The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, book of a lifetime


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The Independent Culture

"She smelled like trees." I first heard the phrase spoken, not read on the page, by a teenage boy, smoking a cigarette, possibly a joint, sitting in a closed-up summer house that had been invaded in the winter for a weekend campout away from parents.

I mention these details because it was unusual that the book which inspired me to write was one I first heard about being discussed in a way that an album might have been. She smelled like trees. The sentence is not even so remarkable, but it was like a strike of lightning to me. The boys were reading it for a class: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.

I found the book. In early spring I lay on the lawn in front of the Concord Public Library on my stomach with The Sound and the Fury resting in the grass. I vividly remember the moment, the scene of Caddy and her brother Quentin by the river.

"get out of that water are you crazy
but she didnt move her face was a white blur framed out of the blur of the sand by her hair"

The oblique narration for this moment of incest was so powerful I had one of those arresting moments in art, when the whole earth seemed to shift almost violently from being this way, to that. I immediately had the desire, as a writer, to affect readers the way that Faulkner had just affected me. Stop them in their tracks, and move them. When my mother saw I was reading the book, she said she'd tried it, but found it too hard to understand. The odd thing is that I didn't understand a lot of it either, but the book flowed into me like music. And indeed, the book is like song, layered with voices, it is a book that sings. There is a porous depiction of time and many voices. So it is apt that my introduction to it was as something heard, and so my experience of it, going directly through my ear into my brain.

Faulkner has a line, "Memory believes before knowing remembers, believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders." What does that mean? I can't explain it, but inside, I understand it.

This masterwork is told from the perspectives of four different characters. Faulkner had hoped to publish the book using different coloured inks to indicate which voice. His publishers told him it was impossible, so italics were used, with the many voices swirling. It is the poetic voice of Benjy, the man-child, who describes his sister as smelling like trees. He is often weeping and from him comes the Shakespearean title. "[Life] is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." For me, this book signified everything.

Susan Minot's new novel, 'Thirty Girls', is published by Fourth Estate