sarsaparilla and jimson weed (the sound and the fury, faulkner)

i borrowed this one from my dad’s library. it actually is less creased than this picture. i’m a careful reader. 🙂  at first glance i was discouraged simply by the cover of this book. it is so bleak, communicates so much hopelessness in just a few shades of grey and brown. having read the whole thing now, if i were to design a new cover for this book, it would have more life in it. something, however small, that is beautiful and mortal, rather than being dead already.

the book wasn’t as hard to read as i expected. what helped was letting go of my constant desire to see the whole picture, or at least see the picture being painted systematically. next to the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief” this book required of me a willing surrender of cognitive control, so to speak. this was particularly so in the first and third part of the narrative. the setting is jefferson, a small town in mississippi.

part one: told from the perspective of benjamin, “benjy,” a 30something year old man with the mental capacities of a toddler (well, a toddler who has been a toddler for three decades). benjamin’s mind moves between past and present without much distinction, – often a smell (caddy’s in particular), an expression (“You don’t want your hands froze on Christmas do you.” p.12), or a location is enough to draw up the experience of something similar years earlier. faulkner uses a typographic marker to show where these jumps happen by setting text in italics. the glimpses he shares cover the time span from about 1900 to 1928.

part two: told from the perspective of quentin, who gets sent to harvard and narrates his last day before commits suicide in 1910. we hear about his stuck-up “friend” gerald and his family, but mostly his concern is with the incest quentin believes he has committed with caddy, his sister. whether or not they were physically intimate does not become clear in the novel. as i was getting to part three of the novel i caught myself thinking of the girl named quentin as quentin and caddy’s illegitimate daughter, but that is my own reading / speculation. when quentin finds out caddy is to marry a man who does not treat her well, he travels to meet him but cannot change caddy’s mind. unbeknownst to her husband-to-be, she is already pregnant, so she feels she has no time to lose. an interesting motif here is the pocket watch quentin deliberately breaks yet carries around with him for the ticking.

part three: told by jason, the one who had to stay in the country, working in a store in town. he still lives with his mother who is / believes she is too weak and too ill to do anything for herself, his sister’s illegitimate teenage daughter whom they have named quentin, and benjy and a handful of servants who take care of the retarded man. the mother makes it very clear that she sees “her poor baby” benjy as a punishment for her children’s wrongdoings and shortcomings, and that it is only right that she, as their mother, should have to suffer for them. jason strongly dislikes people in general, and you will notice he has a particular dislike for blacks, women (“bitches” and “whores”), and jews. he does not beat around the bush where any of that is concerned. jason’s account is dated april 6th, 1928.

part four is told by an unnamed narrator, and is set two days after part three. his teenage niece, having been caught running around in town with men rather than going to school, absconds with her lover during the night, taking a large sum of money jason had saved behind his mother’s back. he tries, unsuccessfully, to track them down in his car, then returns home to jefferson.

jimson weed, painting by georgia o’keefe

things that struck me while reading:

the practice of renaming. both benjamin, whose original name must have been maury (after his unreliable uncle) if i read this right, and caddy’s illegitimate daughter quentin (if her original name is mentioned i must have overread it) receive new names from the family. they are both sources of shame to jason, benjy, quentin and caddy’s mother. as, of course, are caddy (for being “a fallen woman”) and quentin (for committing the unspeakable sin of suicide). which leaves only jason to be trusted and relied upon. both benjy and teenage quentin are left for the servants to raise, while (grand)mother lies in bed pitying herself for being such a burden to her remaining son. at the same time she is too proud to accept the money caddy sends her every month, – she burns the checks as soon as she receives them, leaving jason with the whole burden of feeding the household.

the plants and flowers mentioned. now, i am interested in plants as it is and, well, i am sure in a climate such as that in mississippi, lots of green grows everywhere, but there are some that are mentioned a bunch of times.

in the first part, benjy is given jimson weed flowers to play with. jimson weed, also known as “hell’s bells” or “loco flower”,  is poisonous to humans and cattle, and contains hallucinogenic substances. this may or may not have been something people were aware of at that time, but it doesn’t seem like the best toy.

quentin, in part two, speaks repeatedly of the oppressive smell of honeysuckle. (see p.157 for example) it becomes much more than just the scent of a flower. it takes his breath, makes him feel helpless.

the whole aspect of scent is a theme in this book. benjy finds orientation, comfort, pleasure in certain scents, identifies people by how they smell, – caddy’s smell in particular is important to him. at different instances he explains she smells like leaves, trees in the rain, or rain itself.

honeysuckle, by william curtis

to give you an idea of how faulkner creates different voices for the different narrators, here is a sample passage for benjy. he is watching some young girls pass his fence on their way from school:

They came on. I opened the gate and they stopped, turning. I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying and the bright shapes began to stop and I tried to get out. I tried to get off of my face, but the bright shapes were going again. They were going up the hill to where it fell away and I tried to cry. But when I breathed in I couldn’t breathe out again to cry, and I tried to keep from falling off the hill and I fell off the hill into the bright, whirling shapes. (p.53-54)

now here is his brother quentin’s voice:

I could smell the curves of the river beyond the dusk and I saw the last light supine and tranquil upon tide-flats like pieces of broken mirror, then beyond them lights began in the pale clean air, trembling a little like butterflies hovering a long way off. Benjamin the child of. How he used to sit before that mirror. Refuge unfailing in which conflict tempered silenced reconciled. Benjamin the child of mine old age held hostage into Egypt. O Benjamin. Dilsey said it was because Mother was too proud for him. (p.154)

and, finally, here is jason’s. this is after he talks back to his boss and lies about why he was late. his boss warns him to be careful with how he spends his money and threatens to show jason’s mother that he, behind her back, has drawn his investment out of the store to buy an automobile.

I never said anything more. It doesn’t do any good. I’ve found that when a man gets into a rut the best thing you can do is let him stay there. And when a man gets it in his head that he’s got to tell something on you for your own good, good night. I’m glad I haven’t got the sort of conscience I’ve got to nurse like a sick puppy all the time. If I’d ever be as careful over anything as he is to keep his little shirt tail full of business from making him more than eight per cent. I reckon he thinks they’d get him on the usury law if he netted more than eight per cent. What the hell chance has a man got, tied down in a town like this and to a business like this. Why I could take his business in one year and fix him so he’d never have to work again, only he’d give it all away to the church or something. If there’s one thing gets under my skin, it’s a damn hypocrite. A man that thinks anything he don’t understand all about and that first chance he gets he’s morally bound to tell the third party what’s none of his business to tell. (p.204)

this book is an interesting, intense read. turn off the radio and tv while reading this or you’ll likely get confused because you miss important bits and pieces. this is a book that deserves your undivided attention and rewards you well for it. there are pages chock full of text without punctuation, there are pages that look like contemporary poems with lots of short lines, dialogue without “he said” and “she said” or explanations who is speaking and what they are doing, there are meandering thoughts, poetic little observations, patterns of repetition and fragmentation – i am impressed.

my next read: “true brits” by j.r. daeschner. (some light reading for the weekend…)

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

One comment

  1. Pingback: The Bigger Picture: Modernism | Outside of a Cat

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