"The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life." - William Faulkner
After skipping between the cracked Bundren family's interior monologues in As I Lay Dying and wading into the deep end of the stream of consciousness in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner's sixth novel, published in 1932, Light in August seems like a much easier read. It has a more conventional structure and relies less on the technical innovations that are so prominent in the earlier books.
This is not to say that Faulkner left his hallmark stylistic flourish completely behind; flashbacks, for instance, are still crucial to the storytelling. Instead, the focus here is on subject matter that remains controversial more than 70 years later. "Light in August is a searing novel that meditates on racial hatred in the South and the moral depravity caused by Calvinist obsessions," writes biographer Jay Parini "The elusive time-shifting of The Sound and the Fury gives way here to a simpler version of the same technique, with the author flagging all shifts."
Set once again in Faulkner's imaginary landscape of Yoknapatawpha County during Prohibition, the lives of a motley band of strangers, outcasts and loners become inexplicably intertwined. At the center of the drama are two characters: the unwed and pregnant Lena Grove, who has come to Yoknapatawpha County in search of the father of her child; and Joe Christmas, a man so tormented by the question of his mixed-race parentage that his personal demons infect the entire town. As the characters wrestle with their own troubled relationships, they will be forced to confront their own mortality and find their source of hope.
At the time Light in August was published, Faulkner's personal life was far from stable. In early 1932 his father, Murry, died, forcing Faulkner to end a screenwriting stint in Hollywood to attend to family affairs. He later returned to Hollywood for most of the month of October. He took his mother and his brother Dean with him to Hollywood, but left his pregnant wife, Estelle, at home.
Although Light in August received generally glowing reviews, Faulkner is reported to have shown scant interest. "When an advance copy of the finished book arrived at Rowan Oak, Faulkner looked it over briefly, admired the art on its cover, then put it on the shelf," Parini writes, adding: "He seemed indifferent to the reviews." Despite the author's apparent indifference, Light in August—sometimes called his "ironic Gospel" because of its many references to the birth of Jesus—is universally recognized as one of Faulkner's masterpieces.
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