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July 29, 2014

Faulkner's "Splendid Failure"

On this day in 1929, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury was published. It was his fourth novel, the second and most famous in his series of fifteen "Yoknapatawpha County" books. Early reviewers compared it to Dostoevsky and Euripides, but a first printing of 1,789 copies lasted for a year and a half. Even this was more than Faulkner expected: having had so little interest from publishers in his previous books, Faulkner forgot all about them when he began The Sound and the Fury:
    One day I seemed to shut the door between me and all publishers' addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can write. Now I can make myself a vase like that which the old Roman kept at his bedside and wore the rim slowly away with kissing it. So I, who never had a sister and was fated to lose my daughter in infancy, set out to make myself a beautiful and tragic little girl.
The daily writing was "ecstasy," and the particular image which provided the genesis of the book became "the only thing in literature which would ever move me very much: Caddy climbing the pear tree to look in the window at her grandfather's funeral while Quentin and Jason and Benjy and the negroes looked up at the muddy seat of her drawers."
    "Push me up, Versh." Caddy said.
    "All right." Versh said. "You the one going to get whipped. I aint." He went and pushed Caddy up into the tree to the first limb. We watched the muddy bottom of her drawers. Then we couldn't see her. We could hear the tree thrashing.
    "Mr Jason said if you break that tree he whip you." Versh said.
    "I'm going to tell on her too." Jason said.
    The tree quit thrashing. We looked up into the still branches.
    "What you seeing." Frony whispered.
    I saw them. Then I saw Caddy, with flowers in her hair, and a long veil like shining wind. Caddy Caddy....
Faulkner maintained his folksy, self-deprecating view that the book was a "splendid failure" right to the end, even after worldwide fame and the Nobel. In a 1957 interview he described his experimental, 4-part telling of the story as a decision forced upon him by his lack of talent:
    I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn't enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn't enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else's eyes, I thought. And that failed and I tried myself -- the fourth section -- to tell what happened, and I still failed.

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