This week I’ve come across two books that share an unusual link in their use of language and dialogue. The first – and more well-known – is William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the story of the Compson family, and the decline of their Southern sensibilities that happens alongside the degradation of the family ‘honour’. The second is Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, a Canterbury Tales-esque (there’s another one for the reading list) story of several travellers meeting at an inn in a forest to tell tales involving tarot cards.
This essay (if you can call it that) will focus on the way these novels tell stories given the absence of proper means to do so. The first sixty-odd pages of The Sound and the Fury are narrated by Benjy Compson, the mentally retarded youngest son of the Compson family. Since Benjy is incapable of differentiating time, the story jumps back and forth in his lifetime without proper signposting for the reader. As such, this is one of the most confusing and strangest passages I’ve ever read in a book, and I found it almost wholly impenetrable without referencing SparkNotes. The reason for this is that the lack of “signposting”, as I’ve referred to it, means that it is impossible for Faulkner to structure the story as to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. We start somewhere in medias res, but we never know quite where. Unlike with the later chapters in the book, there are no breaks that allow us to orient ourselves around points of significance; The Sound and the Fury’s chapter is a near-impenetrable wall of paragraphs. We are, quite literally, walled off from the world as we understand it, trapped in Benjy’s half-comprehensions of the universe.
It is worth noting that Benjy Compson is not an unreliable narrator; indeed, in comparison to his brothers Quentin and Jason, who narrate the later chapters, he is a remarkably straightforward narrator due to his lack of complex emotional entanglement. Where others see symbols and extrapolate meaning from them, Benjy sees things, and is acutely aware of even the slightest difference. At the end of the novel, he becomes distraught when he is driven the wrong way back to the house, breaking his familiar routine. This calls our attention to the contradictory ideas of change and constancy in the novel, and the detrimental effects of both. The Compson family are afraid of change, stuck in an hourglass that keeps on running, yet at the same time they do not react to the fact that their quaint Southern existence is running away because they are too wrapped up in trying to maintain the status quo both within the family and without. Quentin’s suicide is as a result of holding onto pent-up feelings too long; the same can be said for Jason’s anger. Benjy, meanwhile, is unbothered by petty things like themes and ideas and critical analysis. With him, what he sees is what you get, and we don’t get opinions on it. Though his vision may appear convoluted, it often presents startling clarity – and horrifying clarity at that, given that only the absence of a sound mind in the Compson family has allowed for clear thought to prevail. But from that, we can extrapolate something else: coherency of language is not needed to tell a story.
Meanwhile, in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Calvino’s narrator and the travellers he meets are struck silent by a magic spell or some such other. Someone produces a deck of tarot cards and the cards are laid out on the table, and the storytellers, each telling a tale in turn, move the cards to produce stories. The narrator manages to discern a meaning from the arrangement of the cards – a Two of Coins might mean wealth, for example, material or otherwise, or payment, or only gain its true meaning in conjunction with another card such as the Ace of Clubs. Calvino’s narrator offers us a possible interpretation, but we as readers are expected to draw our own conclusions; so long as they fit the cards, they are reasonable. Then all the cards are used up, and those around the table begin to move the cards to fit a different order; this raises some interesting ideas of intertextuality, of old elements being recycled to make different stories, of tropes being continually written and subverted. The link to The Sound and the Fury is a little tenuous, but both books use language in ways that we don’t expect, proving that a story without words is possible, if you have a little imagination.
Or something like that. I’m not sure where I was going with this. It sounded much more coherent when I started writing it down. But then again, so does everything.