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William Faulkner

Introduction by Nicholas Shakespeare

“The South,” said Shreve. “The South. Jesus.”

I remember Oxford, Mississippi, as a small, prim town of white-painted metal bedsteads and on the lawns the brass of fallen leaves. There was a fine bookshop in the square and a university. Otherwise, the place was as remote as could be from Oxford, Oxfordshire, where I had been at boarding school. The town had the air of a stage-set hauled out into the flat and viewless swampland by a people with a feverish appetite for theatrics.

Already dead thirty-five years, William Faulkner was still the main act. You could not help but cross his tracks: in the four-faced courthouse clock which was said to tell the time in his fiction, in the round tower where he wrote his novels on yellow legal pads, in the university post-office where he used to play cards after dumping copies of the Baptist Record  in the garbage. It was impossible to ignore Oxford’s most famous son, and I was ashamed that I wanted to. The truth was, I had not read a line of Faulkner.

There are paths to the sea that once avoided you do not take. There’s nothing wrong with the path-not-taken: it’s just that you chose another, and a decision, perhaps made lightly, firms into the natural order. It is the way that patterns and people are formed, and seas are carved out. As wide and obvious as he was, Faulkner failed to beckon. It would be several years before I became intimate with his image: the aquiline nose, the moustache brushing down the corners of a tightly closed mouth, the implacable, unfrivolous and daunting expression. Later, I heard a recording of his voice and it seemed to support my disinterest. He speaks without inflexion in a high-pitched timbre that renders all it utters into a lulling and monotonous chant, rather as if saying a rosary. At a time when I was looking for plot, for clarity, for romantic passion, Faulkner required too much patience. I preferred to encounter him through his effect on  South American writers like Borges and Garcia Marquez. I was not ready to listen.

You can read Romeo and Juliet   before you fall in love, but certain books require you to fall out of love before you are able to enjoy them. When eventually I came to Faulkner I was an adult and it was an electrifying experience to meet, later than most, a writer who turns your head so fast that you get a burn down your neck. The book was The Sound and The Fury.  I didn’t understand fully what was going on, yet I knew something was going on that mattered. I was baffled by the first page, but I sank into it and then the prose started to send its charge through me and I recognised one of those spasms that involves the nerves, all of them.

It is still extraordinary to think that Faulkner began writing The Sound and The Fury  in the belief he might not be published again. He had just turned thirty and his third novel, on which he pinned elaborate hopes, had been rejected by his publisher with a recommendation that he did not offer it elsewhere. “I had,” he said, “stopped thinking of myself in publishing terms.”

Not unlike his admired Balzac (whose Cromwell  was turned down with the advice “the author should do anything he likes, but not literature”), Faulkner needed to be scared into his skin. His most powerful novel, and the one he regarded with most tenderness, sprang out of intense anguish, personal as well as professional. His response to failure is a consolation to all writers. To hell with everyone, I’ll do what I want. 

The rejection of the book which he expected to make his critical and commercial reputation had on Faulkner the effect of a purification. Putting aside his 600 page manuscript of  Flags in the Dust  , he embarked on a new story, a “dark story of madness and hatred”. He told no one what he was doing. (As far as anyone in Oxford knew, he spent these days earning money by painting signs). He likened his new novel to a vase he had made so he could escape into it. “One day I seemed to shut a door between me and all publisher’s addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can 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 would look back on this period, early 1928, as the most rapturous of his writing career. He wrote for his own pleasure, “without any accompanying feeling of drive or effort, or any following feeling of exhaustion or relief or distaste.” He had no plan.  “I was thinking of books, publication, only… in reverse, in saying to myself, I won’t have to worry about publishers liking or not liking this at all.” He wrote quickly, fluently and the novel reads as it was written, as if he was composing chamber music for one.

Published on October 7, 1929, The Sound and The Fury   sold less than 3,000 copies over the next seventeen years. By 1945 almost all of its author’s work was out of print. Commercially, his publishers had been right.

So why has the novel taken its grip on our psyche and at what dark complexities do its claws grab?

