you've never read him, I'd recommend waiting until you have a whole day free to get started. It takes a certain amount of effort to get into his cadence and the pace of his little world. But oh, the reward for that effort is massive.

Thanks for giving the man some props, matteo. Now I'm thirsty.
posted by chicobangs at 7:54 AM on June 11, 2004

I think the way he was able to capture the world from Benjy's perspective was truly amazing. It took a little getting used to (realizing that when Benjy said the world moved past him it was actually Benjy moving through the world, etc.)

I never had the benefit of reading this novel for a class and then getting to discuss it. Thanks for the links. I think I'll poke around a bit and perhaps pick up some of what I might have gained in a discussion group.
posted by caddis at 7:58 AM on June 11, 2004

Fantastic post, matteo. If I had to pick a single American novelist to represent us in the Big Contest, I think it would be Faulkner. Hem was good and straight and wrote what he saw but he fell in love with his image and burned out early. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who could have been even further garlanded, being one of those fortunate souls with a gift for words and an openness to life, let his marriage and the bottle get the better of him and strayed from the narrow path onto the wide, overpopulated commons, where he wound up sick and desperate, filling the boarding-house night with vague words and drunken remorse. Melville... well, yes, Melville, unquestionably, but he's perhaps too far back to represent the country as it has become. No, Faulkner it is, and above all The Sound and the Fury, that masterpiece as inimitable as the Wake and almost as hard to feel at home in, but more quickly rewarding to the determined spelunker. I'll never forget the time I spent lost in its maze, slowly accustoming myself to Benjy's blinkered world and then Quentin's swamp of memories, rejoicing when I was able to match images one to another, feeling the growing weight of the thing looming above me and finally crashing down in what if I were given to Joycean bluster I might call an epiphany. I haven't gone back to it in years, and this online text looks like an excellent way of doing so. Thanks.

From the "snarkiness" link:

He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.
- William Faulkner, on Ernest Hemingway

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?
- Ernest Hemingway, on William Faulkner


posted by languagehat at 8:46 AM on June 11, 2004

There were but a very few people--very close friends--who were allowed to call Edmund Wilson "Bunny," and my guess is that you are not one of them...but very nice post.
posted by Postroad at 9:29 AM on June 11, 2004

That's very cool. I do wish they'd noted what text they'd used--the 1st ed.? the Corrected ed.? Other than that, it's a terrific application of hypertext to literary studies.

I remember reading somewhere, maybe in Blotner, that Howard Hawks once asked Faulkner to write a science fiction screenplay for him. Faulkner never did, I'm pretty sure, but I still like to imagine a movie where the Snopeses take over the Asteroid Belt.

posted by octobersurprise at 9:32 AM on June 11, 2004

the sound and the fury is my favorite novel.  i've read it four times, and each time i discover something new--a new connection between the characters, a new angle on the story, a beautiful line of prose i didn't remember seeing before. languagehat's description of what it's like to read the sound and the fury is right on the money. sometimes i get so emotionally caught-up in quentin's section that my heart races.

a few self-links, if you'll indulge me:
there used to be a plaque affixed to the anderson bridge near harvard in boston, the bridge from which quentin compson jumped (fictionally) to his death. nobody knows who put it there. an article i read in the boston globe a few years ago (but cannot find now) said that the plaque read: "Quentin Compson. Drowned in the odour of honeysuckle. 1891-1910." i once went to the bridge and searched all over it for the plaque, but never found it. i think it was stolen.

earlier this year some friends and i went to oxford, mississippi to see some faulkner sites. faulkner's house itself was closed for renovation, but we spent awhile walking around the property and trying to see inside the house through the windows. we also went to the oxford town square (oxford was faulkner's model for his fictional town of jefferson) and saw benjy's confederate soldier.  there's a quote of his from requiem for a nun on a plaque outside the courthouse. by the time we made it over to the cemetery, it was getting dark, we were freezing cold, and some of us had to pee, so we never saw faulkner's grave. somehow, i think he would have found that a fitting end.
posted by bluishorange at 9:40 AM on June 11, 2004

I started reading The Sound and the Fury right at the end of last summer, but I ended up only finishing about a third before I was swamped by schoolwork and other necessary activities. At some point I'm going to start the novel over again.

However, I did read Go Down, Moses this past year. It's a fantastic sequence of interrelated stories about the southern U.S. that ranges in time from just before the end of slavery to a few decades after its end (Faulkner himself considered it a novel and I'd tend to agree). I'd strongly urge anyone who hasn't read it that enjoyed The Sound and the Fury to give it a read.
posted by The God Complex at 10:05 AM on June 11, 2004

What no mention in this thread of Absalom, Absalom! -- my personal Faulkner favorite. This is where he talks about the American original sin and its consequences.

