Light in August by William Faulkner
I haven’t really read Faulkner since my college days, but I recall this one as being a favorite, and I’d intended to reread it since way back when Vintage reissued the Cormac McCarthy catalog (which I devoured) in softcover prior to publication of his breakthrough “Border Trilogy”. For the past 25 years or so, we can safely call McCarthy mainstream, but back in the days of Child of God and Blood Meridian, the influence most cited for McCarthy was Faulkner.
As a southern gothic masterpiece, there is enough cruelty, menace, and just plain creepiness in Light in August to justify the connection with early McCarthy. Joe Christmas, who dominates the novel, is one of the most remarkably drawn characters in American fiction, a soul doomed from the start to a life of pain and darkness. As it builds, the narrative pulls you along remarkably well, and it stays with you. I’d forgotten many of the details over the years, so a second read was definitely rewarding.
Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach
Any reader with an interest in the degenerate/symbolist literature of the fin-de-siecle must hang their head in shame if they are not acquainted with this story of degeneration and obsession. Hugues Viane, a widower, has made a cult of his young, dead, wife. He obsesses over her relics for hours in the rooms he has dedicated to her in his gloomy house before he passes into the twilight of the Bruges night. He has chosen this Belgian town for its pallor of death and stagnation, a congenial atmosphere in which to pass the remainder of his mournful, empty life.
Of course, it’s only a matter of time before he begins to notice a phantasm of his wife working her way through the streets. She is a doppelganger to whom his obsession transfers: he establishes her in a cozy apartment in which he can spend the days and nights slobbering and fawning over her, pawing her long blond tresses, the very image of those which he has established in a glass reliquary in the shrine room of his own house. She soon tires of this creepy attention, and, with loathing, begins to bleed him dry.
I won’t reveal any more, except to smack my lips at the appropriately lurid denouement. Keep the Dedalus edition on your shelf, as it’s worth a great deal of decadent street cred. And reread it occasionally for the delightful melodrama of it.
The Bhagavad Gita
Finally, I’ve probably mentioned the impact the Bhagavad Gita had on my young mind - and the rich worlds it opened - when I found the Penguin edition, translated by Juan Mascaro, many years ago at a Las Cruces, New Mexico library sale. Mascaro was well versed in the Spanish mystics, and he brought that sensibility to his translation of this text (as well as to Penguin’s edition of the Dhammapada). While there was much lyricism and beauty in his rendering, I became suspicious as I got older of just how faithful his translations were. In his introduction to the Gita, Mascaro aims for universalism, approaching the text in light of what Huxley used to call the Perennial Philosophy.
The Gita is a philosophical/religious discourse forming a portion of the much larger epic, the Mahabharata. In 2008, Penguin finally released a new translation by Laurie L. Patton, and while the unfamiliar format is at first jarring, the translation appears to be much more faithful to the text, fixing the translation firmly in context without Mascaro’s universalism, and providing a useful introduction to the work.
As I’ve been reading Patton’s translation, it has begun to grow on me, and I’m not sure I’d go back to Mascaro’s edition for any reason other than sweet nostalgia.