(More fog than light over the river today)
‘Susan Hill. Kathleen Jamie. And you’re reading what?’
‘I’m rereading Light in August.’
‘Why that one?’ the Librarian asks.
Because it’s the next one in the Faulkner canon? Not exactly. Because one of the central characters is called Joe Christmas? No, not a factor. Because the festive season is an obvious point in the year at which to embrace a tale of violence, prejudice and racist murder? Not that. Because those things seem so consonant with our current malaise? Tempting but. . . Because it’s not Absalom! Absalom!? Almost.
Over the past year or two, I’ve reread several William Faulkner books. The early ones, Soldiers’ Pay (set in Georgia) and Mosquitoes (New Orleans) are interesting but it’s not until Flags in the Dust—a heavily edited and shortened version of which was published as Sartoris—that Faulkner unrolls his Yoknapatawpha territory: ‘Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Area, 2400 square miles. Population: Whites, 6298; Negroes, 9313. William Faulkner, sole owner and proprietor’, as he sets down the details on his map, often reprinted. Other rereading included the Collected Stories, Sanctuary – and The Sound and the Fury. Could that be as good as I remembered it? It could.
Between other books and other writers, I slowly circled round towards Absalom! Absalom! again—the first long-ago reading was stunning but the second attempt, for some reason, fell at an early fence. This month, I wanted something meaty, one of the big ones, that wasn’t – just yet – Absalom! Absalom! So: Light in August.
Light in August has several plotlines that touch or clash at various points: the young Lena Grove’s search for the father of her unborn child, who has fled to Jefferson, changed his name and become the bootlegging partner of the abused, haunted and—probably—murderous Joe Christmas, who believes himself to be of mixed ancestry, though he passes for white. Lena will alter the lives of others, directly or indirectly: Byron Bunch, who is shaken out of his diminished life of risk avoidance and determined insignificance for love of her; and the (also haunted) disgraced Reverend Gail Hightower. Christmas has been pursuing an affair with Joanna Burden, whose abolitionist grandfather and half-brother were killed in an argument over African-American voting rights. And there is the aptly-named Percy Grimm, captain in the State national guard, who shoots Christmas and—while he is still alive—castrates him with a butcher’s knife. Faulkner made a point of stressing the date of the novel in which that character was created: 1932, ‘before I’d ever heard of Hitler’s Storm Troopers’.
Cleanth Brooks questions the evidence for Christmas’s mixed-race origins offered by the text and concludes that there is no definitive case made; while Richard Gray comments that, ‘Faulkner has made sure that the question of Joe’s racial status can never be answered.’ But it’s the belief—of Christmas himself and others—that he is of mixed race which is decisive in the immediate and widespread assumption of his guilt of Miss Burden’s murder, though the novel is carefully less definite on the matter of that guilt.
But there are positive elements in the novel too, certainly in Faulkner’s view (as well as a good deal of comedy). In her 1956 interview with Faulkner for the Paris Review, Jean Stein Vanden Heuvel quoted to him Malcolm Cowley’s comment that Faulkner’s characters carried ‘a sense of submission to their fate’. Faulkner responded that Lena Grove, the young pregnant woman in search of the man who has abandoned her, ‘coped pretty well with hers. It didn’t really matter to her in her destiny whether her man was Lucas Burch or not. It was her destiny to have a husband and children and she knew it, and so she went out and attended to it without asking help from anyone. She was the captain of her soul.’ Lena was, Faulkner commented, ‘never for one moment confused, frightened, alarmed. She did not even know that she didn’t need pity.’
(The fire at the Burden house, visible at multiple points throughout the novel)
Rereading Light in August after a hefty number of years, I found much of it familiar, some of it unremembered, and elements I must have been faintly aware of that came into sharper focus. Lena’s simplicity, endurance and quiet determination provide a steadying ballast to the novel but it clearly required other elements, which are sometimes reminiscent of Greek tragedy: the substantial role of the chorus, in varying forms and guises, the strong current of inevitable crisis and catharsis. There is the remarkable—and frightening—speed of narrative in the chapter where Grimm pursues and kills Christmas, by that stage as inescapable, as inexorable as fate. There are echoes too in the stories of both Lena and the strongly contrasted character of Joe Christmas. On the opening page of the book, Lena is thinking: ‘although I have not been quite a month on the road I am already in Mississippi, further from home than I have ever been before. I am now further from Doane’s Mill than I have been since I was twelve years old’; while later, two-thirds of the way through the novel, Christmas is once more in Mottstown, on a street that he remembers from childhood: ‘It had been a paved street, where going should be fast. It had made a circle and he is still inside of it. Though during the last seven days he has had no paved street, yet he has travelled further than in all the thirty years before. And yet he is still inside the circle.’
Faulkner may not have loved Lena as intensely as he did The Sound and the Fury’s Caddy Compson but she is nevertheless drawn with great warmth and sympathy—though, as has been pointed out, views of her are always exteriorised, she is consistently observed and discussed and evaluated through the prism of male speech and male gaze. Faulkner began the book, he said, ‘knowing no more about it than a young woman, pregnant, walking along a strange country road’, and it can hardly have been irrelevant to that initial vision that, earlier in the year of the novel’s composition, his wife had given birth to a daughter that lived only nine days.
(Faulkner with Billie Holiday, 1956)
I still find, as I do with D. H. Lawrence’s novels, passages that become clotted or overburdened by Faulkner’s compound words, ‘dreamrecovering’, ‘shadowdappled’, ‘diamondsurfaced’. The novel is full of voices yet sometimes the telling lurches into language that fractures the plausibility of oral commentary. Faulkner, as David Minter remarks, ‘remained insistent, even abrupt, in mingling the colloquial and the elevated’. But, as with Lawrence, such blemishes are finally, in the scale of the whole, just scraps of chaff on the granary floor.
A little later in his Paris Review interview, in a variation on Requiem for a Nun’s famous line, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’, Faulkner commented: ‘The fact that I have moved my characters around in time successfully, at least in my own estimation, proves to me my own theory that time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as was—only is. If was existed there would be no grief or sorrow.’
‘Now the final copper light of afternoon fades; now the street beyond the low maples and the low signboard is prepared and empty, framed by the study window like a stage’ (Light in August 744). Light, yes. Kathleen Jamie writes: ‘The wind lifts the grasses and moves the thin branches of the leafless trees and the sun shines on them, in one movement, so light and air are as one, two aspects of the same entity.’
And yes, she is writing of a day in February but – I’m reading it in December.
 Faulkner in the University (1957), 41, quoted by Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 60.
 Brooks, William Faulkner, 49-51; Richard Gray, The Life of William Faulkner (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 184.
 James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate, editors, Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980), 253.
 Faulkner, Light in August (1932), in Novels 1930-1935, edited by Noel Polk and Joseph Blotner, (New York: Library of America, 1985), 401, 650.
 Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner: A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 703.
 Gray, Life, 177.
 David Minter, William Faulkner: His Life and Work (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 50.
 Lion in the Garden, 255.
 Kathleen Jamie, ‘Light’, in Sightlines (London: Sort Of Books, 2012), 91.