What I’m Reading: Tales Told by Idiots.

A month ago, while visiting my brother in Detroit, I picked up a copy of The Sound and the Fury at a huge used bookstore in the city, and nearly a month before that, my father gave me a copy of The Idiot for my birthday; when I left for France a few weeks ago, I was in the middle of The Sound and the Fury, and I’d packed The Idiot in my suitcase along with a few other books to read while abroad. It’s been so long since I’ve written a proper entry here in part because I’ve been reading so much that my writing has gotten neglected. Funny how that works, right? So I will attempt to redeem myself, starting now, but with advance apologies for the jumbled mess of thoughts to follow.

William Faulkner’s famous novel, The Sound and the Fury, takes its title from a soliloquy in Act V of Macbeth which concludes with the lines “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more. It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.” Lines from Macbeth, from that soliloquy and elsewhere in the play, ring through The Sound and the Fury with remarkably clarity, and though as far as I know, the title of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot (my edition was translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s play, I nonetheless found myself thinking a great deal about Macbeth while reading Dostoevsky’s book as well.

It’s hard to think of two other books I’ve read successively that have had such a different texture to them, such a different feeling to the momentum of the narratives and to the style and tone of the writing, and, at least superficially, such different subject matter. The Sound and the Fury is the story–perhaps better described as the saga, the history, the ramblings, the thoughts, the experiences, or all of the above–of the Compson family, residents of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha county, in the state of Mississippi. The Idiot, on the other hand, is set in Russia, in the city of Petersburg and the country suburb of Pavlovsk.  In Dostoevsky’s personal correspondence, he describes The Idiot as an attempt to “portray a perfectly beautiful man,” imagined in the character of Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin. The book begins with young Prince Myshkin, entirely without family, friends, money (or prospects, as Jane Austen might say) and equally lacking in self-pity, returning to his native Russia after a long stay abroad at a Swiss sanatorium.

The Sound and the Fury begins with a tale that is, quite literally, told by

Cover of William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury."

an idiot. Reading the first chapter of the novel, narrated by the 33-year-old, mentally handicapped, man-child Benjy, felt to me a bit like being thrown into a dark pool of water, into which one sinks so deep and twists around so completely that in a few moments it’s impossible to be sure which one has to swim to reach the surface. Seen through Benjy’s mind, the most simple of things (like eating a bowl of soup) are distorted, as if they’re being seen through an oddly twisted piece of glass. Times, places, people, spaces and sensations all merge together, following one upon the other with no immediately discernable order.

At first, I was frustrated and disoriented by the structure of Faulkner’s novel, especially because as the book went on, the chapters became steadily easier to read, and (at least superficially) to understand.  Each successive change in narration moved into a style more linearly sequential and less openly troubled, and so “why not,” I wondered, put the chapters in the other order, “why not let the reader know more to begin with, rather than less?” But the more I read, the more I felt the integrity of the book’s structure.

As murky and difficult as the first chapter of The Sound and the Fury is, there are moments in it so remarkably illuminating that as I read the later sections, I felt  how often Benjy’s consciousness cut, like beams of light, through the gnawing darkness at the center of the novel.

I realized that if the chapters ran in the other order–if they became successively more difficult and more distorted,–the “revelation,” of the book would be Benjy. The first three chapters could be understood as preparation for Benjy to “speak,” the tour-de-force at the conclusion of the novel would be Faulkner’s successful creation of a fractured, unique and damaged consciousness through which, he manages to convey something somehow internally coherent and compelling.

But The Sound and the Fury isn’t meant to have a revelation, other than, perhaps, that meaning and meaninglessness are often so closely intertwined as to be inseparable, and a revelation of this kind calls into question the idea of “revelation” all together. This is something I think  Macbeth realizes, perhaps during that final soliloquy, as he thinks back over the happenings of the previous acts, the words of the witches, the murder of Duncan, the ghost of Banquo, the suicide of Lady Macbeth. Just because we see meaning, doesn’t mean it’s really there, and vice versa.

Throughout his novel, Faulkner repeatedly evokes the mixture of meaning and its absence  through his descriptions of the sound of Benjy’s wailing, and it is this noise drew the first connection in my mind between The Sound and the Fury and The Idiot. Faulkner describes Benjy’s moaning as “a slow, bellowing…meaningless and sustained,” as “nothing. Just sound,” but a sound that “might have been all time and injustice and sorrow become vocal for an instant by a conjunction of planets”  It is with a sound something like this–the braying of ass–that Dostoevsky chooses to awaken Prince Myshkin (before the start of the novel) from the stupor of his idiocy. And if I were to direct Macbeth, I would ask the actors to create similar sounds as well–the juxtapositions of words and wordlessness, and meaning and meaninglessness,  are powerful ones.

