Saturday, 8 January 2022

Reading Light in August

I’ve been reading Light in August. Faulkner is very, very different from Proust.

People (or rather Proust fans) often say that after Proust, it’s hard to read anything else for a while, because nothing could compare. I myself thought that perhaps characterisation in most novels would appear crude after the intricacy and subtlety of Proust. But after Swann’s Way, I was enjoying the fresh air in Faulkner, and thought that next to Faulkner, Proust appeared so narrow, almost even trivial, in his navel-gazing, his focus on minutiae, his long passages about the look of asparagus or the changing colour of a steeple or the light on a tiled roof. I thought, there’s much more to life than being desperately obsessed with someone and wondering how different the real person is from the one in your head.

But about 80 pages in (the book is about 350 pages on my kobo), I started getting a bit weary of Light in August. Again, it’s personal—I think it seems to be a great novel and Faulkner is a great writer—but at the moment, I’m rather fed up with race issues, especially in America. Light in August is more than that, but race is one of the main themes (it’s set in the South in the 1930s), and it’s a cruel, violent world that the novel is depicting.

I can see what Faulkner is doing (or so I think). I like the way he jumps back and forth in time, and switches between perspectives. I like the way he depicts characters. I also like his metaphors and images—interesting without drawing much attention to themselves. 

For example, look at the wagon moving very slowly that Lena is watching: 

“Though the mules plod in a steady and unflagging hypnosis, the vehicle does not seem to progress. It seems to hang suspended in the middle distance forever and forever, so infinitesimal is its progress, like a shabby bead upon the mild red string of road. So much so is this that in the watching of it the eye loses it as sight and sense drowsily merge and blend, like the road itself, with all the peaceful and monotonous changes between darkness and day, like already measured thread being rewound onto a spool. So that at last, as though out of some trivial and unimportant region beyond even distance, the sound of it seems to come slow and terrific and without meaning, as though it were a ghost travelling a half mile ahead of its own shape.” (Ch.1) 

The novel is bleak from the beginning. Lena is unwed and pregnant, hitchhiking without much money from Alabama to Jefferson, Mississippi to look for her baby daddy, Lucas Burch.

In chapter 2, Faulkner switches to Byron Bunch, a guy working at a mill. See the metaphor when he watches Joe Christmas and Joe Brown, two other men working at the mill: 

“And then Christmas would turn and with that still, sullen face of his walk out of whatever small gathering the sheer empty sound of Brown’s voice had surrounded them with, with Brown following, still laughing and talking.” (Ch.2) 

That’s very good. I like that. 

This is Hightower, the disgraced minister, friend of Byron Bunch: 

“His skin is the color of flour sacking and his upper body in shape is like a loosely filled sack falling from his gaunt shoulders of its own weight, upon his lap.” (Ch.4) 


See Joe Christmas: 

“It seemed to him that he could see the yellow day opening peacefully on before him, like a corridor, an arras, into a still chiaroscuro without urgency. It seemed to him that as he sat there the yellow day contemplated him drowsily, like a prone and somnolent yellow cat.” (Ch.5) 

Christmas turns out to be the central character of Light in August

“Nothing can look quite as lonely as a big man going along an empty street. Yet though he was not large, not tall, he contrived somehow to look more lonely than a lone telephone pole in the middle of a desert. In the wide, empty, shadowbrooded street he looked like a phantom, a spirit, strayed out of its own world, and lost.” (ibid.) 

He grows up in an orphanage: 

“… the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears.” (Ch.6) 

Note: “black tears”. 

