That first time is always memorable, right? That’s why I remember very clearly the first time I read a novel I couldn’t understand. I was a freshman in college, and my English prof assigned The Sound and the Fury. I didn’t understand a word. No, that’s wrong. I understood the individual words, but not the way you strung them together. Even the Appendix, which in my Modern Library copy serves as a kind of backward-glancing forward, was mysterious. The way you paired incompatible words like American and king in a sentence fragment followed by a long seldom punctuated procession of other words, English and French, chasing each other over the page intrigued me. Where were the sentences? Who the hell was narrating? When? I was frustrated because even though I didn’t get the who, what, where, when, and why of your story, I wanted to know what was with that American king. So I persisted, but without much success until I got to class. There, with the patience of a gallery docent escorting a nun through a Maplethorpe exhibit, my marvelous prof, Julia McGrew, walked us through those first few pages.
She also explained your use of the stream of consciousness to narrate the story of the decline of the Compsons, a once aristocratic Southern family. The audacity of telling part of their story through the disjointed and fragmented internal monologue of Benjy, a severely mentally challenged adult male Compson, both moved and fascinated me. I’d always felt sorry for people who were what we used to call “mentally retarded.” Such a person, Joan, a little girl in a woman’s body, lived around the corner from me when I was growing up. My sympathy for her blinded me to the possibility that she or any “idiot” might have thoughts and perceptions of interest to anyone, might have a world view, a tale to tell that was, Shakespeare to the contrary, not only reliable, but significant.
And suppose an author did choose to give such a character voice. How would this daringly original writer manage it? I reread Benjy’s section of The Sound and the Fury, marveling at the power of his recurring sense-memory of his beloved sister: “Caddie smelled like trees.” Benjy’s version of people and events, filtered through sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures and through his never-abating sense of loss, reveals the true nature of each of his relatives even as their family disintegrates around him. No wonder you won the Nobel Prize!
And no wonder your work inspired me to write one of my most important pieces: my senior thesis, a requirement for English majors at Vassar. I knew I would spend considerable time on this project, so I wanted a topic that could compete for my attention with my job search, weekends with my fiancé, and late night gab sessions with dear friends from whom I’d soon be separated. I chose you. That’s how I got to spend my senior year in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi , the fictional setting you populate with gothic grotesques lost in the fallout from the wars and “progress” that are American history.
My thesis, cribbed from your Nobel acceptance speech, was that in spite of the grimness and despair that haunt your work, you feel people are capable of compassion, that mankind has cause to hope, and that it is the duty of writers to tell of the struggles of the human heart. I wish I could tell you that I aced that paper, but I got a C- on it. Even though I had immersed myself in your books, I had not made a similarly thorough study of the rudiments of English grammar, spelling, documentation, or even typing. And in spite of my immersion, some of your writing still remained mysterious to me. I suspect I passed partly because I chose to tackle such a challenging writer.
You challenge me still which may be why, half a century later, I reread your marvelous books to revisit the streaming consciousnesses of the people you invent, to become, literally, a mind reader. Maybe someday I’ll move closer to becoming a mind writer like you. Meanwhile, thanks for all these decades of inspiration.