Thursday, July 28, 2022

Summer of Faulkner: Light in August


Light in August begins like this:

“Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama : a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking.’"

and it ends like this:

“’My, my. A body does get around. Here we aint been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it’s already Tennessee.’”

The novel covers this short period during which Lena Grove finds herself in Jefferson, Mississippi, where she’s come to seek the father of her unborn child, Lucas Burch, a man who promised to send for her and didn’t.

Lena is a sympathetic character from the start, because of her situation and gumption, and because of her naivete in believing that somewhere, Burch will be waiting with the house and marriage she thinks he promised.

But Lena Grove isn’t the main character of Faulkner’s seventh novel published in 1932; one of the masterful things about the author’s method in Light in August is the alternating points of view. It’s a common, Faulknerian technique and yet, he seems to go about it in a unique way for each novel. Here, an alternating omniscience allows us into the minds of several of the characters, but often a new, periphery character is introduced at a particular moment as if to lend a degree of objectivity. In this way, the points of view contribute to the furthering of plot, while also lending depth to the themes of the book. I don't even know if I'm describing this well. A simple way to say it is that everything in this book is doing several things at once. Everything. It's truly masterful, a novel I could read over and over, I believe, and find new satisfactions each time.

We follow young, pregnant Lena into Jefferson much like a camera follows a subject. We meet other characters, each, like her, carrying some burden from the past. Reverend Hightower spent a childhood obsessed with his grandfather, a Civil War hero, and was ousted from his church position after a personal tragedy. Byron Bunch maintains a friendship with the reverend but is otherwise solitary and isolated until Lena’s arrival. Joanna Burden is a spinster whose family has a long history of anti-slavery activism and intermixing with blacks. And because one of Faulkner’s primary preoccupations in the novel is the relationship between and status for both whites and blacks in the South—well, it makes perfect sense that Joanna, with her confusion about her place among the races, becomes involved with our main character, Joe Christmas, a light-skinned man who has lived as both white and black at certain times of his life.

The characterization of Joe Christmas is nuanced and deep; he’s an orphan who suffers abuse and alienation throughout his childhood and becomes a drifter. I think one of the most impressive things about Faulkner’s drawing of this character is that even when Christmas becomes more and more corrupted and driven to terrible acts, we still feel sympathetic. Because of his violent upbringing and the lack of a mother, Christmas’s feelings for and about women are convoluted, his feelings about race, the same. He has never been allowed any sort of peace and when he finds it in short spells, he sabotages and destroys. On the race issue, never fitting in completely, he lives his life ready to fight.

“Now and then he could see them: heads in silhouette, a white blurred garmented shape; on a lighted veranda four people sat about a card table, the white faces intent and sharp in the low light, the bare arms of the women glaring smooth and white above the trivial cards. ‘That’s all I wanted,” he thought. ‘That dont seem like a whole lot to ask.’”

Note the repetition of the word "white" in that passage. It should be noted that in addition to an intricate plot and a cast of memorable characters, Light in August contains some of the best prose I’ve read on this Faulkner journey. Like this, our first glimpse of five-year-old Joe Christmas:

“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.”

I mean. Could the story of Joe Christmas have gone any way but tragically?

For each, well-drawn character, the past guides the present, and the plot of Light in August reveals, through twists and turns, all of the connections between these complex people. As is the case with the other novels I’ve read this summer, Faulkner has something to say about the choices for women and sexuality, about the lasting effect of slavery and racial violence and injustice, and about the South’s rich history and traditions. But race is perhaps the major consideration of the novel and about that, he reflects the devastation but offers no answers or resolution. It’s left for the characters to trudge forward, as Lena continues her journey through the South.

I remembered this book as a favorite from when I read it over twenty years ago; it’s my favorite of the books I’ve read this go-round.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Summer of Faulkner: As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary

I often think there’s no better place to read a book than on an airplane. Suspended between places with few distractions (especially if you have earplugs), it’s a prime opportunity for a fictional world to take over. And maybe another fantastic place to read a book is on vacation, when perhaps you’ve put the concerns of work and everyday life on the back burner. It follows that maybe reading a novel on a plane before or after a vacation is the best of all. After experiencing three Faulkner novels (so far) this summer, I can tell you that it’s particularly suited for reading him. Faulkner is a big mood. His stories are immersive, each with its own language and method. Particularly the method. Reading his novels in a single sitting increases accessibility; there’s no reorientation period as there might be if you read in segments during breaks from your normal, busy life. And so, I give you my thoughts on As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary.

