Light in August--William Faulkner


I'm sure you all must be sick-to-death of reporting on William Faulkner, and yet, I am not sick-to-death of reading and enjoying him. Indeed, as a result of finishing Light in August yesterday, I went out to the library and got Sound and the Fury. (I think I have at least one copy in the house, but it wasn't in the LOA series that I've collected and the shelves are a mess right now.)

What to say about Light in August? Well, let's say that it is one of the most accessible of all of Faulkner's works with some of the most powerful portraits of some of the most unpleasant people you're ever likely to encounter. It plays with time in the way that almost all Faulkner books do, taking place over the period of perhaps 1 week to 1 month, from the arrival of Lena Grove who observes a house burning when she arrives in the small town of Jefferson Mississippi to the end when Lena, escorted by her husband wannabe goes in search of the father of her child. The time encopassed in the book is something like 60-100 years--stretching back to the time of Colonel Sartoris, and perhaps before and moving into the present (late 1920s Mississippi.)

The story centers on Joe Christmas a person who may or may not be of mixed race descent. If so, his skin tone does not betray it and he needs to tell those around him that he is "half-black." He is the ultimately conflicted character, laying his conflict on everyone he meets and it is his actions that precipitate all the main events of the novel.

In fact, that's part of what makes the book so facinating. When it starts, you get the impression that you're going to spend a good deal of time with Lena Burden who is out looking for the man who is the father of her child, who left Alabama (probably when he realized that she was pregnant) with the promise of sending for her. After following her path a little way, we find it convergent with the story of Joe Christmas and the rest of the novel follows him.

There is no point in going into too many plot details. Suffice to say that the events of the book result in an indictment of racism that is as harrowing and as biting as that in Absalom, Absalom!. All of Joe's conflict comes from his own self-indictment for what in today's terms is utterly without stigma (Praise God!) and (1) may not even be true, and (2) even if true was nothing he had any control over. Being part black was nothing he could control and yet the virulanet internalized racism and misogyny that he develops turns what should be not-even-worthy of note (in today's world) into a crisis for Joe and the community.

What is fascinating in Faulkner is his obsession with and dexterity with weaving the past into the present. One example that struck me in this book is that one of the main characters--Joanna is a direct descendant of two people that Colonel Sartoris rides to town to shoot in The Unvanquished. These two were responsible for holding the polls open and encouraging or trying to encourage the blacks in the area to vote. They were buried far away from prying eyes because the son/father of the two though that they might otherwise be disinterred.

The intrusion of the past into the present is one of the themes that makes such rick reading in Faulkner because one gets the sense that he has his fingers clearly on the pulse of something that we have lost any real sense of--even though the truth of it holds today in the same way that it held in Faulkner's day. The present is the living extension of the past: shaped by it, informed by it, and ultimately pervaded by it, if looked at properly.

Faulkner's gothic obsessions get full play in this magnificent work. And it is, for Faulkner, relatively undemanding on the reader--requiring merely the attention of an ordinary novel to keep most of the threads straight. However, it is, as Frost would have it, "lovely, dark, and deep." And it is, as a result, most worthy of nearly any reader's time.

Later: I realize that I've put together a lot of words about Faulkner but have ended by saying very little of import. The problem is that anything I might say would deprive the prospective reader of some of the joy of discovery. Another problem is that I am not a particularly deep reader, pulling out symbols, signs, and meanings at every turn. Indeed, I prefer to enjoy what I'm reading and allow it to mean as it will at the time. Most authors simply don't spend that much time planning and putting these things into motion. And those that do (Rowling and her ilk) often don't produce work that stands up to any kind of scrutiny. It seems that more than 90% of great art is unconscious art--you feel your way around it and end up with a miracle. Authors who pontificate on their purpose either (a) miss the point that their purpose is often subjugated to a greater one if the work is good or (b) haven't written a work that supports the kind of scrutiny it would take to divine the author's purpose.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 12, 2008 6:45 AM.

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