All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1931)

Plot: In one of the most technically adroit and emotionally overwhelming American novels of this century, Faulkner uses four viewpoints to unfold a grim story of family self-destruction.

The first three narrators are brothers and each, in turn, mourns and rages at the loss of sister Caddy who has escaped the barren existence of the family plantation in Mississippi.

Benjy Compson is the "idiot" implied by the Shakespearean title ("a tale told by an idiot/ full of sound and fury"). He has no sense of time or narrative sequence and his fragmented version of events shimmers with sensuous unhappiness: only the name "Caddy" brings him solace.

The second section moves from the present (1928) to Quentin Compson's last day alive, 18 years earlier. A buttoned-up Harvard freshman with a passion for order, his mechanical language expresses with neurotic precision his repressed incestuous desire for his sister. His yearnings are aggravated by her sexual promiscuity. Unable to return to an innocent past, he arrests time by drowning himself in the river.

Returning to the present, the mean-spirited voice of Jason Compson snaps its way through paragraphs of self-pity and recrimination. Like his brothers, he has never escaped the ossifying influence of his parents. Father Compson is a nihilistic drunk who twists his children to his emotional needs; Mrs Compson expends her energy cultivating minor ailments and brooding over the remnants of her respectability. Jason's response is to turn his spite on the departed Caddy and her abandoned daughter.

The final section is shared between an impersonal narrator and the black servant, Dilsey, whose ability to love unconditionally and to endure without complaint lifts her "above the fallen ruins of the family".

Style: Four "styles" recreate the mental pulses of the four different narrators, but underneath Faulkner cannot hide his natural prose which, like Hardy's, gains both strength and integrity from its awkward stabs at lyricism.

Theme: Faulkner called it "a dark story of madness and hatred". Peripherally, a demonstration of the Old South's desire to destroy itself, it is essentially a polyphonic dirge bewailing lovelessness. The iron grip of the parents cripples all the children: Benjy needs Caddy as he needs sunlight and water; Quentin needs to possess her and extinguish the flame of her personality; Jason needs to revenge himself on his parents by destroying her daughter. Caddy, before her final sad escape, seeks love in pointless sexual liaisons. All through the novel, the shifting viewpoints enforce a sense of tense claustrophia.

Chief strengths: As the fog of Benjy's monologue dissipates and the stark geometry of the story clarifies, Faulkner's vision has the numbing momentum of Attic tragedy. He achieves the sort of universality in Mississippi that Hardy managed in Wessex.

Chief weakness: Although the indirect presentation of Caddy is artful, she is conceived a little too sentimentally as a "natural innocent".

What they thought of it then: Faulkner had difficulty appealing to a public that enjoyed the more straightforward nostalgia of Wolfe and Fitzgerald.

What we think of it now: Faulkner is admired in the States and in France. In Britain, he is associated with white colonnaded Southern mansions, with wisteria on the outside and hysteria within.

Responsible for: Turning the Deep South into an industrial plant for literature: Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty owe Faulkner a hefty debt of gratitude.

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