If you know nothing else about William Faulkner, you probably know this, he wrote about the southern United States. And he wrote about the relationships between class and race. And Light in August is the book where he takes these subjects head-on.
In some ways, Light in August could be called the quentisential Faulkner. The book dispenses with strict chronology, telling most of the backstory in a flashback, with a couple of shifts in narrator. The story ends in disturbing violence. And he speaks about the way whites treat blacks in the south in the thirties.
I read Light in August a decade or so ago. I remembered most of the storyline and that it was good. I was surprised this time around just how good it is. Faulkner found his stride with The Sound and the Fury. Now, three novels later he is sprinting with what seems the lightest of ease. Every sentence seems a pleasure to read, and sometimes to parse (and it being Faulkner, many of the sentence require a great deal of parsing).
Take the opening of chapter six.
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.
The personification of Memory and Knowing continues through most of the book, making appearances here and there. Faulkner also peppers the book with compound words like thightall and childtrebling and sootbleakened. I also noticed a lot of em-spaces after sentences, indicating pauses in speech or in thought, or changes of tense. I believe I remember seeing some em-spaces mid-sentences, but thumbing through it now, I don’t see any. I can only imagine the editor must have kept a bottle of aspirin close by when working on this book.
Faulkner is not easy on the reader here either. There are no wild shifts in time and space as there are in The Sound and the Fury. There are no stream of consciousness experiments. Punctuation does not fall away to create pages long sentences. But Light in August is difficult nonetheless. The sentences are long and take some time (at least for me) to break down and understand.
The plot is dark and violent. There is enough foreshadowing to tell early on that it will not end pleasantly. There are many characters. A young, pregnant woman looking for the father of her unborn child. Byron Bunch, a preachy moralist who acts as a protector to Lena. Lucas Burch, a bootlegger who is the father of the child and lives with Joe Christmas in a cabin. And a disgraced former minister.
But the story centers around Joe Christmas. Christmas is a mysterious fellow who shows up in town and gets work at a planing mill. In a long flashback, it is revealed that Christmas is an orphan. He knows nothing of this background, but because of an incident in the orphanage he has reason to believe he has black ancestry.
Much of the story I will not reveal here. It’s best to read it for yourself. But Faulkner uses this set up to write a book that touches on race, class and gender. A very real conflict in Christmas' mind is his own struggle to find an identity.
Many of the characters have backgrounds that haunt them. Many back stories are expanded in flashbacks, and all these characters suffer from legacies and complex personal histories. So many of the characters are loners, running from things that haunt them.
Light in August is clearly focused on race and class, but it is a lot more than that. Every character is fleshed out and complex themes bind them together.
Coming off of Sanctuary, Faulkner must have been wanting to run off some pent up energy. Light in August is bursting at the seams with symbolism, social commentary and fun wordplay.
I read this book years ago, and I remember liking it. But after this reading, I have to reassess it. It iss not a book I like. It is a masterpiece.