“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.”*

*from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, spoken by Macbeth.

From The Guardian of 20 Jul 2012: Sarah Churchwell: “rereading The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner”:

“…William Faulkner was born William Cuthbert Falkner on 25 September 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi; soon his family had relocated to Oxford, the town where he would live the rest of his life, and reinvent as the fictional Jefferson. When the young Falkner tried to join the air force in 1918, he was rejected for being too short. Deciding to pass himself off as an Englishman and enlist in the Canadian RAF, he changed the spelling of his name to Faulkner and invented a mythical British family for himself, using a forged letter of reference from one Reverend Edward Twimberly-Thorndyke. For whatever reasons, he never changed the spelling back when he went on to invent the equally mythical clans of Yoknapatawpha.

Faulkner never saw active service; in 1925 he published his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, followed rapidly by Mosquitoes. He was convinced that his next novel, Flags in the Dust, the first Yoknapatawpha story, was his best yet, but to his shock his publishers turned it down; heavily edited, it was eventually published as Sartoris in 1928. The experience, said Faulkner, led to the breakthrough of The Sound and the Fury, as he gave up on publishers and set out to write the book he wanted to write.

“Now I can make myself a vase like that which the old Roman kept at his bedside and wore the rim slowly away with kissing it,” he claimed to have told himself. “So I, who had never had a sister and was fated to lose my daughter in infancy, set out to make myself a beautiful and tragic little girl.” There is more than a little mythmaking in such an account: but then mythmaking was already Faulkner’s stock in trade.

Although his books were admired by other writers, Faulkner lived and wrote in relative obscurity for the first decade or so, until he wrote a bestseller called Sanctuary in 1931; it owed its success to its scandalously violent sexual content, including a scene in which a young woman is raped with a corncob and is turned by this experience into a prostitute for no apparent reason other than Victorian morality. Chronically hard-up, Faulkner found his way to Hollywood, where he collaborated on several now-legendary screenplays, including Mildred PierceTo Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. In 1949, he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, and two of his subsequent novels, A Fable and The Reivers, which was published posthumously in 1962, both won the Pulitzer.

The Sound and the Fury is the story of the Compson family’s decline and fall; when Faulkner was asked by a student why the Compsons are such a disaster, he answered: “They live in the 1860s.” The novel ranges from 1900 to 1928, but the Compsons remain trapped in the obsolete attitudes and ideas of the South in the years of the civil war, destroyed by their futile attempts to live by dying prerogatives of class, race and sex.

The book resembles a Greek tragedy, telling the story of Caddy, the “lost woman”, from the point of view of her three brothers – each of whom is also, in an important way, lost – and then finally from the perspective of the Compsons’ black servant, Dilsey. Caddy is the novel’s absent centre, the focus of all the characters but unreachable and unknowable – like the truth itself, some would say, as Faulkner offers only competing, subjective accounts. But the novel is also layered with what Faulkner called “counterpoint” – careful patterns of words and images to create an artistic unity that transcends the fragmented perspectives on display.

He claimed this “tragedy of two lost women: Caddy and her daughter” came to him first as an image of a little girl with symbolically muddy drawers; he loved it most, he said, because it “caused me the most grief and anguish, as the mother loves the child who became the thief or murderer more than the one who became the priest”. The Sound and the Fury was always the book that Faulkner felt “tenderest toward,” he said, “the most gallant, the most magnificent failure” of all his novels. “I couldn’t leave it alone, and I could never tell it right, though I tried hard and would like to try again, though I’d probably fail again.”

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked it the sixth greatest English-language novel of the 20th century, but Faulkner might have claimed to be unimpressed: “I don’t care about John Doe’s opinion on my or anyone else’s work,” he told the Paris Review. “Mine is the standard which has to be met, which is when the work makes me feel the way I do when I read La Tentation de Saint Antoine, or the Old Testament.” Ultimately, he insisted, “the writer’s only responsibility is to his art.” If it made a writer ruthless, that was a price William Faulkner thought the world should be prepared to pay: “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.”.”

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