William Faulkner, “The Sound & the Fury”

1929

The Sound and the Fury unfolds in four parts – Benjy’s disjointed narrative (Holy Saturday – April 7th, 1928), Quentin’s last day before suicide (June 2, 1910), Jason’s clear and cruel tale (Good Friday – April 6th, 1928), and Dilsey’s focalized perspective (though not in first person – Easter Sunday – April 8th, 1928). The novel’s title comes from the final soliloquy in Macbeth – “the tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot and signifying nothing” (the “nothing” pun in Naiman’s terms would be interesting here, given the centrality of Caddy’s sexuality). Once again, you could consider these as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Mark being the oldest source material for the other two synoptic gospels and John (the Dilsey section) being that of revelation.

Faulkner originally proposed representing Benjy in different-colored fonts, and to be sure, both he and Quentin are synesthetes (Benjy’s “smelled cold,” etc). Benjy’s narrative is odd because he cannot speak (he repeats “I tried to say”), but we see the world through his eyes. He seems to believe he creates the very world around him “the fire disappeared,” “the bowl appeared.” Benjy’s narrative accumulates moments that conflate all chronology or clock time – a heap of duree in one dose. His obsession with mirrors and what enters and exits their frames is thus interesting: Benjy watches to see his own creation of life, and is upset when the mirror disappears. He listens at the fence for the golfers to say “caddie” to hear the name of his sister, which no one else speaks.

The incest trope (Caddy and Quentin) functions here not so much for the shock, but because the plot hinges on unspeakability. Incest mobilizes the problems of kinship and loyalty, the inability for the characters to communicate – they all suffer from versions of Benjy’s “I tried to say,” a modern condition, perhaps. Dilsey and the other black characters escape/are erased from even the narrative effort: “These others were not Compsons. They were black:… Dilsey. They endured” 427.

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Samuel Beckett, “Molloy,” “Endgame” & “Waiting for Godot”

MOLLOY, 1941/1953

Part of Beckett’s trilogy of novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, & The Unnameable), Molloy is split between two inner monologues, which are very similar. One is the wandering Molloy, who is living in his mother’s old room and waiting to die. He tells us he has arrived there by a long bicycle journey during which he killed a man in the woods. The second is Jacques Moran, a detective, who travels with his son Jacques to find Molloy. His son disappears and Moran returns home, where he begins using crutches (as Molloy does) and admits that “the voice told him to write the report.” The famous ending of the novel is: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining,” which is an assertion of madness, but also an meta-commentary on the capacities of fiction writing. It would be interesting to compare this to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – what the writer does and does not know, and how the reader might piece it together.

WAITING FOR GODOT, 1953

The play centers on Vladimir and Estragon, who stand waiting for a man named Godot on a road. They see Lucky (a slave “freed of expectations”) and Pozzo (whose name is a homonym for “crazy” in Italian) pass by and converse with them. If Stein foregrounds grammar in her experiments with language and repetition, Beckett works on them in speech – in the “dialogues” of his characters. Beckett’s plays engage an almost hysterical refusal of meaning and interpretation (as Estragon refuses to hear Vladimir’s dreams). A few memories persist in both plays, but the restrictive visual landscape of the sets and the flat refusal of regeneration (there are no women, or they are too old to procreate) discourage hope even as they incite the viewer to seek for ways out. It is thought to have had an especially strong influence on Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, whose title characters, according to Michael Billington, “are what Vladimir and Estragon would be in Elsinore.”

ENDGAME, 1957

Similar in structure to Waiting for Godot, Endgame uses a clock, rather than a road, to encourage its viewer to seek an arc or way out that is simply unavailable to the characters. The post-atomic landscape outside the high windows of the room inhabited by Clov, a servant who cannot sit, Hamm, a man who cannot see or stand, and Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, who have no legs and live in trashcans suggest a literal “leveling of the field” after modernism that would give on to the play of postmodern literature.