*            *            *

In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner continued the process begun in the abandoned manuscript, a narrative of the decay and disintegration of his Mississippi family. The novel is humid and difficult and heavy with the sort of sad dampness found in Joyce. You can smell the breath: adolescent, losing the sweetness of childhood, on the sour edge of turning. But where Joyce placed himself in exile to find his voice, essentially urban, Faulkner needed to return to his source, to the “country folks” in and about the town of Oxford, his home since he was five.

“You’re a country boy,” said an early mentor, Sherwood Anderson. “All you know is that little patch up there in Mississippi where you started from.”

As a younger writer Faulkner had condemned Anderson for exploiting those around him: “I think that when a writer reaches the point when he’s to write about people he knows, his friends, then he has reached the tragic point.” Reaching the tragic point would, however, be Faulkner’s salvation. “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it and that by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top.” Nor would he find it sufficient simply to reflect the lives of those close to hand. In order to create an authentic cosmos of his own, Faulkner had to mine the most intimate, troubling veins of a childhood he might have preferred to forget. “I realised that to make it truly evocative it must be personal.” From a child, he had been shy and aloof and rattling with “back-looking” southern ghosts. The novel he never expected to see published was an exploration of what haunted him.

*           *         *

When, twenty years later, the world discovered William Cuthbert Faulkner, it found a soft-spoken and stonily remote figure in his late forties. He once described his lifetime’s ambition to be the last private individual on earth. “Mr Faulkner tole me to tell you he ain’t here,” his houseboy informed those who telephoned Rowan Oak. To a publisher who requested contributor information, Faulkner wrote: “Tell them I was born of an alligator and a nigger slave at the Geneva peace conference two years ago.” And to Malcolm Cowley, who did more than anyone to resuscitate his work: “it is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books.” He wished his epitaph to be: “he made the books and he died.”

About his books, his “native soil” remained hugely ambivalent. Faulkner’s father denied reading anything he wrote. Buyers of his novels at the local drugstore in Oxford habitually wanted their copies wrapped before they stepped back into the square. Within the community, his name was spoken through cupped hands. “We don’t talk about him around here,” said a dean on the university’s 9-hole golf course where Faulkner had sold soft drinks. One man who did succeed in talking to him, Henry Nash Smith, was forced to resign from the Southern Methodist University for associating with “so obscene a writer”.

Where his friends and family were ambivalent, the American literary scene alternated between indifference and hostilility. The London Times   might choose to dub Oxford “the literary capital of the English speaking world”, but in the opinion of the Jackson Daily News  Faulkner had sullied his community by populating it with perverts, murderers and idiots. “He is a propagandist of degradation and properly belongs in the privy school of literature.” Even after the announcement of his Nobel prize in 1950, the New York Times  judged his world “too often vicious, depraved, decadent, corrupt.” Incest and rape might be common in Faulkner’s fictional Jefferson, but nowhere else in the United States.

In September 1945, a year before his work was reprinted, Faulkner won $250 for second prize in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  “In France, I am the father of a literary movement. In Europe I am considered the best modern American and among the first of all writers in America. In America I eke out a hack’s motion pictures wages by winning second prize in a manufactured mystery story contest.” He complained: “All my native land did for me was to invade my privacy over my protest and my plea.”

Yet his best work, of which The Sound and The Fury  is the outstanding example, invited the invasion. “I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world.”

*           *         *

Faulkner had known his vocation since he was nine. “I want to be a writer like my great-granddaddy.” He was speaking of Colonel William Clerk Falkner, the family founder who had met a violent death eight years before he was born. Named after him, Faulkner grew up feeling at every turn the giant’s tread of this first William: slave-owner, planter, brigadier in the militia, lawyer, railroad king (“he built the first railroad in our county”), author.

The  “Old Colonel”, as the family referred to him, had arrived in Mississippi in 1842, an outcast. After injuring his brother with a hoe in St Genevieve, Missouri, he set out on foot, aged 17, to find his aunt in Ripley. He wrote his first book three years later, the life of a convicted axe-murderer in Ripley gaol – with whose family he split the profits. In 1851 he published at his own expense The Siege of Monterey, an amateur poem about his experience as a Lieutenant in the Mexican War, where he had lost the tips of three fingers. He also paid for a novel, The Spanish Heroine,  and a play, The Lost Diamond.  But his indisputable success was The White Rose of Memphis,  a gaudy, humourless romance set on a Mississippi riverboat and shot through with quotations from the Bible, Shakespeare and Walter Scott. The novel went into 35 editions and sold, apparently, 160,000 copies.