When I chose the novels for my summer project, I selected five books in chronological order during a particularly productive writing period of Faulkner’s life. The historical notes on the first three novels I've read are interesting. Of the first, the author stated, “I had just written my guts into The Sound and the Fury though I was not aware until the book was published that I had done so, because I had done it for pleasure.” Faulkner bounced between writing what he wanted and writing to make money over the course of his entire career, and it’s not surprising that what is probably his most critically lauded novel was an act of creative passion. 

Of Sanctuary, however, he wrote:

“To me it is a cheap idea, because it was deliberately conceived to make money. I had been writing books for about five years, which got published and not bought…I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought was the right answer and invested the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks.”

The editor who received Sanctuary told Faulkner he couldn’t publish it, or they’d both end up in jail. In need of money, Faulkner took a job in a power plant, shoveling coal during the night shift. Between midnight and 4 a.m., when there was less to do because everyone was sleeping, he wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, “without changing a word.” He told the publisher, “by it I would stand or fail.” Another novel, it would seem, inspired by pure, creative passion.

By then, he had forgotten about Sanctuary but undertook a comprehensive rewriting when asked. He claimed to make a “fair job of it” and hoped not to “shame” the other two novels. He seemed to know that it was in another category altogether, and I certainly found it so.

As I Lay Dying is the story of the Bundren family. It opens with the point of view of Darl, who observes his older brother, Cash, building a coffin for their mother, who lies in the house nearing death. There’s some discussion about whether he should be doing this right outside the window where Addie, their ailing mother, can see. Everyone seems agitated by the sound of the sawing and hammering. And with these first images and sounds, Faulkner sets a mood and tone that masterfully prevails throughout the novel.

The Bundrens are a hardscrabble, farming family who can never seem to make out right. Bad luck, the patriarch of the family would claim. Throughout the novel, Anse Bundren bemoans his fortune: “I have heard men cuss their luck, and right, for they were sinful men. But I do not say it’s a curse on me, because I have done no wrong to be cussed by.” This is up for debate throughout, not only in relation to Anse but for each character. Cash and his brooding brother, Darl, the sole daughter of the family, Dewey Dell, whose personal problem weighs more heavily on her than her mother’s impending death, Jewel, the mother’s favorite, and the youngest, Vardaman, who possibly has mental disabilities and associates his mother’s death with a fish he caught earlier the same day.

Like The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying rotates points of view but each chapter is short and immersive, and the effect of the blending of these scenes is quite mesmerizing, like a collage around Addie. The family’s matriarch was tough and bitter; she has requested that her body be delivered to Jefferson to be laid with her ancestors—although she knew this would cause complications and expense her family couldn’t really afford. Faulkner gives Addie a voice, post-mortem, in a chapter when she recounts the birth of each child and the frustrations of her life.

The novel maintains a tragic tone laced with dark humor, as the family carts Addie’s body while vultures circle above. You wouldn’t think you would laugh about a scene when they attempt traversing a river and the body lurches into the water, but you do. It’s no farce, though; the novel speaks volumes about the South and the struggles of farmers, about roles for women and sexuality, and a new generation shackled by the demands of family and tradition and the past.

If I had one thing to say about Sanctuary, it would be that the content is unpleasant from start to finish, really. No character is truly likable or, more importantly, particularly sympathetic. As Faulkner claimed, it was “the most horrific tale” he could imagine. In the story, a young debutante named Temple Drake arrives at the home of a bootlegger after a car crash. It’s a house of horrors, as she is attacked several times throughout the night, becomes semi-intelligible due to trauma, and is kidnapped by an impotent criminal named Popeye and eventually, after suffering more abuse, ends up in a Memphis brothel.

Although the book seems to be an attempt at a potboiler (those “trends” Faulkner talked about), the author can’t help but draw commentary about women’s sexuality through the characterization of Temple herself, a young woman who seems to flirt with danger until it comes to her in severe fashion. The novel has something to say about the South during prohibition, a time that encouraged lawlessness, and about alcoholism—the car is crashed by Gowan Stevens, an alcoholic and Temple’s companion on that fateful day. But again, most of the content is just…well, unpleasant. Much has been said about the famous scene (or lack of scene) with the famous object—but I’ll leave that for you to find out.