I'll second what the God Complex said about Go Down Moses.
posted by trox at 10:28 AM on June 11, 2004

great links, matteo. thank you. while i'm reading thru, i'll second your nomination for TSATF as Faulker's best, but i'll toss out As I Lay Dying as a very close runner-up. some of his forgettable books (Sanctuary, Pylon, The Reivers) turned me off later, but those two big ones (and i can't leave out Absalom, Absalom!) are a pretty impressive one-two punch.

If I had to pick a single American novelist to represent us in the Big Contest, I think it would be Faulkner.

in an american literary free-for-all, i'd probably take Melville over anyone (maybe Whitman as his tag-team partner to pile-drive any wannabe poets), but Faulkner's a worthy contendah. (and i'm even from the south)
posted by mrgrimm at 10:44 AM on June 11, 2004

What I remember from As I Lay Dying was that it contained the second shortest chapter I have ever read: "My Mother is a Fish." This beats out "Nothing much esle happened that night" from Something Wicked This Way Comes, but not "Pete forgot" from Gremlins.
posted by weston at 10:48 AM on June 11, 2004

Hem was good and straight and wrote what he saw but he fell in love with his image and burned out early.
L-Hat, this reminds me of this Nick Tosches quote:

But Hemingway, for all his ridiculous fraud, made money: a lot of it. One of the consummate bend-for-bucks boys, he followed The Old Man and the Sea with a series of similarly written advertisements for Ballantine ale (“I would rather have a bottle of Ballantine Ale than any other drink after fighting a really big fish...”).

and Alison, it's good to see you back. thanks for the links, looks like it was a great road trip.

i'll second your nomination for TSATF as Faulker's best

well, actually I am a huge fan of The Wild Palms, too. hard to choose, really

and my guess is that you are not one of them...

well, you could be surprised, Postroad. you could be surprised...
posted by matteo at 11:02 AM on June 11, 2004

I've never read Gremlins, but I'm gonig to risk snobbery and go out on a limb here and say that As I Lay Dying is probably the better book.

Absalom, Absalom is phenomenal, but I wouldn't recommend it as your first Faulkner since high school. (Pick up his short stories, too. A Rose For Emily might be the best metaphor for the old south I've ever read, and it made me cry my little eyes out besides.)

And I can't argue with Melville too hard (or Hemingway, or Hawthorne though he's a bit early for that argument, or you could build a case for Flannery O'Connor or Philip Roth or even Walker Percy, even), but -- I'm repeating myself, but Faulkner really touched me as the greatest writer that the USA has ever produced.

And a quick shoutout to John Mahoney doing a great caricature of Bill in Barton Fink.
posted by chicobangs at 11:09 AM on June 11, 2004

chicobangs, Turturro's riff on Cliff Odets was marvelous, as well
posted by matteo at 11:23 AM on June 11, 2004

I'm from Maryland, the psudeo-south, where some of us are "southern" and some us aren't, myself being the latter. Absolom, Absolom! gave me some insight into my regional brethren, and bonded me more strongly to that culture. Not that I agree with much of it, but I'm now less inclined to be unsympathetic to their convoluted history.

Had I written Absolom, Absolom!, I probably would have deemed it my masterpiece and been done with writing, thinking I had lent a worthwhile voice to a piece of history. But, I guess that's what makes me a bad writer. Regardless, with all this praise for The Sound and the Fury, I'm going to start reading it tonight.
posted by bitpart at 3:42 PM on June 11, 2004

Nice find. I second the mention of Absalom, Absalom! in particular, among the other titles. One not mentioned yet which is very much worth a read: The Hamlet, four mini-novels in one, with the incomparable "Spotted Horses" story rounding things off. Faulkner's nightmarish Snopeses are gathered from tall tales he'd been telling for 20 years into this--much superior to the later segments of the Snopes trilogy, The Town and The Mansion.
Faulkner post-Hollywood has flashes of greatness but nothing like what he did up until 1945 or so. Some of his interviews are well worth reading, such as that in the Paris Review (rpt. Writers at Work):  "If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies."
posted by palancik at 5:03 PM on June 11, 2004

What I remember from As I Lay Dying was that it contained the second shortest chapter I have ever read: "My Mother is a Fish."