He was a Marquez colonel, dynamic and haughty. He knew what it was to kill and on one occasion knifed a man who pulled a pistol on him, complaining Falkner had blackballed him from the Knights Temperance. As a Confederate soldier, he was strict and fearless. He repulsed General Irwin at the battle of First Manassas, losing two horses under him. General Beauregard, observing Falkner gallop by on a third, was compelled to shout: “Go ahead, you hero with the black plume; history shall never forget you!” But history did forget him as it tended to cold-shoulder heroes from the south. “He rode through that country like a living force,” wrote Faulkner, who lamented that nothing remained of his great-grandfather’s work save an imported statue. The expression in the marble beard failed to suggest its subject’s complexity or his tragedy. The Old Colonel died on November 5, 1889, in Ripley, after a former partner from the railroad shot him with a .44, point blank in his mouth. As a child, Faulkner used to play with the pipe he had been smoking.

*           *         *

In later life Faulkner would visit the statue in Ripley and repair it. The monument was of Carrara marble, eight foot high on a fourteen foot pediment, the face, long-nosed and vacant, chiselled in Italy from a photograph. As if he would quite like to join him on the pediment, Faulkner identified with the Old Colonel to the extent of altering his surname. Born William Cuthbert Falkner, he rescued the “u” dropped by his ancestor and set himself apart from the rest of his family (rather as Nathaniel Hathorne had done by changing his name). The smallest of men – he never grew to more than five foot five – Faulkner had always the energy of a pug-dog straining to be eight feet tall.

He was filial to Colonel Falkner’s spirit right to the end: he even died on that man’s birthday, July 6. His allegiance had skipped two generations. He described his father as a dull man.

Murry Falkner was bitter, awkward and inadequate: an uneasy man to love who loved railways, cowboy books and hunting in the woods. Thwarted in his ambitions to be a Texas rancher or the president of his father’s railroad company – “his first and lasting love” – he tottered from one business to another. He sold coal-oil for lamps and ran an unsuccessful hardware store on the square in Oxford (“Father was not a natural salesman – of hardware or anything else,” said Faulkner’s younger brother, Jack). To William, his eldest child, he bequeathed a taste for bonded bourbon and for binge drinking. Unable to support his family, Murry would grow violent and profane on hunter’s whisky. His nickname for his son was “snake-lips”. Faulkner drew on him  in The Sound and The Fury,  both for the morose, unshockable father and for Jason, his hopeless store-keeper son. “He talks just like my husband did,” said Maud Falkner.

Faulkner’s mother had had a difficult marriage with Murry. “I never did like him,” she admitted shortly before her death. A Baptist who practised Methodism, she hoped not to meet her husband in the afterlife.

Church was important to Maud, and literature. While Murry pored over westerns and comic strips, his wife read Shakespeare, Balzac, Conrad. She passed on her tastes to her favourite son. Physically, she resembled the matriarch of his novel, “her eyes so dark as to appear all pupil or all iris”, and her feelings towards Faulkner are of a parcel with Mrs Comson’s towards Jason: she believed in him unswervingly. He, in his turn, looked up to proud and determined women like her, small, bird-headed, with a tart reserve (“DON’T COMPLAIN DON’T EXPLAIN” was the sign she hung in her kitchen). From Maud Butler, Faulkner inherited his size, his inflexible self-conviction and his silences. She had first-hand experience of growing up exposed to shame and scandal, and of harbouring corrosive secrets. Her mother had been married to a sheriff of Lafayette County, but he ran off soon after their marriage, leaving his young family penniless -rather in the circumstances Sydney Herbert deserts Caddy in The Sound and The Fury.  Faulkner’s abandoned grandmother would come and stay in 1902, teaching him to paint. Faulkner called her Damuddy, and it is her funeral which provides the focal point of his novel.

