Light in August

It seemed to [Joe Christmas] as he sat there that the yellow day contemplated him drowsily, like a prone and somewhat somnolent yellow cat. (p112)

I finished reading Light in August yesterday. There’s a sense in which I understand it well enough — I reckon I could discuss it in class well enough, and sort out a basic outline of who does what, when, and why. At the same time, it didn’t strike me as other books have in the past — it seems to have sunk slowly into my mind in a dusty trickle of dead faces and expressionless words. Not from Faulkner, exactly — he is very poetic in his way — but from his characters. They are so very laconic so very much of the time. Could I appreciate that better from Mississippi or Tennessee? They are also so often defined by their protestantism or rejection thereof. It’s the strict, wrathful kind of protestantism that can sometimes be recognized in George MacDonald’s novels as well (like the similarity between Joe Christmas being whipped for failing to learn his catechism, and Macdonald being locked in the schoolroom ass Saturday without any supper for the same offense), but MacDonald is far kinder to the perpetrators of it — and in Light in August perpetrators is the right word. If I had to write an essay about the book — if I were taking a class on it, for instance — I think that I would probably look into that; how Faulkner deals with it, and what it might mean.

There’s an odd way in which Faulkner’s American South feels more culturally distant from me than Tolstoy’s Czarist Russia or Jane Austen’s Regency England. There are, perhaps, a couple of reasons for that, and the main one is that Faulkner is writing about a different class of people, often in the words of those people. For all his admiration of the Russian peasant, the only peasant character I can remember had to be seen through the eyes of aristocratic Pierre, and his charms and motivations described in the voice of the author, rather than in his own words and deeds. The inner worlds of Austen’s characters are familiar and easy to relate to; they are thinking about the marriage, books, wit, embroidery, manners, and so on. I can recognize their Anglicanism much better than Faulkner’s American Presbyterianism, which I don’t know that I’ve encountered at all. And it seems surprising, since I’m not from the minor nobility of England, and am geographically and temporally nearer Faulkner’s South, why this is the case. Or to take another book, I can recognize Christy, and she might me, computer and country aside — but Faulkner would recognize the people of Cutter’s Gap without any city girl teacher between. What would it be like to read a book about those people without her there? Perhaps like a Faulkner novel (I’m not saying she could write that way).

Interestingly, of perhaps half a dozen people who have asked me what I’m reading, several of whom were from Kodiak and who take books like Bleak House and The Brother’s Karamazov with them to read on the bus or plane, none of them had read Faulkner, and only one thought that the title sounded familiar, although Faulker is considered to be one of the best (one of my professors said the very best) American novelist.


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