Signifying Something : William Faulkner – “The Sound and the Fury”

“Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

ABOVE: Told by a pretty smart guy.

After the comparative tightness of “Sartoris ( “Flags in the Dust” ), William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” must have felt like a barnyard hoedown on the American sense of narrative. I remember making the mistake (obvious now in retrospective) of picking up “The Sound and the Fury” as a teenager, and a relatively new immigrant to the United States, still struggling with the more tangled edges of the language: it was like being caught inside an alien spaceship that was drifting in and out of temporal realities, and desperately trying to decipher the operating manual.

(A few of my disoriented thoughts included: “Is Benjy a child? An old man? Black? White? Why is Quentin shifting between being a boy and a girl? Is this the past? The present? A dream? Huh huh? What? What? Alright I give up. Well, a few more pages.”)

It would have been easy to simply back away from this mysterious capsule of seemingly jumbled visions if there hadn’t been something persuasive in the language, something that suggested these words hadn’t just been barfed out by a haunted, psychotic Underwood. What I did then was to allow the words to carry me forward, to let the alien spaceship go where it would.

ABOVE: Yul Brinner is rocking those khakis.

Now, as an adult with some training, I see the patterns of “The Sound and the Fury” and some of the mystery is gone; some of it is even replaced by the raised eyebrow of cynicism that goes up whenever I see Faulkner enjoying his clever tricks a little too much. But I’m glad I didn’t put it down when I was a teenager who had no idea what was happening, and I’m glad I re-read it as an adult who  thinks he has SOME idea of SOME of what is happening, but may never have a COMPLETE idea of EVERYTHING that is happening.




Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?


Read it four times.



Do you ever read mystery stories?


I read Simenon because he reminds me something of Chekhov.

(From the 1956 Paris Review interview, which also finds Faulkner obliquely suggesting that the proper way to deal with females is to “show them the back of the hand.” Diff’rent times, diff’rent times.)


There is a rarely-talked-about Hollywood version of “The Sound and the Fury” from 1959. If the audience’s reaction was anything like mine, then this was it: “Hmmm, they made it into an easy-to-follow Southern story, which seriously misses the point. Kudos to it for being less racist than one would expect. WAIT. Is that Yul Brinner? With HAIR? Playing a SOUTHERN GENTLEMAN with a Russian accent? WTF???”

ABOVE: He doesn’t even TRY to fake a Southern accent!


5 thoughts on “Signifying Something : William Faulkner – “The Sound and the Fury”

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