May 25, 2012

The Sound and the Fury, hold the fury


In an essay in this week’s New Yorker titled “Easy Writers,” Arthur Krystal traces the history of guilty reading pleasures and finds the modernist novel responsible for drawing a hard line between high-brow lit and pulpy trash:

Modernism … confirmed the idea of the commercial novel as a guilty pleasure by making the literary novel tough sledding. Far from delivering easy pleasures, modernist fiction could be an exercise in aesthetic and psychological subtlety; it was written not for people with time on their hands but for those willing to put in the time to master it.

The accompanying illustration by John Cuneo depicts a reader not so willing: he hides his copy of The Shining behind a weighty tome of Tolstoy. At one side is a wine glass with a straw in it; a copy of Ulysses lies discarded at his feet. Missing from the composition is the pinnacle of American modernism, William Faulkner‘s The Sound and the Fury, which, along with Joyce’s masterpiece, comprises the black diamond course of tough literary sledding.

In truth, Faulkner never intended it to be quite so difficult. For the book’s famously confusing first section, which is narrated by the mentally disabled Benjy Compson and which jumps back and forth in time mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence, Faulkner wanted his publisher to print each narrative thread in a different color of ink. On learning this would be impossible, he wrote, “I’ll just have to save the idea until publishing grows up to it.”

Needless to say, publishing has grown up a bit in the intervening eighty-four years, and a new edition due out this summer from the Folio Society aims to fulfill Faulkner’s wishes. Two scholars of the book, Stephen M. Ross and Noel Polk, have unwoven the tangled threads of Benjy’s narration and produced a book printed in fourteen colors signifying the passage of time from Benjy’s earliest memory in 1900 to the present day in 1928. Beyond easing the reading experience for new and old readers alike, the publishers found the colors created unexpected moments of poetry as well, as recounted by Folio Society production director Joe Whitlock Blundell:

…By pure chance, lovely effects occurred: at the end of a page of deep orange, Benjy’s mind suddenly jumps back to an earlier incident with Caddie, and a single, poetic line appears in green: ‘She smelled like trees.’

But even if this is what Faulkner wanted, is it a good idea? Unable to distinguish his present experience from the flood of memories triggered by everyone and everything he sees, Benjy is doomed to relive his family’s worst moments of tragedy as if they’re happening over and over every day. The novel is moving because one doesn’t merely empathize with Benjy; one is forced to literally experience his world the way he does, a bright and fearsome kaleidoscope of desperation, death, and decay. And of course, an essential part of that experience is being unable to discern where he is, whom he’s with, and most of all, whether what he’s seeing is real or imagined. Tough sledding indeed.

I’m glad my first encounter with The Sound and the Fury was with its original published form. But when I reached the end, still scratching my head vigorously over what had just happened, it might have been nice to have this new color-coded edition handy to solve some of the book’s remaining mysteries. And is having a little help decoding Faulkner’s magnum opus something fans of “serious fiction” should feel guilty about? I don’t think so. After all, sometimes you just want to go sledding.


Christopher King is the Art Director of Melville House.