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Faulkner and the Thoroughly Modern Novel.

If you can believe that Faulkner composed Light in August with biblical commentaries in one hand and twelve volumes of The Golden Bough in the other, and if you are convinced that Joycean wordplay was Faulkners consuming thought-process, you should enjoy Virginia Hlavsa's study of the novel. Derived from her 1978 dissertation, this work presents the argument that Faulkner carefully designed Light in August in close parallel to the chapters of John's Gospel, expanding the biblical narratives with examples of mythic and folk activities. Faulkner's willingness to handle the Bible and Sir James Frazer so thoroughly and with such distortion and irony becomes evidence of his allegiance to modernism. A refutation of Hlavsa's basic approach might include a page-by-page counterattack, showing why so many of the parallels seem a stretch of judgment and thus accumulating evidence to undermine the thesis itself Such a line of reasoning would require a volume at least as long as the original, but, worse, it would involve the same sort of misplaced effort that becomes so troubling throughout this book. The present review must be limited, therefore, to general observations and a challenge to Hlavsa's methodology.

At issue here is the critical task itself. Quite ordinary questions about the nature of interdisciplinary studies, the power of allusion, the author's relation to and understanding of sources, ways of reading texts, authorial intention - all require careful analysis and clarity in any examination of fiction. One difficulty with Hlavsa's work is that such matters do not receive substantive discussion. She states her own critical assumptions but does not engage other perspectives at any depth. And, despite the "thoroughly modern" title and the illustration on the book Jacket (a pair of Faulkner's Ole Miss dancers), she gives relatively little space to modernism or Faulkner's role in it while exerting enormous energy in laborious proof of her thesis; she must justify her position, of course, but the title may lead readers to think that Faulkner as modernist writer is the book's point whereas, in reality, it is Faulkner as user of John and Frazer.

Hlavsa's study raises questions for this reviewer at almost every turn. She builds, in large measure, on her assumption that Faulkner wanted "to out-Joyce Joyce" and so was having "fun, creating his own games" (p. 43); she then draws parallels between Light in August and both John and The Golden Bough based on wordplay, a fair measure of which involves her own word selections, and based on what she names as common themes or images. She dismisses Faulkners comments on his stories as well as readings from the manuscripts of Light in August - except where that material might advance her argument. She never really tells us what she thinks is going on in Light in August, beyond Faulkner's use of John and Frazer. She has a respectable bibliography, though she misses some important recent studies of Light in August, has a weak list of biblical commentaries, and cites few treatments of modernism. More to the point, she does not really offer dialogue with the body of criticism; rather, she mentions critics briefly to reenforce a theme she is developing. She reaches no conclusions: her final section explicates chapter 21 of the novel, and she gives us no summary and no reenforcement of her rationale. She is quite thorough in her citations of The Golden Bough and of John's gospel, but her handling of those texts is sometimes problematic and, especially in the case of John, occasionally includes misstatements.

At heart, the problem with Hlavsa's Faulkner rests on her contention that Faulkner consciously built into his text all the parallels she finds. When Faulkner wanted to write a narrative based on another story, he clearly knew how to do it and left no doubt, in the text, about his intentions. We are not dependent on his interviews to know that he was using the Christ story as an outline for A Fable, nor must we employ puns to establish his connections between the two stories: he follows the chronology of the biblical narrative, develops obvious characterization, uses similar names for characters, echoes key events unmistakably. There is a world of difference between coiled barbed wire around the corporal's head evoking Jesus' crown of thorns and Hightower's sweat evoking Jesus' "living water" (pp. 16-17): in the first instance, the author establishes the allusion; in the second, the critic invents it.

Faulkner's own fiction supplies ample evidence that he knew a great deal about the Bible, about mythology, about Frazer's compilation, and about other literature, both classical and contemporary. Further, Faulkner understood human experience at considerable depth. Readers should not be surprised to see the wealth of his own reading and understanding showing up in his literary works: clarifying those connections can be a useful critical task. It is another matter, however, to assume that Faulkner set out to develop such an intentional and extensive patterning after other sources as is proposed here - at least on the grounds of this proposition. This critical approach to the novel, while it may claim to expand the richness of a reading, actually diminishes the novel, letting observations rest on word association and removing the reader yet another step from the content and meaning of the novel. We are left with an elaborate and largely fruitless exercise which operates more for its own purposes than for building comprehension of the text itself.

In her acknowledgements, Hlavsa suggests that she had a difficult time persuading some people of the value of her method, and she thanks those who supported her against her "nay-sayers." For my part, I must stand with the nay-sayers. As I read, I found myself not more convinced by the mounting evidence, but more and more incredulous at the amazing attempts to establish parallels. Nothing I know of Faulkner's literature or of his work-habits even hints at such astounding "game plans" (pp. 54-55), Suspending both disbelief and principles of literary criticism, the reader might take Hlavsa's Faulkner as a playful romp, an imaginative exercise of word association. At that level, the book has its enjoyable moments and, in a sense, is not without discernment in the way it infers connections across ages and cultures. What strikes me as a primary achievement here is the testimony to Faulkner's genius in that the stories he was able to tell reach into the hidden corners of the human heart, capturing the joys and fears and commonplaces, the ultimate issues of human reality, as people have expressed them from ancient times.
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Author:Ficken, Carl
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1992
Words:1086
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