Lastly, there was Caroline Barr who worked in the kitchen. Known as Mammy Callie, she was Faulkner’s second mother and his model for Dilsey. She had been born into slavery  in 1840 and “gave to my family a fidelity without stint or calculation of recompense and to my childhood an immeasurable devotion and love.” She could neither read nor write, but she could tell stories. From Mammy Callie, who called him “Memmy”, Faulkner first heard the incantatory cadences of the negro spiritual; and in the stories she embroidered in the kitchen, of plantation life before the Civil War, she taught Faulkner the power of dialect, the short steps but large rhythms which sway his prose. Just as Dilsey does, he never has to describe a character in the book. He goes inside their voice so quickly they are there.

*           *         *

To be a writer like my great-granddaddy.  From his first writing, almost until he started The Sound and The Fury,  Faulkner could be a congested and erratic imitator. In 1924, he published at his own expense The Marble Faun, a volume of poetry inspired by his dandyish enthusiasm for A.E. Housman: “Here was reason for being born into a fantastic world: discovering the splendour of fortitude, the beauty of being of the soil like a tree about which fools might howl and which winds of disillusion and death and despair might strip, leaving it bleak, without bitterness, beautiful in sadness.” But Faulkner never convinced as a poet (“warm in dark between the breasts of Death ”). Nor did he cut a plausible figure of a young man rooted indomitably in his landscape – a land, he wrote, of great swamps lurking with alligators and water moccasins. He spent his one year at university imitating French Symbolists, sporting a trim moustache and carrying a cane and a handkerchief up his sleeve. He might champ to take after his marble colonel. He more accurately resembled his marble faun: able to observe life being lived under his nose, yet powerless to break out of the stone and enjoy it.

Like Benjy, the passive idiot-child whose voice begins the novel, Faulkner found it a tremendous effort to participate in the universe. He played truant at school, where he was known as “quair”. As book-keeper in his grandfather’s bank, he earned the distancing nickname of “Count” – after the spicness of his clothes. In another image Joseph Blotner records in his biography, Faulkner dresses like a punctual tramp. A student tracks his progress across the campus, unshaven, his shirt unbuttoned, in sandals without socks: “That is Bill Faulkner and he will never amount to a damn.”

Faulkner in those days viewed Oxford simply as a “temporary address”. He seized the Great War as an opportunity to leave town and to follow in the footprints of his reckless ancestor “and be glorious and beribboned too”. But his machinations to become a war hero were ludicrous. Judged too small and weak, he stuffed himself with bananas. He was accepted as a pilot cadet only after pretending to be a “god-fearing” young Englishman from Finchley. As a pilot he was grounded for the rest of the war on an airfield near Toronto, learning callisthenics. Solely in his imagination did he assume his desired stature. In biographical notes for The Marble Faun  he wrote of his career as a man at arms: “During the war he was with the British Air Force and made a brilliant record. He was severely wounded.” In fact, he was taking for himself his younger brother’s injury and bravery: aged 19, Jack had been gassed in Champagne and wounded by shrapnel on the edge of Argonne Forest. Not only did Faulkner not see combat, no record exists for him having flown at all. There is not even a record for the mysterious accident in which he claims to have ploughed into a hangar after drinking a crock of bourbon, ending up hanging upside-down from the rafters. But the story reveals how he viewed the world, the peculiar angle of his vision: awry, suspended, trapped. And it shows the writer’s muscle already at work, that “completely amoral” tic which allowed Faulkner to take what he needed to make his characters: “They are partly composed from what they were in actual life and partly from what they should have been and were not: thus I improved on God, who, dramatic though He be, has no sense, no feeling for, theatre.”

He applied this  maquillage  in his relationships with women. The wounded air-ace who returned from Toronto with a limp and a swagger stick insinuated Jason Comson’s seasoned acquaintance with the Memphis underworld. Faulkner told the madam of one bordello that he was “vacationing from sex”, even putting it about that he had fathered two illegitimate children. More likely, his eyes did the doing. They were the eyes of a vigorous observer, not a vigorous lover, and they reflected the pain of what they missed. His hawk-like gaze, according to one admirer, “burned through the flesh and bone of everyone in front of him”. Tennessee Williams could not rid himself of the memory of Faulkner’s expression: “Those terrible, distraught eyes,” he wrote to Hemingway. “They moved me to tears.”

