Friday, May 13, 2011

What's Wrong With Faulkner's LIGHT IN AUGUST

"...a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it..." -- Randall Jarrell

You don't touch the Torah.
That's why I rarely write about William Faulkner.

If there is a grand secular American scripture, it must surely contain Faulkner's works of the 1930s, Melville's Moby Dick and The Confidence Man and his shorter fictions, the essays of Emerson, Thoreau's Walden and "Walking" and "Civil Disobedience," the poems of Whitman and Dickinson, the best novels of Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison, Miss Lonelyhearts and Gravity's Rainbow. That would be enough to found a real religion upon--more than enough--if we needed a religion.

In that nearly unbelievable run of great books Faulkner wrote between the late 1920s and the early 1940s--a period that reached its artistic peak at Absalom, Absalom!, my candidate for the greatest American novel of the 20th century--Light in August is not among the (here comes the annoying pun) most august lights. The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying shine more brightly. They are crisper, tighter books. Absalom is better written. In Light in August Faulkner seems to have given himself permission to stretch out and write at Dickensian length, and while he achieves much that is great and beautiful and intelligent and terrible and sublime in these pages--enough to make any criticisms seem almost nitpicky--the book suffers from this authorial freedom in three important ways. First, it's simply too damn long. The second half of the novel could have been shortened by at least 100 pages without losing anything essential. There are entire scenes that could and should have been reduced to a few sentences of exposition. (This is heresy, I know, but sometimes we must risk the stake.) Second, in a surprisingly clumsy piece of novelistic construction, Faulkner brings his novel to its bloody climax more than 40 pages before the end. The final two (two!) chapters are less catharsis and loose-end tying than an authorial inability to shut up. It's as though Faulkner put himself in a writing trance and couldn't break out until he brought us full circle to Lena Grove on the road again. I admire the symmetry, but I yawned at its execution. Third, and most importantly, Faulkner gives us too little Joanna Burden, one of his most interesting, complex and mysterious characters, and far too much Rev. Hightower, a relatively uninteresting Andersonian grotesque. (Many of Light in August's characters are, in fact, grotesques that might have flowed from the mind of Faulkner's early mentor Sherwood Anderson (Hightower, Mr. and Mrs. Hines; Byron Bunch, Lucas Burch, Percy Grimm); Faulkner might almost have titled this book Winesburg, Mississippi.)

These faults would probably have sunk a lesser novel, but this is not a lesser novel. This is Thirties Faulkner, our greatest writer in his greatest decade. Light in August, with all its faults, is still better than many other writers' best works. It's an essential part of the modern canon, a must-read. Indeed, it's good enough to be read more than once.


julia schwartz said...

Hello Brian,
well I came here to see what you might have been writing about art, beauty and terror and the sublime and found Faulkner! my high school love. And you are so right about Light in August. LIA is the first they assign in school and the least interesting; fortunately, we also read several others. I of course much preferred sound and the fury (which I reread a couple years ago, and the others you mentioned (too lazy to type out).
I don't know if you remember me (painter and psychoanalyst) but I continue on my path. Hope you are well.
julia schwartz

4aslongas said...

Winesburg, Mississippi is pretty hilarious. I take your point. I re-read LIA in Augusts now and then and my copy appears almost sacred, a yellowed fragile palimpsest --especially alongside Kindles on the subway. This time I am finding it Faulkner's most brutal text. Not the cruelest, but the most hammering. Somewhat plodding and far more linear than the mighty ones, Absalom/Sound. Hard to read not in terms of style, but in terms of what is happening with straighter less lyrical shots between cause and effect. And I completely agree that some characters are belabored (Winesburg, Mississippi)and that some beg to be more. But I would not shear or shorten. Especially between a couple Kindles with The Hunger. Thanks, Karen

Barolojoe said...

Hello from Heidelberg,

as a native German with mediocre English skills, I'm more or less dependent of the quality of the translation.

And experienced lectors say: Faulkner's prose is not tranlatable 1:1 into a another tongue.

Furthermore, his works have been transfered to German by about ten different persons between 1935 and now. According to a few 'experts', some of them - especially Elisabeth Schnack, and Georg Goyert (who also foozled the first German version of Joyce's 'Ulysses') did obviously a very poor job.

'Light in August' were translated first by Franz Fein ; his version is considered mediocre at best. A new, better translation is available since 2011, which I haven't read so far.

Other tranlaters, like Hans Wollschl├Ąger ('Sanctuary') , Albert Hess & Peter Sch├╝nemann ('As I Lay Dying') , did, according to some anglicists, a good job.

'Absalom, Absalom', done by Hermann Stresau long ago, is still the only available German version; and it ranks, despite of its age, among the better tranlations of Faulkner.

So I have to read it one day , I guess. And after that, I will probably try the English original.

Though, the only novels I've read so far in original English, were from Graham Greene (Brighton Rock), Scott Fitzgerald (The Beautiful & Damned), Irwin Shaw (Acceptable Losses), William Golding (Lord of the Flies), and Truman Capote ('In cold Blood').

But Faulkner will be much more difficult to catch, I guess....

Greetings from Germany


Steve said...

Interesting commentary!