Sep 21, 2016

Spring 1983: Reading Faulkner: Redneck Muscle and Boys in Drag

Nothing brings back my memories of college literature classes more than William Faulkner.  Other authors I can return to with respect, even with pleasure, but Faulkner is mostly incomprehensible, and the parts I understand fill me with disgust.

In the spring of 1983, I took a horrible class in turgid, heterosexist "classics."  First Ulysses (by James Joyce), and then The Waste Land (by T.S. Eliot).  Then...shudder, gasp... The Sound and the Fury (1929), by William Faulkner.

"Marvelous!" the Professor chirped. "Stupendous!  A masterpiece!  The greatest novel ever written!"

I doubt he has ever read it.  I doubt anyone has.  It is literally impossible to understand even a word.  Check out the first two sentences:

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.  They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence.

Benjy the Idiot is standing on the other side of a fence from a golf course.  I looked it up -- no way to ever figure it out from the cryptic text.

As I understand it from extensive research, The Sound and the Fury is about three brothers in the dying, decrepit, depressed Compson family of Mississipi: Benjy, Quentin, and Jason.  I imagine they look like this.



Part 1: Narrated by Benjy, an "idiot" who has no conception of time, and jumps back and forth at random between events that he didn't understand in the first place.  He cries a lot, and he's obsessed with his sister Caddy's muddy underwear.

Gay subtext: The elderly "Negro" servant Dilsey warns her grandson Luster to stay away from the Man with the Red Tie.  Wearing red is probably a gay symbol, like wearing lavender today.  Maybe they're having a gay affair.  And hopefully Luster looks like this.

Part 2: Narrated by Quentin, a Harvard freshman who's crazy, and whose mind jumps back and forth at random just like Benjy's. He's obviously gay, in love with his roommate, Shreve, who responds by grabbing his knee.  Someone even calls Shreve his "husband."  

He claims to have committed incest with his sister Caddy, but he's lying to hide a worse shame -- she had sex with someone else.

Wait -- aren't you supposed to have sex with someone other than your brother?

This part is also completely incomprehensible.  Not even a single sentence makes any sense. I understand Quentin commits suicide.

Part 3: Narrated by Jason, the third brother, the only one who thinks normally and writes normally.  This part is sort of comprehensible, except for references to events from the first part that we don't know about because they were both written in gibberish, and the fact that a different Quentin shows up -- this one Caddy's daughter.  Calling a girl by a boy's name always leads to gay subtexts, but it also compounds the confusion in what is already an incomprehensible book.

Jason's story is about stealing money from Quentin #2.  I think.


Part 4: No narrator. Miss Quentin has taken the money Jason stole from her, plus some of his own, and run off with the Man with a Red Tie (the one Luster is having an affair with in Part 1).  So maybe Miss Quentin is a boy in drag.  Jason does get awfully upset when he sees "her" in a bathrobe.

The homophobic Jason looks for Miss Quentin, to get his money back, but finally gives up.  The end.

It took a lot of creativity and endless Cliff's Notes to get through!

And beefcake photos.  Here's a semi-nude William Faulkner, thinking up new and better ways to torture English majors.

I didn't know it at the time, but a year later I would be cruising in Faulkner country, Oxford, Mississippi.