The Sound and the Fury tells of the decline of the Compsons, a once-great Southern family, from 1910 to 1928; an appendix tracks ancestors back to 1699. The first section, titled "Benjy," is narrated by Benjy Compson, a 33-year-old man with severe mental disabilities, regarded as a curse and a shame by those around him. For Benjy, past and present are one, so his references to many different times and incidents weave together.
It's a brave experiment in modernist narrative, often compared to the work of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. (Another section, "Quentin," also stream of consciousness, is less apparently chaotic.) For such experiments, and for the tragic grandeur of its American tale, The Sound and the Fury appears on several best-ever lists. It's No. 6 on the Modern Library list of the 20th century's 100 best English-language novels, and France's Le Monde ranks it No. 34 among all 20th-century novels.
But how to make sense of Benjy's section, "a tale," to echo Shakespeare's words in Macbeth, "told by an idiot,/Full of sound and fury"? Many first-time readers find it maddeningly hard to follow.
Some passages traditionally appear in italics, to give readers a handle on the back-and-forth through time. But scholars have combed out more than 30 different sequences.
"It's notoriously hard," says Miles Orvell, professor of English at Temple University. He's calling by mobile phone during a break on a bike trip along the Wissahickon. "To start a novel like that — it's an incredibly daring opening move."
"Faulkner knew it would be difficult," says Titman. "In his letters, we see him talking about a way to print the ‘Benjy' section so the reader can sort out the various threads."
In 1929, Faulkner wrote to his friend and literary agent Ben Wasson: "I wish publishing was advanced enough to use colored ink for such … I'll just have to save the idea until publishing grows up to it."
Now, 50 years (on July 6) after Faulkner's death, digital-age publishing may have grown up to it. There are online versions of The Sound and the Fury that separate up to 30 time strands, but the Folio Society edition is thought to be the first time Faulkner has gotten his wish for "Benjy."
A bookmark is included, with a color/time key so the reader can date various passages. There's also a companion line-by-line commentary, a reprint of the 1996 book Reading Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, by scholars Noel Polk and Stephen M. Ross.
"The original idea came from a Folio Society member," says Titman, "who told us about Faulkner's idea for different colored inks." Titman knew of Polk and Ross' book and asked them to come in on the project. "Really, it took very little persuasion," Titman says.
Because of illness, Polk was unavailable for comment. But Ross, an expert on Faulkner, writes by e-mail that the project was a pleasure.
"Scholars and readers of Faulkner have never settled on exactly how many different time periods are represented in Benjy's section," Ross writes, "though I think the 14 episodes Noel and I posited are defensible. Finding 14 different colored inks proved to be harder than we thought." He thinks the bookmark is very helpful: "Faulkner probably would have enjoyed having that accompany his novel."
What do outside scholars think? Thadious Davis, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, says that "while it may seem a little like a publisher's gimmick, it is also fascinating to see the colors reflecting the shifts and changes in the text. … [T]he different colors of print ink will serve as the latest and most 21st-century of the signposts aiding readers." She applauds Polk and Ross' work and says, "It may not be necessary, but what a treat for readers!"
But does it help clarify matters? Orvell of Temple wonders. "The colors draw our attention to the time shifts. But should we be that aware of them? Will that enhance or detract from our experience? Or would it be a distraction?" Yet another question bothers him: "Shouldn't we preserve a degree of confusion? Isn't that, after all, part of what Faulkner was after?"
That drills down to the real question. We can overdo this "difficulty" business. The deep, lasting pleasure of the book is connected to its challenging nature. Ross says, "Faulkner cared a great deal about his readers — this is why he wanted the different colored inks, so the reader would be better able to follow. ... But he was also willing to risk readers not understanding the book easily. ... Personally, I found the Benjy section — even the first time I read it — to give me enough clues so I could piece together a coherent story."
(In that, he speaks for many readers who revere The Sound and the Fury. See the accompanying story.)
"That he put the Benjy section first was audacious, indeed," says Ross. "But if you read it carefully, it gives a remarkably rich feel for the Compson family, a dysfunctional family if ever there were one."
That's what's miraculous about The Sound and the Fury. Caught in the swirl of time and thought in the minds of the characters, we come to care about the Compsons. They come to haunt us. Evidence? One of the characters, Quentin, a Harvard student, jumps to his death into the Charles River in Cambridge. Quentin never existed — yet there is a plaque on the Anderson Memorial Bridge to commemorate his jump.
This novel makes people care. As Davis puts it, "most readers who come through that disorienting start know that they have accomplished something special."
Now there's a special edition of that something special. In living colors.
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @jtimpane.