In point of fact, Faulkner’s private life had much in common with his war record: it failed to take off. He was a man who responded to women who did not respond to him; sullen-jawed, flat-chested flappers like Helen Baird who sat on other men’s balconies and ignored him, “not thinking even a hell of a little bit of me”. About Helen, he confided to a friend: “It’s hell being in love, ain’t it?” He converted his erotic longing into more verse:

… can breasts be ever small as these

                       Twin timorous rabbits’ quisitive soft repose?”

Whatever the truth of his antics in Memphis, Faulkner reverted back home to tongue-tied immobility. His first love, whom he was to marry after completing The Sound and the Fury, was the pretty and over-emotional Estelle Oldham. He had courted her since adolescence, when his attitude echoed his love-stunned faun. At parties in Oxford, he sat penitently watching while Estelle danced in other men’s arms. She suggested they elope, run off, but he could not muster the courage. Only on paper could he play the lover. He and Estelle were united between the covers of his poetry and in Beardsley-like drawings (some printed in the university magazine) of a scantily-dressed nymph, a satyr playing his pipe for her, a couple dancing the Charleston.

In April 1918, Estelle married a handsome lawyer and gambler, Cornell Sidney Franklin, and went to live in Shanghai. Her elopement plunged Faulkner into an agony of sexual jealousy. Ten years later, he would pour his ache and his seethe into the character of Benjy’s febrile brother, Quentin. “His world went to pieces,” said his brother John. According to Jack, “I don’t think Bill ever stopped thinking of her.” His thoughts showed even to strangers. “I felt that Faulkner had been deeply hurt – probably in some love affair,” said the architect Buckminster Fuller. “I felt that he had something that kept hurting him – that drove him to write very very beautifully to overcome the pain…”  As Faulkner put it in Mosquitoes: “You don’t commit suicide when you are disappointed in love. You write a book.”

Estelle’s marriage with Franklin did not work out (She had burst into tears on her wedding day). In January 1927, she returned with her two children to Oxford. Soon Faulkner was a regular visitor. He received his rejection of Flags in the Dust  (“THE book” he had told his publisher) at a period when Estelle was entangled in her divorce. Now she reached out to him. Together they might pull back the hands of the clock. Already a hard drinker, she began to pressure her first love into doing what he should have done all along and marry her.

The return of his virgin nymph as a whisky-swilling mother and imminent divorcee, together with the marriage, in March 1927, of his second muse Helen Baird, might explain Faulkner’s comment to his French translator that he was suffering at this time from “des difficultés d’ordre intime”. There may have been, in addition, a third woman. Early in 1928, when he had begun The Sound and The Fury, he wrote a cryptic message to his Aunt Bama: “I have something – someone I mean – to show you, if only you would. Of course, it’s a woman. I would like to see you taken with her utter charm, and intrigued by her utter shallowness. Like a lovely vase…” The woman is unnamed and, of course, it is possible she existed. But this is the period when he was kissing his bedside vase, as he called his fourth novel, and discovering within the woman who would become the first of all his women, whom he was to christen his “heart’s darling”.

*             *          *

Faulkner shapes his Caddy, the Lolita of the 1920s, from the women he had loved: the chaste and chastened Estelle, Helen Baird, his cousin Sallie Murry. She is an uncontrollable character absolutely under his domination, but where Nabokov puts Lolita on the run, out in the world, Faulkner sets Caddy sizzling at the dining-room table. Until she disappears entirely, her wick is only as long as the Comson household and garden.

“I was worst to him I loved the most,” goes the line of an Icelandic saga. To be the darling of Faulkner’s heart’s is not an enviable fate. Caddy is his favourite character, but as David Minter observes he lays upon her “frail and unbowed shoulders the whole burden of man’s history of his impossible heart’s desire.” He infuses her with his frustrated longing and out of the process moulds someone with the backbone to carry his terrible load and somehow retain her dignity. Dilsey might be bowed down by the weight. Caddy stands straight and speaks straight, authority and virtue still clinging to her.

