The Magazine

Modernist Master

Fifty years since his death, we remain in Faulkner’s shadow.

Jul 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 42 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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April seventh, 1928: Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit .  .  . 

William Faulkner, 1950

William Faulkner, 1950

“Here, caddie.” He hit. They went away across the pasture. I held to the fence and watched them going away.

“Listen at you, now.” Luster said. “Aint you something, thirty three years old, going on that way. .  .  . Hush up that moaning.” 

“Read this, Bud—it’s a real son-ofabitch,” the author of a famous American novel said as he handed the typescript of The Sound and the Fury to an old friend one day in New York. Many baffled readers of this country’s first great work of modernist fiction would cry, “Hear! Hear!” Indeed, it’s a real sonofabitch.

As of July 6, we are 50 years beyond William Faulkner’s death. And in observance of that milestone, the Folio Society has published an anniversary edition of the novel ($345), printing in varicolored inks the time sequences covered by its most baffling narrative voice, that of the idiot Compson brother, Benjy. There were no footnotes to advise the reader that Benjy, in his vapid innocence, is “moaning” for his lost sister, Caddy, and believes the golfers are calling her name—nor that the “pasture,” long alienated from the family property, has become a golf course.

Faulkner, in later interviews, did try to explain what he was attempting in The Sound and the Fury. The story, he said, began with the mental picture of an adorable little girl with muddy drawers climbing a tree to peer through the window at her grandmother’s funeral—and to describe it to her three less adventuresome brothers who are standing below: 

It was a story without a plot, of some children being sent away from the house during the grandmother’s funeral and then the idea struck me to see how much more I could have got out of the idea .  .  . if one of those children had been truly innocent, that is, an idiot. So the idiot was born and then I became interested in the relationship of the idiot to the world and just where could he get the tenderness, the help, to shield him. .  .  . And so .  .  . his sister began to emerge, then the brother. .  .  . Then .  .  . someone to tell the story, so Quentin appeared. 

I hear skeptics protesting, Wait a minute! What’s so damned important about so ordinary a story to justify so much technical huffing and puffing? It is the perennial protest of those who think all stories, however elusive, should be told straight, the way we think they happened, in a novel as on the front page or gossip column of the morning paper. It is a reasonable protest, though scarcely new; so herewith one reader’s attempt to satisfy it.

But! by the way, the story told in The Sound and the Fury is far from ordinary; it involves the epic decline of a proud family, the Compsons of Jefferson, Mississippi (by bastardy, idiocy, alienation, suicide, monomania, bad debts, drunkenness, mean degeneracy, and incompetence), and thus, by inference, of a regional social order.

Who can wonder that even sophisticated readers remain sharply divided on the merits of Faulkner’s fiction and on the mythic world he created? One thing, however, is undebatable: Almost a century after he began to write, Faulkner stands at the top of the slippery pole of “modernism”—the American branch of it, at least. The term descends from the early decades of the last century (modernism is obviously no longer “modern” in the chronological sense). Its roots remain as elusive as Faulkner’s storytelling; but it was no coincidence that traditional novelizing (Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, et al.) began to fragment when new theories in physics and psychology dawned on the literary imagination and expanded our interest in the intricate byways of human consciousness. 

Such figures as Einstein, Freud, and Joyce were among Faulkner’s collaborators in this narrative mischief—if you consider it so, as many do. A story is reliably told that when Faulkner paid a visit to Albert Einstein in Princeton, the two sat in mutually respectful silence, finding no small talk, smoking their pipes and sipping Mrs. Einstein’s coffee, then parted—another of those lamentable lost opportunities, like the chance encounter of Joyce and Proust in Paris one evening. (However, Faulkner so venerated his fellow genius that he placed a period after the Dr. in Einstein’s name, the only instance in his writings in which such titles were punctuated.)

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