Wall Street Journal
August 10, 2012
William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) is one of the monuments of High Modernism—America's answer to James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). As such, it is almost by definition "difficult": obscure, allusive, discontinuous. This tale of the dissolution of a once-aristocratic Southern family, the Compsons, is related in turn by each of the three Compson brothers—the idiot Benjy, the suicidal Quentin and the vengeful Jason—and lastly, in a final chapter, by the novel's omniscient narrator. Each of the four sections presents its own challenges, but the first one, Benjy's, is famously complex, for Benjy has no sense of time. Present, past and future are all one to him, and he slips almost unnoticeably among them.
Benjy's monologue is one of the great tours de force of stream-of-consciousness writing, on a level with those of Molly Bloom in Ulysses and Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927). The critics of Faulkner's era were not all charmed: Howard Rockey, for one, reviewing The Sound and the Fury in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1929, complained that the book might drive its readers "to apply for admission to the nearest insane asylum." Countless high-school and college students since then have agreed. Even Faulkner himself was not sure that the Benjy section really worked. "I did not try deliberately to make it obscure," he claimed in an introduction to the novel written in 1933 (though not published until 1972). His objective, he wrote, was "a continuous whole, since the thought transference is subjective; i.e., in Ben's mind and not in the reader's eye."
Faulkner spent a good deal of time tinkering with the first section's format, punctuation (or lack thereof), and typefaces in order to achieve the effects he sought while still making it possible for the reader to follow the narrative and construct from it a coherent whole. The solution he came up with was to indicate a change in time levels with the judicious use of italics: "I purposely used italics for both actual scenes and remembered scenes for the reason," he wrote to his agent, Ben Wasson, "not to indicate the different dates of happenings, but merely to permit the reader to anticipate a thought-transference, letting the recollection postulate its own date." But he acknowledged that the solution was still not quite satisfactory. "If I could only get it printed the way it ought," he complained, "with different color types for the different times in Benjy's section recording the flow of events for him, it would make it simpler, probably. I don't reckon, though, it'll ever be printed that way, and this'll have to be the best, with the italics indicating the changes of events."
This wistful fantasy has long posed a challenge to scholars and editors. As early as 1932, Faulkner's publisher, Bennett Cerf, proposed a limited edition of the novel with the Benjy section printed in colors, and the novelist provided him with a copy that he had marked up in three colors for the purpose. The Depression put an end to this expensive venture, and the color-coded copy vanished. The Internet has enabled would-be editors to present their own versions, and so far at least two such versions have appeared online, though due to copyright issues they are no longer accessible.
Now the Folio Society has tried its hand at the project, commissioning two eminent Faulknerians, Stephen M. Ross and Noel Polk, to produce a colorized version of Benjy's monologue as part of a deluxe edition of The Sound and the Fury, which includes an entire second volume with an extensive glossary and commentary. There is also a bookmark for the reader's convenience showing the color code for the various time levels in the Benjy section—14 of them, according to Messrs. Ross and Polk. The whole has been produced with the Folio Society's customary luxury paper and binding, and the edition is limited to 1,480 numbered copies for sale only to members of the society. (It is quite easy to join, at foliosociety.com.)
The Sound and the FuryBy William Faulkner
Folio Society, 313 pages, $345