Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Signifying something?

Well, it’s not often I’m completely flummoxed, but The Sound and the Fury has managed it. It’s a remarkable piece of literature but I’m really at a loss as to how to deal with it. Someone once said, of critical reviews, that if the author has just spent 300 pages explaining what he means, what’s the point of a reviewer trying to summarise it in two or three pages? With this novel, in particular, I can certainly see the logic of that. There is clearly no point in producing a summary of the action in The Sound and the Fury – you just have to read it. Most likely, it will make as little sense to you on a first read as it did to me. So go to Wikipedia, where there’s a pretty decent synopsis of what is actually happening in this most confusing work.

For me, I suppose the key question that arises is: is there a point to writing so obliquely? For those who haven’t read the novel, it is in four parts, each from the point of view of a different character, and describing events that occur over the lifetime of a family in decline, but focusing on two periods in particular, in 1910 and in 1928. The first section is told from the point of view of a thirty-three year old man with some form of mental retardation, and the action is therefore told in a hazy, stream-of-consciousness, almost hallucinatory fashion, where it is not at all clear what is actually happening: the action, in other words, as seen and barely comprehended by this unfortunate man. The second section focuses on eighteen years earlier and takes the point of view of another of the family, who is suicidal and sees the action from his own, peculiarly biased perspective. We therefore have another wholly unreliable narrator and, in fact, the narrative here becomes even more extreme in its disjunction, representing the character’s mental breakdown, with grammar almost wholly dispensed with at certain points. The third section is from the point of view of another family member, someone who is deeply embittered and again cannot be relied on for an accurate description of events. Only the fourth section, from the viewpoint of Dilsey, who has worked with the family as a servant for many years, is in any way objective and it is here that, finally, some clarity comes to the narrative.

So what we have is a novel told in a fragmentary style, where nothing is ever explained and it is exceptionally difficult to grasp what is actually happening. Stylistically, it is magnificent, clearly the work of genius: to be able to sustain that level of disconnection while still retaining some control over the narrative is extraordinary. But, in the end, one has to ask to what effect? The danger is that the novel will only ever be discussed in terms of its narrative structure, as opposed to the themes the author wished to portray, rather in the superficial way we judge individuals by their looks instead of, in Martin Luther King’s words, ‘the content of their character’. It’s akin to the Heart of Darkness problem, where 99.999% of critical discussion is on its alleged racism rather than Conrad’s themes: we end up discussing the wrong thing.

Is that inevitable with such an extreme work? And is it okay? I confess I would find it difficult to address the themes of The Sound and the Fury here, because I’m not entirely certain what they are: they’re about family, for sure, and the ties that bind, and how these ties can constrict as much as support; and it’s about love and how love can be so overwhelming it can trigger its own, gradual entropy. Or something like that. But I find it difficult to get beyond that because of the extremism of the style. It becomes, to use a phrase from my librarianship past, an interposed element: something that gets in the way of the reader and the writer.

Now, proponents of modernism will dismiss that as nonsense. I’m trying to separate things that cannot be separated, they’ll say, I’m being simplistic and naïve. But I am those things. I haven’t studied structuralism or semiotics and so, to an extent, I read a novel at face value. And with The Sound and the Fury, that reading was heavily compromised by the lengths to which the author has gone to keep me at arm’s length from understanding it.

As well as a reader I’m a writer, and I’ve been engaged on a work for some time now. It began as a collection of short stories but gradually the stories became more and more interlinked, to the stage where it has started to cohere into a single, albeit fragmented story. However, I’ve been sitting on it for a couple of months now, because I need to think more carefully about the structure. Reading The Sound and the Fury has provoked a serious debate in my mind.

There are some similarities between his story and mine, in that events are triggered by something that happens many years ago, which has been barely understood and, in the case of my piece, completely repressed. Therefore, I am looking at the same need for a confused, disjointed narrative style. However, I would not wish to adopt the sort of approach Faulkner has taken (which is not to say, I rush to add, that I am considering my approach in any way superior to Faulkner’s – I’m not that conceited). I think, for me, it’s a question of degree of opacity, or how far one can go before confusion becomes obfuscation.

I liken it to the difference between cubist art and some surrealist art. I much prefer cubism or the type of surrealism employed by Picasso, because what it generally presents is a single reality, from multiple viewpoints. A Picasso portrait, for example, has the same face seen from all different perspectives at once. Therefore, while at first it may seem inexplicable, gradually it begins to make sense. The sort of surrealism, on the other hand, that resides purely in the fantastic, while often breathtaking, may sometimes begin in such obscurity that the sense of it remains locked purely within the head of the artist, and there is no means of access for the viewer. Again, I may be accused of naivety here: the point of modern art is to make one think, to confront an object and come to one’s own conclusions on that object. What the artist implies shouldn’t necessarily be what the viewer infers. Fair enough. But if an artist does have a point in mind I would like to have some way of understanding that, so that I can decide whether I agree or disagree. A surrealist, completely random picture of an apple with wings, however beautifully crafted, is unlikely to grant me that opportunity.

Not that I’m suggesting The Sound and the Fury is so abstract as to be inexplicable. It isn’t. I can make some sense of it, and clearly repeated readings will reveal more and more. But at what stage does style overwhelm meaning? And has Faulkner reached that stage here? I don’t know.


Court said...

This novel repays grandly a second, third, and fourth re-reading. The layers of Faulkner's genius gradually come clear.

Also worth considering: Faulkner considered this work to be a failure. I use it as a basis of my thinking that all writing is failure.

"Stylistically, it is magnificent, clearly the work of genius: to be able to sustain that level of disconnection while still retaining some control over the narrative is extraordinary. But, in the end, one has to ask to what effect? ... Reading The Sound and the Fury has provoked a serious debate in my mind."

I think you've answered your own question.

It is my view that TS&TF operates at such a high level of genius that it is its own justification; there is no need to apply theories or definitions or literary tags. It is the sort of work you can read (at least the 2nd and 3rd times) with the base of your spine, rather than your brain. Very, very few works accomplish this; and for me, post TS&TF, almost everything else I've read seems lacking. With a few exceptions, of course.

I should note that the first time I tried to read it, I gave up in disgust. Didn't come back to it till some years later, and that with a reader's guide, like the one on Wikipedia. The first time through, at least, this is essential.

Tom Conoboy said...

Yes, I think you may have something there. I've found this novel on my mind all day today - both for the story and for the way it was written. It kind of gets hold of you. I don't read many books over again but I know I will this one.

Interesting item on your blog, too. I guess it's summed up by Beckett's dictum - fail better.