I came to William Faulkner by an odd and circuitous route.
When I was around 13-15 years old, I saw an old black and white film on TV one Sunday afternoon that I’d really liked, in a weird, covetously secret, excited kind of way. What I’d liked about it specifically was the relationship between Yul Brynner (with hair) and his “ward”; a relationship I saw then as patriarchal.
Years later all I could remember about it, other than my mysterious excitement, was a scene with them in a garden. I couldn’t even remember what happened in it, only that it had hooked into a dark vein inside me and wouldn’t let go.
Over the years I tried to track it down without success, having no idea what it was called and having only ‘a young Yul Brynner with hair’ to go on.
One night, however, about a year back, I decided to knuckle down to the onerous task of trying to find it by wading through all of Yul Brynner’s films (and he made a surprising amount) on IMDB and seeing if anything sounded likely.
Sure enough, I finally found it, or what I thought was it, The Sound and the Fury from 1959. He had hair, he looked after a family, including his wild young niece. I was filled with the joy that only catching a part of your elusive past can create. I promptly hared to Amazon to purchase it, regardless of price.
No joy. It wasn’t available in the UK, on any format. I tried the US. No joy there either. I retired crestfallen, wondering if I could write to the film company and ask if they had a copy.
Imagine my delight a year later when I’m revisiting the film on IMDB to see if there’s any word on bringing out a DVD when I fall over someone saying they got a copy from this web site, which contains several people doing the same thing, invaluable chappie selling not-on-DVD movies to desperate types like me (Yes, you’ll see my buying history on here if you scroll down, you sad person. And no, the picture of Yul is not from this movie.)
This is a white hat bootlegger who only sells films you can’t get by any legal means – bless them. As soon as the film becomes a legitimate DVD they stop issuing it. Bless them again.
So I do all my checks: feedback? (good), prohibitive postage from US? (no, very cheap), problems with sending abroad? (no), reasonable DVD quality? (seems to be) – and off my money goes.
And back the film comes in due course. I watch it the morning I get it and it is pretty much nothing like I remember it – which is par for the course for something you’ve waited 30 years to see again. However, I was right about that garden scene (it was a kiss, of a weird and dangerous sort) and I can see why I liked it. Shaping the novelist to come indeed.
Although this seems to be a shorter version than I saw, it’s still a good film, perversely unusual, and I have no idea why it is not more popular (one for my next Maverick guide, on forgotten and reviled movies). And it inspired me to read the novel. I hadn’t realised it was based on a novel until I saw a lot of people on IMDB moaning that it doesn’t resemble the book (they never learn, do they?).
So, off goes Mr Scratchmann’s money – he bought it for my birthday – and back comes the book.
First I’m surprised to see it’s rather short. I’d looked it up on Wikipedia, the very best place on God’s earth to read what ‘everyone’ thinks of anything, and the entry had been so long and lyrical I imagined it would be a great big fat Ayn Randian thing. Not at all.
I’m kind of prepared for the reading experience of this ‘classic’ because I’ve been forewarned on Wikipedia that it’s written in a stream of consciousness style. I admit I am somewhat cooled by this. I have no patience for it in my dotage, but I set my hat at it in a ‘determined not to be prejudiced against it by Wikipedia’s pseudo-intellectual/s’ way. Not the book’s fault.
So, I settle down in my morning bath and find the book has an introduction. The introduction, it transpires, is to tell me all about the book before I read it. Assumably in case I am put off by the impenetrable prose style of the “first 70” pages, as told by an idiot, full of the sound and the fury, signifying nothing – as the bard said and Willie, the second, adopted. (A quick note here to point out to anyone who is about to read How to Write the Perfect Novel – already available from a seller [not us] on Amazon in the US, and from Poison Pixie in the UK, by the way – I was right about using Shakespeare in your titles if you want to win the Booker or, in this case, become a “literary giant”. I’m telling you, bloody good advice in that book, even if I do say it as what shouldn’t.)
In fact, the introduction tells me everything I need to know about the book to spare me any confusion at all. God forbid I should have to work anything out for myself. There’s two Quentins; the change in typeface indicates shifts in time; Quentin the first has drowned himself; first part of the narrative is by…; second part is by…
And so it goes on. In short, a whole Coles Notes at the front. And I’ve read it unwittingly, expecting that it was going to tell me something I needed to know about the book’s history or its historical context or something. But all it actually wanted to tell me was what the book is about and what it means and what happens in it, in case I get confused, poor dear, and don’t realise that I’m reading a masterpiece and think it is just a piece of wandering, half-assed drivel.
Okay, I think. Well, forewarned is forearmed and after around four pages of Benjy’s half-sentences and meandering internal rambles I think, Mm, I can see why they warn everybody, since you have no idea what’s going on and, on my part, don’t much care either. But what the hell, I’ve started so I’ll finish. I’ve been reassured by Those Who Know that it gets easier after the first 70 pages and by the end all will be crystal. It’s a tale told backwards, as it were, and as someone who’s done the same thing I can hardly throw stones.
Soak in the bath, read the book.
And I do, for.. what?… 11 days or so? I started on the third of December – do the math yourself. I finished it today, and I know absolutely nothing more than I did from reading the introduction. (I did get out the bath occasionally. I didn’t lie in there for 11 days, reading. Come on.)
Yes, the two and a half page (large type) introduction tells you the whole book, or at least all you’re going to learn from it.