Christmas is later adopted by Mr McEachern, a devout Presbyterian and a hard man who believes in corporal punishment as the way to bring up children. I like the metaphors when Faulkner writes about Mrs McEachern: 

“She was waiting on the porch—a patient, beaten creature without sex demarcation at all save the neat screw of graying hair and the skirt—when the buggy drove up. It was as though instead of having been subtly slain and corrupted by the ruthless and bigoted man into something beyond his intending and her knowing, she had been hammered stubbornly thinner and thinner like some passive and dully malleable metal, into an attenuation of dumb hopes and frustrated desires now faint and pale as dead ashes.” (Ch.7) 

Being an orphan with no knowledge of his family background, Christmas is nevertheless convinced from a young age that he’s part black. The novel revolves around the conflicting emotions, the loathing of a man believing himself to be part black in the time of Jim Crow laws. Cheery stuff. 

Light in August seems to be a great novel. I loved The South and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. But I can’t help thinking that literary works sometimes must come at the right time, and this is perhaps not the right time for me and Light in August.  


  1. I read Light in August maybe 20 years ago, and I don't recall it distinctly at all. One of my problems with Faulkner (probably it's my problem) is that he often doesn't quite stick in my memory, even if I love the sound and rhythm of his poetry. I recall it's a very heavy book, and that race is a central issue. I most recently read The Hamlet about two years ago, and enjoyed it very much. Again, though, I don't remember it so well. Funny that. I do remember loving The Sound and the Fury, which I read in high school, but perhaps because we worked on that and wrote about it in class, I have a better recall of it. But it's all very heavy stuff. Maybe you should try something lighter...

    1. I think I see what you mean, or at least I don't remember As I Lay Dying at all. But The Sound and the Fury I do remember, especially the characters.
      But yeah, Light in August is very heavy, so now I'm reading some literary criticism by James Wood.

  2. I love Faulkner, but have never read Light in August. Agree with you that Sound and Fury is far more memorable than As I Lay Dying.

  3. Also agree with the sentiment at books needing to come at the right time. Looking forward to seeing where you land next

    1. I couldn't decide on anything so ended up reading Wodehouse. When in doubt, read Wodehouse, as a friend of mine often says. Haha.

  4. I love As I Lay Dying. A beautiful, perfectly crafted book. I've read it several times. Aside from some of the short stories, it's the only Faulkner I've read that isn't aimed at racial issues. No, that's wrong: there's Sanctuary, which is a crime novel. A potboiler, Faulkner called it.

    I really liked Light in August when I read it a couple of years ago, but there's no denying that it's grim. And it just gets more grim as it goes along.

    1. What about The Sound and the Fury? I loved that book.
      Himadri thinks very highly of Light in August and has read it twice, but yeah, it is grim. Where I stopped, Joe Christmass's adopted father told him about a diner that he was not allowed to go to. Christmas hates the soft kindness of his adopted mother than the hardness and injustice of his adopted father. I understand it, but at the same time it's just depressing.

  5. I have not read The Sound and the Fury. I think I started reading it around 1987 and then lost the book. I was reading Faulkner in the late 80s. Faulkner and Camus and O'Connor. And Jung, I think. So long ago. Anyway, no opinion on S&F. One doesn't go to Faulkner to get cheered up, I'll say that.

    1. Oh yeah, true.
      You should read The Sound and the Fury this year then. And Anna Karenina.
      I picked up Flannery O'Connor last year, and quit, but again it's not about the book, it's about me. It was Wise Blood and I couldn't get interested in religion and faith. My interests just become narrower and narrower over time hahahaa.
      I will come back to Light in August though.

  6. I almost never care about the subject matter of a novel. I just care about the prose, the structure, the figurative language, the characterization, that sort of thing. Craft, mostly, though I still want to be bedazzled and pulled away from myself.

    I thought Wise Blood was really about disillusionment and identity, and religion was more a narrative device than a theme. O'Connor would disagree, but I don't think writers necessarily are the best readers of their own work. I've read Wise Blood a bunch of times. I have all of O'Connor's stuff on the shelf. It's creepy southern Gothic, just like Faulkner.