I wrote a paper on that chapter! I did love that book. I read that and The Sound and The Fury in a great literature class in I think my last year of college - it was early 20th century experimental stuff - Ulysses, Tender Buttons, The Waves. Fantastic class... I've meant to read Absalom, Absalom! ever since but have still not got around to it. And I'll now add Go Down, Moses to my ever expanding reading list.
posted by mdn at 5:31 PM on June 11, 2004

oh, and that soliloquy of macbeth's is still just about my favorite moment of writing on earth.
posted by mdn at 5:33 PM on June 11, 2004

> "My Mother is a Fish."

Just a heads-up for readers, if you dig mad, unreliable narrators you will like The Towers of Trebizond by (dame) Rose Macaulay. Though the mad, unreliable narrator of Towers is about as different from a Snopes as it's possible to be.
posted by jfuller at 5:54 PM on June 11, 2004

Thanks for the wonderful post, Matteo. I looked over the reader's guide to the first day, April 7 1928 and can see how the chronological key would really help readers with what looks like a very challenging text. And I really appreciated the comments in here from experienced and enthusiastic Faulkner readers. I've always felt too intimidated by Faulkner, but I now I think I'm going to give TSATF a try, right after Anna Karenina which I'm reading now thanks to Oprah. OT: Just finished Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Oprah's previous book and really loved it. Beautiful and captivating. About how most of us perceive the world and others in it through our own beliefs, needs, heartaches and desires.
posted by marsha56 at 9:54 PM on June 11, 2004

Great post, but the book was too much of a writing exercise to be of much use to readers. Reading The Sound and the Fury is like digging through drawers of fabric remnants. Lots of tiny, beautiful scraps that look ridiculous if you try to sew them together. You can pull out lovely bits and save them, but what are you going to do with them later?
posted by Hildago at 10:46 PM on June 11, 2004

My Mother is a Fish

I was flummoxed and enraged by this sentence/paragraph/chapter the first time I read As I Lay Dying, but once I got it it made perfect sense.

Speaking of Oprah, this book cover was one of the most distressing ones I ever saw.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:48 PM on June 11, 2004

Kirkaracha, Oprah's publisher changed their approach slightly for Anna Karenina's cover. It has a 3-inch wide purple Oprah banner across the front, but the banner is just a piece of e cardstock folded over the cover, very easy to remove. In fact, rather hard to keep it from slipping off when reading. Mine's already gone.
posted by marsha56 at 8:27 AM on June 12, 2004

Darn, don't know where that stray 'e' came from. Should be just 'piece of cardstock'
posted by marsha56 at 8:31 AM on June 12, 2004

My university mailed us a copy of As I Lay Dying to read before the first week of classes. My mother was a fish became our shibboleth. It's a wonder novel. Even at his most difficult Faulkner writes dialogue that seems completely human, completely authentic.

There is a famous anecdote about Faulkner. He returned home drunk during his daughter's birthday party. She begged him not to make a scene, and he replied: "nobody gives a damn about Shakespeare's daughter".
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:10 PM on June 12, 2004

the sound and the fury was the hardest book i ever read (and finished :) but v.worthwhile! the first part was the hardest to get through. i think i got a little help from the cliffnotes to realize they're playing golf, but once i got that..:D definately the great american novel!

as for others, i've been meaning to tread john steinbeck. like i liked east of eden (the movie :) but never got around to it. maybe i should!
posted by kliuless at 9:24 PM on June 12, 2004

Great post Matteo...nice linkage, yay you!
posted by dejah420 at 11:15 PM on June 12, 2004

hey just reading the bits of conan o'brien's thesis you linked to. i liked al bell's analysis of o'brien's analysis of literary analysts' analysis of the southern literary renaissance :D
I think this thesis is as much about Late Night, and the generation reluctantly known as Generation X, as it is about Southern Gothic literature. Conan IS one of Flannery O'Connor's old children, torn between traditional Catholic spiritualism and modern nihilism.

Conan and other serious Gen X artists know that they live in a screwed up society. They know we have to find a way to care about something other than scandals and the landfill in our own backyard, or face destruction.

But Gen X artists also know that the Nazis, the Communists, the urban planners of the 1960s, and the free-sex Baby Boomer hippies have caused so much destruction that they made the very thought of altruism seem ridiculous.

Gen X artists who try to say they care about the world end up sounding like sanctimonious pricks, beauty pageant contestants or genocidal dictators in training.

About all a self-respecting Gen X artist can do is gurgle something about how it would be nice if someone would keep the Serbians from killing ethnic Albanians, or AIDS from killing 20 percent of the population of Africa.

So Conan fixates on guys like Lincoln and Kennedy -- good guys who found sensible ways to care -- as if trying to figure out some way that we could care, too.
sound and fury, that is all!
posted by kliuless at 8:11 AM on June 13, 2004

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