William Faulkner: Light in August (1932)

Willem de Kooning: “Light in August”

Man knows so little about his fellows. In his eyes all men or women act upon what he believes would motivate him if he were mad enough to do what that other man or woman is doing.

Here’s a hint: Don’t start this book the week a famous southern white lady-TV chef gets caught planning a plantation wedding complete with slaves dressed up in nice dinner jackets to serve the white folk, and don’t try to start a post about it on the day the Supreme Court decides we aren’t racists any more, and don’t finish up as the latest trial-of-the-century begins and a white lawyer tries to humiliate a shell-shocked nineteen-year-old black girl whose friend was killed in front of her ears, while she was on the phone with him.

Because nobody has that much ironic distance.

This is another of the works covered in the Coursera “Fiction of Relationship” mooc taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University (which, sadly, seems to no longer be available). Though I’ve posted on the eight books/stories I’ve read for the class so far, this is the first assigned work I’ve read and posted on since the class began; I now have a better idea of what “the fiction of relationship” means in the context of the class and I can see why this is part of the course: we’re all isolated, outsiders, unable to see others without our filter, unable to see ourselves at all, and our relationships, even (especially) with ourselves, are all created out of part reality and part hope/fear/expectation. It’s a great class and I’m enjoying it tremendously.

This book, however, is another matter.

Now, I’ve read some fairly complicated books and stories in my life, some in bizarre narrative styles, some set in places that don’t exist, some about people I’ve never imagined exist. But I can usually figure out the basic plot, even if I miss the symbolism or the implications. In fact, I can only remember once I been defeated: by Ben Marcus’ “The Moors” (the guy went to get coffee, and after that, who knows).

Until now.

For example, it took me most of Chapter 1 to figure out that:

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 sister-in-law told the brother. Then he remarked her changing shape, which he should have noticed some time before

meant Lena was pregnant. Is it obvious to everyone but me? It took me even longer to figure out she hadn’t been raped by someone climbing in the actual window, or by the brother who noticed her changing shape, which I saw as burgeoning womanhood. I’m not obtuse; I can handle metaphorical windows just fine, but dammit, I need a fighting chance. Also, I can’t add twelve – the age she moved in – and eight – the years it took her to open the damn window. I have to admit, when I figured out what was going on, I rather admired the way that scene was played. But it got me off to a bad start, comprehension-wise, and I never really recovered.

Often I had no idea, for pages at a time, whose head I was in, or what time period. I’ve never worked so hard to grasp the basics: who, what, when, where. I felt like I’d suddenly lost my brain cells as I swam around in sentences and paragraphs. But hey, that’s what Shmoop and Sparknotes are for, right?

It was a challenge beyond the plot. Racism, the violence and injustice, were of course part of 1932 Mississippi; I expected as much going in. The timing was extraordinarily bad. I had a couple of very bad days, and I had to put things aside a few times.

That said: there’s some gorgeous prose in here, and some extraordinarily well-tuned scenes of insight and horror: Joe Christmas’ orphanage years, the standoff with his foster father, the rage and violence literally beaten into him from the day he was born. Reverend Hightower’s tenuous grasp on reality, his retreat into isolation. The scenes between Christmas and Joanna Burden. Even the humor.

Wait, humor? What humor? No, I didn’t read the Quentin Tarantino version, I read a section of Ordered by Words: Language and Narration in the Novels of William Faulkner by Judith Lockyer (Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, and if you’re careful, available online):

The joke in LIA is significant first of all because the same idea is reworded to fit four different circumstances in the novel. The crux of the joke rests on the subject’s inability to know a situation beforehand, or to read “correctly.” At its first telling, the joke lends a comic tone to Lena’s pregnant predicament… Lena remarks on her struggle to climb through the window that had earlier provided her escape to Lucas: “‘If it had been this hard to do before, I reckon I would not be doing it now'”. The next time the joke appears it takes on a much darker tone. When Byron recounts to Hightower Lucas Burch’s story of moving Joanna Burden’s body, he includes the following ghoulish detail: “The cover fell open and she was lying on her side, facing one way, and her head was turned clean around like she was looking behind her. … Laughter is possible because we do not at this point know Joanna, but the joke also uncovers a bit of truth. If Joanna had understood herself and Joe Christmas perhaps she could have saved herself.
The same rueful awareness of possible misreading lies behind Joe Christmas’ comment to Joanna: “If I’m not [black], damned if I haven’t wasted a lot of time'”. Joe’s joke reveals a momentary insight that his convictions otherwise erase, but his words reiterate the potential for alternative readings that threaten complete resolution. The joke appears a final time in the furniture dealer’s narration of Lena and Byron…. The dealer observes, “‘Old boy, if you’d a just done this last night, you’d a been sixty miles further south than you are now… and if you’d done it two nights ago, I reckon I wouldn’t ever have laid eyes on either one of you.'” But both the dealer and Byron have misread the situation, and Lena is not to be conquered by masculine assertiveness. The language takes some of the edge off the fact that the dealer and his wife are chuckling over an attempted rape.
In all four situations, the joke undercuts, however briefly, the solemnity of a serious scene, as if to catch us before we invest the situation with too exclusive an interpretation. The jokes embody perfectly the doubleness of language that [LIA] desires to exploit. The joke is about the hazards of not knowing and the power of language to facilitate comprehension. [LIA] makes the process of articulation a complicated and necessary human concern precisely because it explores its varied dangers.