She evolves out of three stories he had been writing about the Compson children. In each story they are let out to play at the Faulknerian hour, three brothers and a sister moving through a “strange, slightly sinister suspension of twilight”. At their head, like an adolescent piper, scampers Caddy.

Faulkner called the third story, Twilight.  “I thought it could be done in ten pages.” He based it on his grandmother’s funeral in June, 1907: a story without a plot, he wrote, of some children being sent away from the house because they were too young to know what was going on. In the central scene, the brothers look up their sister’s legs as she climbs a tree to observe what it is they have been forbidden to see. That image becomes critical for Faulkner, “the only thing in literature which would ever move me very much: Caddy climbing the pear tree to look in the window at her grandmother’s funeral while Quentin and Jason and Benjy and the negroes looked up at the muddy seat of her drawers.” When Caddy stoops in her wet garments to comfort her smallest brother, who is crying, “the entire story… seemed to explode on paper before me.” The soiled drawers – familiar, private, tender – would become a metaphor for “the shame she was to engender”.

Of Caddy, Faulkner wrote: “I loved her so much… I couldn’t decide to give her life just for the duration of a short story. She deserved more than that. So my novel was created almost in spite of myself.” For the rest of his life, he called her “the daughter” of his mind.

*             *          *

The forbidden sight Caddy glimpses from the pear tree is the adult world of her parents. It is a bold disappointment. “They’re not doing anything in there,” she complains. “Just sitting in chairs and looking.”

Caddy sees behind the window into a gathering of typical Faulkner grown-ups, desiccated and lethargic creatures defined by what they are not, by negatives: “volitionless”, “substanceless”, “unwived”, “unmeditant”, “talonless”, “fangless”, “destinationless”. The air they breathe is vitiated and enervating, their inactivity a kind of death.

In The Sound and The Fury,  adulthood manifests itself as illness. “Bad health is the primary reason for all life,” Mr Comson teaches his children. One by one the adults in the book fall ill: “Damuddy was sick… Father was sick… Uncle Maury was sick… Mother’s sick again.”

Poised on her branch outside, Caddy looks into a rotting house where there exists no credible authority. Incapacitated, her parents have deserted their posts. Her father stares at his decanter while her neurotic mother lies in an upstairs room, hand perpetually over forehead The only moral centre is someone not of their blood: the black servant Dilsey, who is old, weak and ultimately indulgent rather than corrective.

Unparented, the children are left to run wild and in doing so wild the sap spills over.

*             *          *

For Faulkner, adolescence is a prodromal world where the softest touch to the flesh leaves an imprint, the faintest smell is saturated with “the heavy rifeness of honeysuckle” and every sight installs itself. Passions are at their darkest because at their most inexplicable. But this is the age when passions direct behaviour, when to gaze up a young girl’s leg is to have longing made palpable and tantalisingly withing reach.

Benjy entering the house to eat feels “a hunger in itself inarticulate, not knowing it is hunger”. All the Comson children ache with this hunger. Their appetites go unsated at the dinner table. Unnourished, they need to pick their fruit where they can. Caddy most of all.

A young girl coming into flower is a dangerous thing. “Parasitic and potent and serene” is how Faulkner describes “that transition stage between childhood and womanhood.” When that girl is as delectable and sexually charismatic as Caddy, it disrupts the natural order. To satisfy her hunger, she becomes mother to Benjy, lover to Quentin. As Faulkner writes in his second novel about Quentin, Absalom  Absalom!::  “let flesh touch with flesh and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and colour too”.

The Compson adults do not know what to do with this sap and fail to contain it. They substitute surveillance for love, making others responsible. The children are handed over to non-kin like Dilsey or her son Luster, or when matters get really out of hand, to the least loving, least loveable member of the Comson family, Jason – who is set upon to watch his sister and brother, exactly as he will watch his niece, Caddy’s daughter.