    1. Ah.
      I was thinking about writing a post and also inviting other bloggers to write a post about what's important when we read.
      I don't think I care that much about the subject matter as such, though I care about characters and the author's vision (apart from the stuff I usually write about, like images and metaphors). Prose is important, certainly, but what it conveys is more important.
      In the case of Wise Blood, you're right that it's about identity, but I still think religion and faith are a big part of it, and I just didn't care. I did try, not only to care about Hazel Motes but also to care about what Flannery O'Connor was doing, but it didn't work.
      The interesting thing is that the stuff about religion and faith in Tolstoy doesn't bother me at all. Some people complain about the ending of Anna Karenina, but I loved it.
      Do you like Carson McCullers?

  7. Light in August has a happy ending! For that one character anyway. It has a very jolly last line. I should have included it in my "great last lines" post from a hundred years ago.

    Surprisingly few Faulkner novels are more than obliquely about race. Many not at all.

    1. This is off-topic, but I've heard that Faulkner has huge influence on Latin American writers. Why so?

    2. Yes, enormous. The "why" needs a book, but stated simply Rulfo and García Marquez and so many others read Faulkner and thought, "Hey, this is just like where I am from!" And many conceptual problems were solved, and many books were written.

    3. Yeah, I've only read five of Faulkner's nineteen novels! What do I know? A small sampling.

    4. Yeah, I read them all, even the total stinkers.

    5. You've read everything, Tom.
      Why did you read the total stinkers though?

    6. I didn't know any better. Faulkner's greatest catastrophe won a Pulitzer.

    7. I never noticed that. Now that I've checked, I'd never heard of those two.

  8. I've read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and I think it's a pretty good book. A pretty weird book, too. I read it when I was 25ish and then again about 20 years later. I haven't read anything else by McCullers though I keep meaning to.

    It just struck me that I like very few male American novelists, but I like quite a few female American novelists. I don't know what that says.

    Maybe the religion in O'Connor is more foregrounded and concentrated, more urgent, than it is in Tolstoy, where it's presented as part of a larger moral vision? O'Connor certainly thought of herself as a Catholic writer, as an evangelist. Chekhov had the same moral message as O'Connor, but he skipped directly to human causes and effects and ignored religion as a psychological phenomenon, I think. O'Connor's psychology is deeply Catholic and pessimistic about the world. The Russians, on the other hand, believed in progress.

    1. Yeah, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is good, and surprising considering how young she was.
      Male American novelists, I assume you like Melville. And James?
      I think faith in Tolstoy's novels is mostly about the meaning of life and the question about how to live. Faith in Wise Blood is more about, I don't know, God? But what you say makes sense too.

  9. Yes to Melville. Is James an American novelist? I guess so, and I've read most of what he wrote and I intend to read the rest. I like him a lot. The Ambassadors is a masterpiece. I looked through wikipedia's "American Novelists" page and, of the male authors listed there, I can say I'm willing to read more by James Baldwin, Ray Bradbury, Christopher Isherwood, and Nabokov (if James is American, I guess so is VN?). I'm curious about Denis Johnson, Thomas Pynchon, and William Gaddis but haven't read any of them. My pal Layne Maheu's second novel came out last year; I like his work plenty though nobody's heard of him. My wife reads a lot of Steinbeck, so I'm becoming interested in Steinbeck. And though I'm sure I have on my shelves some books I like by other American male writers, I can't think of them now.

    Yeah, Wise Blood is partly about personal faith, or really the loss of it, and how Hazel has filled that loss with anger and resentment. The guy in the gorilla suit who steals the doll from the museum is also trying to fill a psychic hole. So from one angle, the novel is about misusing religion to compensate for our own character flaws and weaknesses. I think everything O'Connor wrote is murky and often self-contradictory. O'Connor chastises her readers, makes them do penance. Tolstoy sees the future as open wide for good people. There's none of that in O'Connor. I admit that my temperament is closer to hers than to his.

    1. Speaking of James, have you seen Jack Clayton's The Innocents? Sorry if I've asked you before.
      "Tolstoy sees the future as open wide for good people. There's none of that in O'Connor."
      I have to think more about this.


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