an interim report on Light in August by William Faulkner (audio)

augustI am nearly halfway through Light in August, and I need to get some things off my chest.

The lack of physical descriptions in this book is bothering me. Race is clearly a major issue, and yet I am often left confused about who was of what race. In some stories that would be a strength – that neutrality – but considering that I suspect it is so darned important here, I would like to know who is who. Rarely do we get a physical description. And then, out of nowhere, I get this:

She was a waitress in a small, dingy, back street restaurant in town. Even a casual adult glance could tell that she would never see thirty again. But to Joe she probably did not look more than seventeen too, because of her smallness. She was not only not tall, she was slight, almost childlike. But the adult look saw that the smallness was not due to any natural slenderness but to some inner corruption of the spirit itself: a slenderness which had never been young, in not one of whose curves anything youthful had ever lived or lingered. Her hair was dark. Her face was prominently boned, always downlooking, as if her head were set so on her neck, a little out of line. Her eyes were like the button eyes of a toy animal: a quality beyond even hardness, without being hard.

This is both lovely and, in some ways, bothersome to me. I love that she was not short, but rather “not tall.” And then that “smallness… not due to any natural slenderness but to some inner corruption of the spirit” comes along and I wanted to sarcastically retort, “you mean like a cocaine addiction is an inner corruption of the spirit”? Her face “always downlooking, as if her head were set so on her neck” is quite amazing and evocative; it makes me pause to picture this. But I can’t quite tolerate the “quality beyond even hardness, without being hard.” Come off it, Faulkner.

My impatience with his writing makes me question myself. I am often a little scornful of what strikes me as pretentious Literaryness; but then I’m so often appreciative of lyrical writing, so where do I draw the line? Am I letting my prejudice against (or to be more honest, my fear of) Faulkner get in the way of an honest appraisal? How to account for taste – even my own? It remains a puzzle. As I’ve written before, I think we all should attempt – as I am trying to do – to own our own reactions and tastes, and not apologize for not liking those who are called literary greats (Henry James, T.S. Eliot, I’m looking at you). Why don’t I like Faulkner? Take in a sentence like this:

I do not know yet that in the instant of sleep the eyelid closing prisons within the eye’s self her face demure, pensive; tragic, sad, and young; waiting, colored with all the vague and formless magic of young desire.

I’m sorry, but this reminds me of the abstract art that us philistines can’t tell from a kindergartner’s work. Speaking of vague and formless – this reminds me of The Waste Land, or Gertrude Stein, for goodness’ sake. If I keep reading this, I may go crazy.

On the other hand, I took in Jason’s lovely, helpful comments on the book beginning I posted, and I am somewhat encouraged. Some of this will just turn out to be a matter of taste; Jason can have Faulkner and I can have Hemingway, who some people abhor and that is fine, etc. etc. But perhaps I can continue with Faulkner and find more to like, too. Jason, I’m still looking forward to As I Lay Dying. I am trying; don’t lose patience with me yet. 🙂

And for now, I continue, but wish me luck.

12 Responses

  1. I was never able to get very far with Faulkner. I read half of one book once, and I don’t even remember which one it was. I don’t mind LiteraryNess, though it’s not my general preference, but there have to be rewards along the way. Henry James is easy to mock, but his sentences are magnificent. Faulkner’s sentences, as you point out, are not on that level, at least not consistently.

    A girlfriend once (from Atlanta) said, basically, “It’s a Southern thing. You wouldn’t understand.” Could be (she’s an English professor with a PhD now, so who am I to argue?) I was (am) obsessed with Moonrise Kingdom, and I know one factor is the “New England in the 1960s” thing, which it nails. Not everybody is going to appreciate that.

    • That’s funny, the Southern question. It opens up a whole new issue, for me personally: am I a Southerner? I’m a lifelong Texan, and it’s generally agreed that Texas is not “deep” south, although I would certainly argue that it is The South; I say y’all; but I’m also from the fourth-largest city in the country, so rather more urban than country. I dig Southern a lot of the time, though, so I’m inclined to say that’s not my beef with Faulkner. Interesting concept!

      I’ll have to look out for Moonrise Kingdom

  2. Well, can’t say that I am surprised by your negative reaction to the novel 😛

    Even though I tend to be a great admirer of Faulkner’s prose, you are right on the money about how frustrating this particular novel can be with its highly abstract and elusive style. As I mentioned in one of my previous comments, the novel is overlong and this is largely in part because he goes overboard with these extraneous stylistic flourishes. Don ‘t get me wrong, I am a complete sucker when it comes to literary aesthetic beauty (heck, Virginia Woolf is my favorite author) and Faulkner can definitely deliver the goods on a bad day but this novel often feels like he is stroking his ego for 500+pages.

