Vintage International, 1931, 512 pages
Light in August, a novel about hopeful perseverance in the face of mortality, features some of Faulkner’s most memorable characters: guileless, dauntless Lena Grove, in search of the father of her unborn child; Reverend Gail Hightower, who is plagued by visions of Confederate horsemen; and Joe Christmas, a desperate, enigmatic drifter consumed by his mixed ancestry.
William Faulkner won Nobel and Pulitzer prizes and is considered one of the greatest American writers. His prose is indeed the kind of writing that you scan a few sentences and think, "Shit, I will never, ever be able to write like that."
She slept in a leanto room at the back of the house. It had a window which she learned to open and close again in the dark without making a sound, even though there also slept in the leanto room at first her oldest nephew and then the two oldest and then the three. She had lived there eight years before she opened the window for the first time. She had not opened it a dozen times hardly before she discovered that she should not have opened it at all. She said to herself, 'That's just my luck.'
The story, set in fictional Yoknapatatawpha County, begins with Lena Grove, who after opening that window one time too many finds herself left in a family way by a "sawdust Casanova" named Lucas Burch, who is long gone by the time Lena sets out after him with a steadfast determination and completely unfounded conviction that when she finds him, the Lord will see to it that he'll do right by her. The cognitive dissonance in Lena's ability to pretend that her beaux isn't a faithless scoundrel and rely on the kindness of strangers makes her the first of the masterfully rendered characters in this book.
The narrative skips around, from Lena Grove to Reverend Gail Hightower, an albatross in his tiny community where he refused to have the good sense to leave after he lost his wife and his congregation. Then it turns to Lucas Burch and his enigmatic partner in shenanigans, Joe Christmas, who is the real protagonist of the book. Joe, an abandoned child of uncertain parentage, who passes as a white man but knows himself (rightly or wrongly) to be a Negro, is the dark heart of the South, all its racial ugliness manifested in one diabolical figure.
It's hard to describe the plot, since there are several, and they aren't so much plots as themes illustrated by the major characters. There aren't a lot of sympathetic characters; Lena is likable in her serene, sheeplike way, and it would be wrong to say she's completely passive, since she is dogged and unshakable in her pursuit of the father of her child. But she's more an instrument of plot than an agent. Byron Bunch, the man who meets her and falls for her, is depicted as something of a sap whose role is to be damned for his kind-hearted foolishness. And Joe Christmas, who is both victim and victimizer, is not so much an anti-hero as an allegorical anti-Christ.
The writing is beautiful; the prose can only be described as Faulkneresque. I know I will read Faulkner again for that reason alone. But Light in August is not a comfortable read. That Faulkner uses the n-word more freely than Mark Twain, and with a casualness that is both authentic and appalling, is not surprising for a book set in the Deep South of the period between two World Wars. Racial issues abound, most obviously through Christmas, who delights in telling white women after he's slept with them that "I think I got some nigger blood in me." On reflection, though a lot of Faulknerologists seem to think Christmas is a sort of reverse-Christ figure (his name being a big clue), I would say he's more of a living embodiment of the Southern version of the Trickster.
Possibly uglier than the racism, though, is Faulkner's treatment of women. Women are the enemy. Lena Grove is an innocent of sorts, but a foolish, cowlike innocent who manages to carry ruin with her. Gail Hightower is destroyed by the appetites and indifference and infidelity of his wife. And Joe Christmas is a veritable demon of misogyny, and through his eyes, all women are Liliths.
He is taken in an as orphan by a hard, stiff-necked Bible-thumper named McEachern, who raises him with loveless, iron-fisted discipline. But it's McEachern's docile, uselessly well-intentioned wife whom Christmas despises, for being soft toward him and thus seeking to domesticate and unman him. She's never anything but kind to him, and so she becomes the enemy, while McEachern is merely a part of the natural order of things.
Because she had always been kind to him. The man, the hard, just, ruthless man, merely depended on him to act in a certain way and to receive the as certain reward or punishment, just as he could depend on the man to react in a certain way to his own certain doings and misdoings. It was the woman who, with a woman's affinity and instinct for secrecy, for casting a faint taint of evil about the most trivial of actions.
Later, Christmas takes up with an older woman who lives by herself, the daughter of Yankee carpetbaggers and abolitionists and thus a pariah in the community. She discovers Christmas's mixed ancestry and seeks to create opportunities for him, pulling strings to get him admitted to a Negro college with opportunity to work at a Negro law firm. And after Christmas rapes her, they become lovers and she goes completely around the bend with what can only be described as jungle fever. She, too, is not a figure to be pitied for her loneliness and victimization, but an enemy.
"Women's muck," as Christmas says.
It's really, really uncomfortable. And certainly deliberately so, though I am not entirely sure in what way Faulkner meant it to be uncomfortable.
The climax ties everything together in a series of violent events, and while the ending is at least semi-hopeful, the hope is only in the fates of individual characters, while life in Yoknapatatawpha County goes on in its deeply Southern way with all that seething racism and misogyny that is part of the very soil and air.
Have you read Light in August?
Have you read any other books by William Faulkner?
Verdict: Although the prose is Southern-fried poetry, A Light in August is not a light-hearted read. You can skip the symbolism and just read it for the masterful character illustrations and the skillful use of flashbacks, skipping-time narratives, stream-of-consciousness, and rules-free approach to punctuation. There is racism and misogyny and violence here that's meant to offend sensibilities, and it does so memorably. Faulkner will immerse you in Yoknapatatawpha County, a place I know I am going to revisit but definitely don't want to live in. I'd certainly recommend it to anyone who wants to see what Faulkner is like.
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