~~ Judith Lockyer, Ordered by Words (SIU Press, 1991), p. 97

I always enjoy a good rape joke, don’t you? Hey, I never said I lacked all ironic distance. Though I do get a bit impatient with the Todd Akin view of rape held by Joe Christmas: “But it was not woman resistance, that resistance which, if really meant, cannot be overcome by any man for the reason that the woman observes no rules of physical combat.” Maybe I had trouble understanding the book because so much of it was truly repugnant to me. And yes, I do understand that was the point.

On the plus side – I keep trying to go there, and I keep getting distracted – are terrific passages that, if I were a person who memorized passages to drag out when I wanted to appear impressive and learned, I’d put on my list. I gave up trying to appear impressive and learned a long time ago, but fact remains, the opening of Chapter 6 is just beautiful:

MEMORY believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or a zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrowlike childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears.

This trope of memory gets repeated several times – opens chapters 7 and 10, in fact, plus many other sprinklings. Memory is, after all, why so many people hate so many other people they’ve never met who’ve never done them any harm. And people have long memories.

While hunting for commentary, I did find a treasure: a Q&A session Faulkner gave at the University of Virginia in 1957, helpfully recorded (audio only) and, thanks to the internet machine, available online, Faulkner presents himself as just simple folk who don’t know nothin’ ’bout stylistics:

Q: Mr. Faulkner, most people are very struck by your change in style in Light in August. For example, you use present tense to tell the story in rather than the past. Was that — did you mean something by that or were you just using a new form for dramatic import?

Faulkner: “No, that just seemed to me to be the best way to tell the story. It wasn’t a deliberate change of style, I don’t know anything about style, I think a writer with a lot pushing inside him to get out hasn’t got time to bother with style, if he just likes to write and hasn’t got anything urging him then can become a stylist. But the ones with a great deal pushing to get out don’t have time to be anything but clumsy, like Balzac, for instance.”

~~ William Faulkner, audio

I don’t believe the aww shucks routine – he knew exactly what he was doing – and the time swapping is what more than anything else makes this novel incredibly hard to read, so I can’t agree it was the best way to tell the story – but he’s the one with the Nobel and Pulitzer and I’m… not.

I am fond of a few other stylistic elements used here, to wit, compound words (I’m also fond of the idea of oddball punctuation, of course – the commadash, the semidash, the codash [“For Faulkner they were simply in his received punctuational repertoire, and may be read as usefully combining a grammatical signal of partial completion of a sense (the colon, semi-colon, or other stop) with an elocutionary signal imposing a pause (the dash) – moments when a speaker or narrator, concluding one train of thought, pauses to gather up the next thread before proceeding” says John Lennard in Reading William Faulkner: Go Down Moses and Big Woods] – but I couldn’t find any examples in LIA so I can’t really find a way to squeeze them in to this particular commentary, can I). I like a writer who isn’t afraid to play with words.

But Faulkner’s compounds do more than assert his power as an author; they also open language to the possibilities for new, more precise meanings. The effect of words like “sootbleakened” “sparrowlike childtrebling,” and “grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound” is to strike us with the amplitude of ordinary experience and with the language that brings us its fullness…
We have to stop to be sure that we understand what the words are saying. And when we do and then read the story of Joe’s past, we witness how precisely Faulkner has orchestrated his themes by means of languages.
While the character’ stories unfold to disclose the dangers and falseness of language, the sum of the novel’s many voices celebrates the power of its languages and allows Faulkner to restructure our assumptions about reading and thus about language.

~~ Judith Lockyer, Ordered by Words (SIU Press, 1991), p. 95

Now that’s what I’m talking’ about: language that creates meaning simply by being language. Incomprehensibility is a small price to pay.

Anecdotes about Faulkner’s resistance to editing are widely available but often weakly documented (if documented at all); however, none other than Shelby Foote, noted Civil War historian and personal friend to Mr. Faulkner, substantiates the attitude in a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune: “I saw a galley proof of a book where some officious fool had taken it upon himself to make corrections in the margin,” says Foote, “and Faulkner had scratched it out and written underneath, ‘Goddamn you, let it alone.'” Multiple editions exist, of course, including an online photographic PDF of the first edition (oops, not any more) and various “corrected” versions, one by Random House in 1991 and another by Library of America in 2012, that purport to return the text to Faulkner’s intended version based on the original manuscript. Publishing is more complex than you might think; ask any Biblical scholar.