    Your comment about “inner corruption of the spirit” being akin to a cocaine addiction made me laugh so hard, I nearly spurted my drink all over the computer screen. Amazing. 😛 It is passages like this that make me want to kick Faulkner in the teeth: “Stop with this literary masturbation and get on with the story already, geez!” Still, this is one of those novels that I have a feeling will be a lot more enjoyable a second time around now that I am much more familiar with his work.

    I couldn’t agree with you more when you talk about learning to “own our own reactions and tastes, and not apologize for not liking those who are called literary greats.” Far too often I come across people who would rather be dishonest to themselves and just agree with the general consensus in order not avoid being labeled as the black sheep. It sickens me. Just because you dislike Faulkner does not make you an idiot as many of these scholarly pundits will be adamant to point out. Sure, he is often praised as one of the greatest writers ever but that does not mean you must give up your integrity and sense of individualism–screw that nonsense! I have always stood by the notion that literature is purely subjective and if someone enjoys reading Harlequin novels or the Twilight series over Faulkner, so be it. Life’s too short and there is too many great pieces of literature out there to force yourself in reading something that is giving you displeasure or worse, an ulcer.

    Although, I do find that passage you quoted about the depth found in the eyes to be particularly moving. See? it’s all subjective! 🙂 I am glad that we can at least agree with the literary merit of Henry James. 😛

    It’s so funny how you love Hemmingway and dislike Faulkner, whereas it is the complete opposite for me. However, I will actually be reading “The Old man and the Sea” very soon so maybe there is a chance I will decide to jump aboard the Hemmingway love train.

    Oh, and I agree with Anthony–Moonrise Kingdom is a wonderful film but again, Wes Anderson is an acquired taste. 😛

    • Ah, Jason, I was looking forward to your comment! Thanks for your support. I’ve come a long way in “owning” my feelings and hey, we can’t all like the same things (think how long the lines would be), so I’m okay with this.

      I still look forward to the lectures I have saved; maybe they’ll shed some more light. Will I make it to As I Lay Dying? Perhaps. I will definitely finish this one first…

      I wish you luck with The Old Man and the Sea, and I could preach Hemingway to you all day; but in the spirit of to-each-his-own, you’re free to your response, of course. I will be interested to hear!

    • “Far too often I come across people who would rather be dishonest to themselves and just agree with the general consensus…”

      Jason, I agree completely. I was just on another blog where we were discussing how, once a work of art is anointed as “great,” some people apparently feel obligated to defend it in all areas, as if “great” has to equal “perfect.”

      To paraphrase a character from Heartbreak House (which is great but not perfect 🙂 ): books don’t have their virtues and vices in sets; they have them anyhow, all mixed.

  3. If the same art, literary or otherwise, spoke to us all in the same way, life would be like The Stepford Wives. And as a subjective aside from a true hick Southerner, no I don’t think you qualify 😉

  4. […] am challenged by Faulkner. I already began to share my frustrations in an earlier post that you might want to check […]

  5. Hi there. It’s funny that so many people read and re-read this particular classic. I did last year,here and here’s Karen Carlson. Maybe it is a Southern thing. I was born and half-raised there and I love his language and sentences and am OK with how he doesn’t conform to the literary-realist hegemony of today (which I think is essentially your complaint), but I can’t stomach the voluptuousness of his horror of the female. An auxiliary point of the passage above. No surprise that when he stops to describe someone’s body, it’s a woman and a whore.

    • That’s a fine auxiliary point, Valerie. Thanks for stopping by. I’m headed over to read your two links. See above where Amy Brandon tells me I’m not a Southerner. 🙂 And yes, you put it very eruditely but I think it is indeed the literary realism that I’m missing…

      Why do you think it’s funny that people are still reading this one? Do you mean funny ha-ha? I don’t find it all that strange; it’s a “classic” (they say), and people still read Hemingway and Fitzgerald, etc.

    • And for the record, I don’t encourage anyone to conform to any hegemony! But my personal tastes do lean in the one direction. Faulkner is free to do his thing but he is passing me by as he does it; we’ll just have to both be okay with that (Faulkner & I).

  6. […] ho hum. And then there was Light in August, the only Faulkner I’ve read, and if you read my two reviews of that, you know I’m settling in as not a Faulkner fan. So, the final question of […]

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