The only child who can be contained behind the gate is the retarded one, who cannot pass into adulthood. Benjy, the primal force of the book, responds to this drive at the most primal level. When he tries to articulate its power, he is castrated.

The Comson parents by their neglect and inactivity have emotionally mutilated each of their children. In Jason, the sap simply hardens: in his attempt to contain it, he carries it around in his meanness. Out of this drive Caddy gets pregnant, seeking the love she cannot find at home, because her mother is too ill to supply it, her father too drunk and misogynist. Out of this drive, which liquefies into sexual jealousy for his sister, Quentin kills himself.

“Dese funny folks,” says Dilsey’s son, Luster. “Glad I aint none of em.”

We know from the first page this garden is doomed. The softness in the fruit is over-readiness, the first sign it is going bad. We do not expect any of the characters to cope with the cards Faulkner has dealt them, or escape. The mother will not be woken up by Quentin’s death. If anything, his death fixes her forever at the top of the stairs, calling Dilsey’s name. In the same way, Jason does not stop lying, Benjy does not stop bellowing, Caddy does not stop running.

Caddy is as absent from Faulkner’s novel as she is from his life. Hers is the voice we never hear except indirectly, but we are complicit in her fate. Her silence is the black hole into which we all lean. We watch her clamber up the fence hemming in the rest of us, and reappear on the other side, free. She is still at large, eighteen years after Faulkner created her. In an Appendix he wrote for the novel, she stands beside a sports car in the company of a German general. And hers is the photograph over which Dilsey weeps “because she knows Caddy doesn’t want to be saved hasn’t anything anymore worth being saved for nothing worth being lost that she can lose”.

*             *          *

Those who know Faulkner’s South will be familiar with its people’s capacity for bare-fisted rage. On the last pages of the novel, Jason lashes out at Benjy in an act of ruthlessness, and hitting kin he hits himself. Faulkner makes all his children transgress: they spy, they lie, they steal, they commit incest. Their transgression enacts their author’s transgression of the novel form. Driven by failure and disappointment, Faulkner falls back into his own arms. By sealing himself off, he repudiates the heritage of Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Conrad and breaks out of the restraints of conventional narrative. He wrote, he said, his guts into The Sound and the Fury.  In so doing, he wrote a book that creates out “of the materials of the human spirit something which didn’t exist before”.

The novel is not plotless, but it soon compels you to discard all expectations of plot and to listen, instead, to Faulkner’s voice, the voice of someone moving at the rapt, absorbed pace of a discoverer. The undergrowth is dense and claustrophobic, springing back after it is parted, and the path through this new realm sometimes obscure. Faulkner’s attention is so concentrated on the prospect before him that he makes limited concessions to lucidity. He has the audacity to throw at you two different Jasons, two different Quentins without telling you how to figure them out. Nor does he help with a continuous narrative. Rather, he relies on four separate narrators who span eight periods of time. (For one edition, he proposed using three coloured inks to differentiate between Benjy’s childhood, adolescence and present). Skip a line, a word even, and you risk losing his trail altogether. Arnold Bennett found the novel “exasperatingly, unimaginably difficult to read”. He was not alone. Taxed about a certain passage, Faulkner told his French translator: “I have absolutely no idea what I meant.” After finishing the first chapter, he realised that what he had just written was, as he put it, “incomprehensible, even I could not have told what was going on then, so I had to write another chapter. Then I decided to let Quentin tell his version of the same day, or that same occasion, so he told it.”

Faulkner’s confusion propels him onward. And gradually it becomes clear that the difficulty of reading the first chapter mimics the turmoil of adolescence for its four principal characters: an unfiltered and searing experience which the rest of the novel labours to clarify.

*             *          *

Faulkner once made the distinction between books you can read fast and those you must read slowly. You read The Sound and The Fury   aware that you will have to re-read every line. Its first reader, his friend Phil Stone, read the manuscript sitting in Faulkner’s room in the tower of his parents’ house in Oxford. He could not make head nor tail of it.

“Wait, just wait,” said Faulkner. He demanded the same patience of himself. “The damndest book I ever read,” he wrote to Aunt Bama.