Like many works of art, LIA has generated partner creations in other media. Specifically, in 2012 guitarist Doug Wamble created a suite of works titled Yoknapatawpha (“sound portrait of the fictional world of William Faulkner”) which includes “Christmas’ Burden” (and yes, of course it’s available on Youtube):

Chamber Music America awarded Wamble a grant to explore, in his words, “the dichotomy of being an intellectual who is rooted in the down home elements of the South.”
In embracing and wrestling with the “dichotomy” between folksiness and erudition, Wamble created a “sound portrait of the fictional world of William Faulkner.” Its track “Christmas’ Burden,” a superb bit of banjo blues seen in this live performance here, gives voice to Joe Christmas of Light in August. By playing on the notion of “the white man’s burden,” Wamble considers Joe’s mixed heritage and its impact on his body and soul. On the run, Christmas sings:

And I know that it’s true
something’s gonna happen to me
And I know God loves me too

“[Faulkner] saw the southern past as a burden on his people, carrying with it sins so profound that the past constituted a curse that hung over the land, inherited by one generation after another.”

Wamble performed this piece here in Portland just last year; my local public library held a “Faulkner and Music” program to supplement.

So what does any of this have to do with the Fiction of Relationship class? I haven’t yet correctly anticipated the professor’s angle on any work we’ve covered so far (that’s a good thing, btw; why bother to take a class if you’re not going to discover a new way of looking at a work?) so I don’t expect to do so now. I think it has to do with knowing, or being unable to know, other people, the overarching theme; creating our own fiction of every relationship. In this case, Joe Christmas doesn’t even know who he is, as Faulkner himself emphasizes in the 1957 lectures mentioned above:

Q. Sir, in Light in August, the central character Joe Christmas had most of his troubles and persecutions and in his search to find himself was based on his belief that he was part Negro and yet it is never made really clear that he is. Was he supposed to be part Negro, or was this supposed to add to the tragic irony of the story?

Faulkner: “I think that was his tragedy: he didn’t know what he was, and so he was nothing. He deliberately evicted himself from the human race, because he didn’t know which he was, that was his tragedy, that to me was the tragic central idea of the story, that he didn’t know what he was, and there was no way possible in life for him to find out. Which, to me, is the most tragic condition a man could find himself in, not to know what he is, and to know he will never know.”

~~ William Faulkner, audio

This week, which saw the overturning of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act (followed two hours later – two hours for god’s sake – by changes in Texas voting laws), and saw a woman stand up, literally – and legally – for what she believed in, for eleven hours, only to be called a terrorist, which saw an uncertain nineteen year old black girl who speaks three languages bullied and mocked for her English word choice while a 66-year-old white TV-chef/multi-millionaire was embraced for “I is what I is”, a week which saw joyous celebration and heartshattering defeats, which brought the dream a little closer and pushed it a little further away: this week I thought of a single sentence in chapter 11. I hear Joe Christmas ask, when Miss Burden tell him how her grandparents’ graves were hidden to prevent the locals from digging up the Northern intruders and expurging them from Southern soil, “Just when do men that have different blood in them stop hating one another?”

I’ll let you know, Joe. I’ll let you know.

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5 responses to “William Faulkner: Light in August (1932)

    • I just read the first two sentences of your LIA post – THANK YOU! I’m so glad I’m not the only one. The class is great – how cool that you studied with him. I try to read and consider everything before we get to the week it’s in class, otherwise I never get a chance to form my own impressions or do my own research.

  1. Well done, Karen, in explicating some of the best and the worst of this book. Funny that I was more offended by the incomprehensibility than I was by the offending bits (the rape jokes, yay, etc.) – which are very offensive. But no, you weren’t the only one who had trouble following, of course. I think what my reaction might come down to is that… I like my sentences simple. (As a reader. As a writer I tend to favor semicolons; go figure.) Hemingway rather than Faulkner. There we are. What I learned, most of all, by reading Light in August was that I’m not a Faulkner lover. This is okay with me.

    If you’re interested, I posted on the book here and here.

    And I read it in preparation to listen to a series of Yale lectures, so, rather parallel to your Coursera experience. Sounds like an interesting class; maybe I’ll look into it!

    Thanks for a good post.

    • Hi Julia – yes, it seems we have similar opinions of LIA. I’m more into the weird stuff (punctuation and compoundwords) and I love some passages, some ways he has of conveying stuff – and I can appreciate the overall theme (the road is pretty cool) but I’m not sure that makes up for the slogging and the “where the hell am I?” I’m looking forward to the lectures, which should be coming up this weekend.

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