Cover of "The Idiot" by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

In line with challenging the accessibility of easy meaning, in The Sound and the Fury Faulkner creates a plot whose mechanisms and progression is not the focus of the story; things have happened, things are happening, and things will happen, but the narrative of the happenings themselves is not easy to sequence chronologically, despite the dates which appear at the headings of each chapter. The journeys of cause and effect, of action and reaction, are not the story here. The plot of The Idiot, however, drives anxiously and chronologically onwards, as if time is counting down to a moment when everything must end (and indeed, impending death and the apocalypse are both subjects of discussion throughout the novel). The book is gripping. Each chapter follows as if imperatively on the heels of its predecessor, and one gets a sense, as the parts of the story move forward and click into place, that things are happening in a way that is almost pre-determined: that despite the appearance of choice and the experience of reflection and deliberation,  things are as they are, and could not have been otherwise.

With this in mind, if I was to attempt some kind of comparison between the philosophy behind these two novels, Faulkner’s might be ‘things are as they are,” and Dostoesvky’s, “things are (and will be) as they must be.” I’m sure there are degrees of nuance I could bring to these phrases (though probably attempting nuance would just show me how wrong I am to be so simplistic to begin with and I’d end up scrapping the whole idea), but instead I’ll just say that both these philosophies invite confrontation with similar questions, such as “Is there anything we can do about the way things are?” or “Is there any way we can change the way things will be?” and, perhaps most importantly, “What do we do if there is nothing we can do?”

That final question, especially, is difficult and paradoxical simply to ask, let alone to try and answer, and the difficulty springs, at least in part, from the fact that regardless of whether things are as they, or are as they must be, the truth is (one hopes) that things still matter, or at least, things still matter to us. Because whether or not the universe and all that happens in it is predetermined, set into motion by the existence of some all-powerful deity, or whether it is all unguided chaos, confined within what appear to us to be rigid laws of nature, we experience life as we live it, not as it is lived by us, if that makes any sense.

But it’s hard to live when you feel helpless,  and I think it’s especially difficult to live when you feel responsible for your own helplessness, when you feel guilty for your own inability to do, or undo. When confronted with one’s own helplessness, as so many of the characters in these novels are, one must confront a choice between inability and incapacity: either one is unable to change the way things are, or one lacks the capacity to be able to change things in the first place; neither option is a friendly one.

The structure of Macbeth, with its five acts, and it narrative form typical to Shakespearean tragedy, is more akin to The Idiot than to The Sound and the Fury. From the first entrance of the witches, and their prophesies to Banquo and Macbeth, the play moves forward almost as a machine set into motion–a haunted machine whose pieces ponder and question and regret, but who nonetheless obey the will of the motion that began them, who follow, inevitably, the track set before them. Things (are and) will be as they must be.

But there are moments in Macbeth that feel more like Faulkner, too; the moment, for instance, that gives Faulkner the title of his most famous book. When Macbeth or Lady Macbeth stands alone on the stage, when they offer up to the air and the audience their thoughts, the motion surrounding them, the momentum of the narrative propelling them forward, seems to seize up, to freeze. The motion is still present, still happening, even, but one can almost see all of the motion at once, caught like a photograph of stars left exposed for hours or days on end: all the lines of movement frozen in place, captured in their arcs and trajectories. Things are as they are.

The characters in The Sound and the Fury and in The Idiot, like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, have to reconcile the idea of things mattering (and the feeling of things mattering) with their own feelings of helplessness and guilt. Needless to say, it isn’t easy for any of them, even for the idiot Benjy, or Dostoevsky’s “perfectly beautiful man.” And all of my incoherent rambling aside, these questions of mattering, of knowing and believing, of innocence and guilt, of things being as they are, or as they must be, are far more elegantly and eloquently explored by Faulkner and Dostoevsky (and Shakespeare) than they are inarticulately sideswiped by me here. These are grand ideas, and luckily, these are grand books, exceptionally moving and profound.

If you liked The Idiot or The Sound and the Fury: It’s hard to give recommendations for other reading for writers as singular as Dostoevsky and Faulkner. One could try As I Laying Dying, Absalom! Absalom! or other books by Faulkner, or for more books set in the American south, I love Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of the Sad Café etc.) Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. I got my head all twisted up last year reading Notes from Underground, so I recommend that (or other books by Dostoevsky, like Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov). I like these translators, Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear, a lot and I recommend searching out their translations of Russian classics like those of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy etc. If you liked The Idiot, you might also like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and maybe Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

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