Most writers go in, turn on the light, leave. Faulkner keeps you in the dark, in the mess. He lowers your face to the soil, to his peculiar line of vision, from where everything comes into startling contour, like Caddy’s nose seen rising above the apple. Even his sky presses down with a distorting weight: “it was so low that all smells and sounds of night seemed to have been crowded down like under a slack tent especially the honeysuckle.”

He observes no boundaries. Surfaces are permeable, light turns into oil. In this odd exchange between matter and air, people dissolve into their surrounds. There is no skin on anybody. Everything is hyper-focussed and distorted. This is true most especially of time, which operates as a hot vacuum keeping old wounds and grievances alive, poised to sting even in death.

Faulkner’s South is its own world. His idiosyncratic punctuation slips you into its time-frame. His narrative moves at the pace of a disturbed dream, beating to the tock of Quentin’s fractured watch, or the cabinet clock in the Comson kitchen, seen only by lamplight, at night, and “evincing an enigmatic profundity because it had but one hand”. The phrase “enigmatic profundity” captures the gravitas of the prose – at once incomprehensible and urgent. There is little difference between dreaming and reading Faulkner. He removes the membrane dividing moment from moment so that there are only significant moments and these run together and blur. “There is no such thing as memory,” he wrote in Absalom  Absalom !  “the brain recalls just what the muscles grope for: no more, no less: and its resultant sum is usually incorrect and false and worthy only of the name of dream.”

As every undergraduate has learnt, perhaps the only foothold a first-time reader can secure in this world is to register the patterns from which meaning might emerge. Faulkner tempts you into making lists. Of smells: wisteria, gasoline, honeysuckle, camphor, cigar-smoke, perfume. Of words: suppurating, suspenseful, gaunt, unflagging, aghast, outrageous, attenuated, impervious, invincible. Of those images and sensations that spark the narrative: Benjy, clinging to the fence to keep pace with the golfers who call for their caddy, which is also the forbidden name of his sister. The quarter lost by Luster through a hole in his pocket. The quarter found by Quentin who gives it to a little Italian girl. The girl, with her “black secret friendly gaze” who reminds Quentin of himself at that age with Caddy in the barn. The girl’s enraged brother who accuses him of stealing his sister and reacts exactly as did Quentin when he tried to punch Dalton Ames for seducing Caddy. And so on, until the moment dawns that everything is linked and that repetition is the order of things, both in the novel’s plot (being the same story told four times) and in the language Faulkner uses to tell it. He is saying: If you want to know my meaning, here it is. We are doomed to repetition.

It is hard, once heard, to forget Faulkner’s voice. He has a rhythm, a cadence that takes us into itself. He reiterates the important lesson of invoking character through action and dialogue, and he repeats his dialogue to hallucinatory effect. Not until the final section does the author, in a kind of delayed objectivity, present us with a description of his characters. There is a sense of release suddenly to see them corporeal, but we already know what they smell like, their madnesses and obsessions.

Near the end of the novel, Dilsey goes with Benjy to church and they listen to a sermon given by an undersized visiting clergyman. In his best writing, Faulkner can achieve the trance-inducing rhetoric of the small, monkey-faced preacher. “It {the voice} sounded too big to have come from him… They even forgot his insignificant appearance in the virtuosity with which he ran and poised and swooped upon the cold inflectionless wire of his voice… The voice consumed him, until he was nothing and they were nothing and there was not even a voice but instead their hearts were speaking to one another in chanting measures beyond the need for words.”

Reading Faulkner can also brace and intoxicate, like drinking good whisky for the first time. He might not be to everyone’s taste, but his flavour – mossy, unsettling, all his own – has permeated the literature of the twentieth century, from Thomas Bernhard’s Vienna to Haldor Laxness’s Iceland to the Macondo of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His fellow southerner, Flannery O’Connor likened him to a railroad such as his great-grandfather might have built. “When you hear the Dixie Special coming down the line, you’d better get off the track.”

This is the tremor you feel when you begin reading  The Sound and The Fury.  It is not a question of argument or applause. You can hate Faulkner. You can love Faulkner. It doesn’t matter. He’s coming through.