In the first 73 pages of the novel you learn that Benjy doesn’t think right. And he makes a lot of gibbering idiot noises and the word Caddy has a special significance for him. In the next 104 pages you learn that Quentin (the first) is at college. You also learn he picks up stray children, seems disturbed, is incapable of finishing an internal sentence, although he manages fine with external, is jealous of his sister’s ‘relationships’ and has confessed to committing incest with her.
In the next 86 pages you learn that Jason – a so far unimportant figure – is so consumed with anger over being done out of a job by Caddy that he makes everyone’s life a misery and is a (somewhat enjoyable) sarcastic cunt. He’s also a self-righteous thief and a racist – but no worse than any other racist in the book, of which there are many.
In the last 57 pages you don’t so much learn that Dilsey, the family servant, is a poor put-upon old nigger – their term, not mine – as see even more of how put-upon she really is. The only benefit from the last two sections is they are more or less in straightforward English. However, they are largely redundant, adding nothing much to what’s gone before.
The first two sections spend all their time not telling you things, storing vital (maybe) nuggets of information in a fog of words so thick and impenetrable even Jack the Ripper might have had to stay indoors and thus save some lives.
The last two sections are like fillers – we’ve got all the nasty stuff out the way, now we’ll tack on this ostensibly ‘legitimate’ story and it will look like a real novel and no-one will spot that I’ve just snuck incest, promiscuity, alcoholism, illegitimacy and the decay of the American South right under Middle America’s nose. Hee-hee me.
Hee-hee me indeed.
Faulkner published this novel in 1928 and it caused a big scandal. Unfortunately, although everyone assures us that said furore happened no-one sees fit to tell us exactly why. Assumably we don’t need to know that. Hey, it was controversial, man. Yeah, must be a classic.
A classic of what? How to couch a story in something so far up the hole of euphemism it may never see the light of day again? What, in the name of all that’s holy, is the point of that?
This kind of cunting drivel (excuse my French) is responsible for shit like the Booker Prize and its attendant backwash of literary effluent that we drown in today. This is the ‘literary heritage’ that novelists like Faulkner have left us.
Cowardice. Cowardice in huge ugly spades. What’s worse is it never works. No matter how much you try to sweeten the bitter pill for the reading classes they always see through it. Faulkner buried anything his novel had to say under a deliberate obfuscation of words. He thought that way he could either fool the literati into thinking he’d said something deep about man’s darkness, without actually having to say it, or that they wouldn’t get what he was actually saying at all and he’d ‘win’ by putting one over on them.
Oh, but poor Faulkner was writing in the twenties and thirties, a different era, a different time; people couldn’t take the truth then. It was illegal to publish the truth then. Really? Well, it was illegal to publish the truth 138 years beforehand when the Marquis de Sade was writing about similar subjects. And, indeed, he was incarcerated for it, but that never stopped him writing any truths he saw fit, in ‘English’ any ten year old could read. (He was French, you know that, right?)
And de Sade was far from the only one. Authors before and since de Sade have done the same thing, and received the usual vilification. Faulkner was never quite vilified though. And it didn’t take long for the intelligentsia to christen him a ‘genius’. After all, all the obfuscation has to be worth something. Just think, if he had written ‘Quentin wanted to fuck his sister’ there could be no doubt, no indecision, no double-meaning – and no long essay on the ‘hidden’ subtext of Faulkner’s work.
Without that deliberate confusion, the swamp of internal ‘ideas’, that mass of indigestible nonsense masquerading as an ‘interior life’, how could he be considered deep? What would be deep about ‘Quentin wanted to fuck his sister’? Nothing. It’s deepless. Straightforward, to the point, forthright, true. And that wouldn’t do at all.
And so every cowardly piss-ant author since then, keen to write ‘dirty’ and still get it past his headmaster and his mum – the two basic prototypes of any prize-awarding body – has hit on that same recipe. Take what you want to say – ‘Quentin wants to fuck his sister’ – and wrap 200 pages around it with nary a clear thought in sight, then stick another 100 on the end, with no ‘artistry’, to pretend the first 200 are a deliberate artistic statement rather than a spineless coded message and behold – a genius is born.
And that stunt is genius.
So the film versus the book? No resemblance. The film takes only the 86 pages of Jason’s ‘story’ and changes them to make Jason a hard-done-by soul who may or may not be in love with his ‘niece’ (thus, somewhat cunningly, sublimating the Quentin/Caddy story of the original). They are careful to turn him into a hardworking disciple of the American dream and make Caddy into an ageing slut. They also separate the relationships so that he is not a pure blood relative. Despite all that, or maybe because of it, the film is hugely superior to the book. It tells a straightforward story and skips all the supposedly ‘enlightening’ padding. Despite its obvious clean-up of Faulkner’s risqué material it feels curiously like a more realistic view of life. At least when it deals with promiscuity, alcoholism, and its ‘hint’ of incest it does it with a kind of forthrightness that was actually unusual in cinema of the day, and that is completely absent in the supposedly superior book.
And, of course, Yul Brynner’s arguably obnoxious alpha male is very sexy, in a borderline abusive kind of way.
The book is the Brokeback Mountain of its day, claiming to be ever so controversial and outspoken when really it’s some kind of dinosaur throwback trying to wring sympathy for people who deserve none by trying to make them look tragic while so euphemising their story that the Salvation Army might write a hymn about it. It’s ‘tragedy’ for the ‘Infinity True Life Stories’ classes. Show me the horror – in the nicest way possible.
William Faulkner, founding father of The Great American Warm & Fuzzies.