Sanctuary is written without shifting point of views and much of the literary flair of Faulkner’s other novels. But again, the author was writing with a certain thing in mind, for the broader audience he imagined. And, dear readers, it worked. The success of Faulkner’s potboiler in 1931 freed him from financial worries, for the most part.

Next up: a reread of Light in August, the book I remembered as a favorite, to be followed by the last book of my summer project, Absalom, Absalom! Fortunately, I still have some summer plane rides left.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Summer of Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury

I just finished watching the third season of My Brilliant Friend, the HBO series adapted from the Elena Ferrante novels. In this season, the main character—also an author named Elena—has written about how women are fashioned by men (her "book" is only 70 pages and she’s not sure what it is but of course her publisher will take it!). It’s a feminism manifesto of sorts, about how women were formed to be like men and yet, are required to live by men’s definitions and requirements (this is a simplification).

But wait. You’re thinking: I thought you were reading Faulkner. I am! I’ve finished the first novel on my list, The Sound and the Fury, the story of an aristocratic, Southern family’s attempts to retain their (supposedly) unvarnished legacy, steeped in the moral and cultural ideals of the time. But Faulkner was no optimist, and so they fail, and the story is one of loss; over time, the family falls from grace. And in writing terms, the “inciting incident” for this widespread tragedy is a localized one—the downfall of the family’s only daughter, Caddy.  

When people think of Faulkner, they think of alternating points of view and jumps in time that have no signal and often seem to make no sense. This book has all of that! The novel employs three, first-person perspectives, those of the three Compson brothers: Benjy, Quentin, and Jason, and a third-person POV which focuses on the perspective of Dilsey, the household cook and stand-in mother for the brothers and Caddy. And it occurs to me that the restraints and expectations felt by Caddy in the South during the first quarter of the twentieth century were probably not unlike the gender expectations at the half-mark of the same century and beyond in Naples, Italy.

Much is often made of Faulkner’s characterization of Benjy, the “idiot” of the family, a thirty-three-year-old man who must be supervised around-the-clock because of the severity of his condition. Endless scholarship has examined possible diagnoses for Benjy (modern consensus is probably severe autism), but everyone believes him to be entirely unable to process information (he is not), and some even think he’s deaf—in terms of a writing device, it makes for an interesting POV that is almost omniscient in the sense that no one takes him as a witness of any sort.

And the way Faulkner has expressed Benjy’s voice is, of course, provocative, but each point of view is uniquely drawn and remarkable in its own way, and the sun holding these planetary points of view in its gravity is Caddy, always Caddy. Each brother takes a particular interest in her, according to the image of her he has constructed (and this is where Elena's writings come in)—whether it be nurturer, idealized womanhood, protected charge, or something else. The Compson parents are mostly absent—the father’s an alcoholic, the mother is selfish and often takes to her bed, leaving the children to Dilsey’s supervision. As the oldest, Quentin assumes responsibility for the family, especially for upholding honor where his sister is concerned, Jason is not well-liked and is simmering pot of bitterness, and Benjy, as mentioned, has the capacity of a toddler and imprints like a duckling after his sister. And when Caddy begins to behave promiscuously and eventually becomes pregnant, the cogs are set in motion for each to meet his demise in one way or another.

The novel’s about the southern states, of course, and what some saw as the deterioration of the upper class after the Civil War. The choices available to the brothers were perhaps those Faulkner felt were his: go away to an eastern school, stay on the land enmeshed in the noble tradition of farming, or retreat into an idiotic ignorance of the situation. Having read the Faulkner biography before this novel, I couldn’t help but draw lines from Faulkner’s parents to the elder Compsons, and from Faulkner himself to the frustrations and convoluted messaging about morals embedded in the behavior of the Compson siblings. Like Caddy, Faulkner suffered a series of thwarted relationships and engaged in sexual misconduct. And in the repetition of process that occurs when Caddy’s daughter grows up to be rebellious, discontent, and primed to repeat the tragic, downward trajectory of her ancestors, one can sense the general dissatisfaction and expected doom that started Faulkner on the road to severe alcoholism at the tender age of fourteen.

Does the book sound depressing? I suppose in some ways, it is. But where the tragedy of the Compson family grows heavy, The Sound and the Fury is lifted, almost a century after its first printing, by the genius of William Faulkner’s vision and execution. I didn’t find it difficult to follow what was happening—at least, not nearly as much as when first read it. The changes in point of view are inspired, each in its own way, and the whole thing engages you along the ride, even if it’s downhill. It’s an amazing work of fiction, and a great start to my summer reading.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka