Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Down and Out in Mississippi

In the author's preface to the 1932 edition of Sanctuary, William Faulkner says the book "was deliberately conceived to make money. ... I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought would be the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks and sent it to (Harrison) Smith, who had done The Sound and the Fury and who wrote me immediately, 'Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be in jail.'"

Faulkner is being untruthful. Almost every word of the above statement is a lie. But as a result of those lies, Sanctuary was long regarded as a throwaway novel, a bit of light work, a sensational story about rape written for quick cash. Critical evaluation of the book has been generally unkind purely because Faulkner publically disparaged it. But you can't believe an author talking about his own work, especially when the author pretends to disown the work. Sanctuary is no pulp fiction dashed off over a weekend or two; apparently the original manuscript was worked over intensely by Faulkner, with more care and attention to detail in his revisions than he gave to any of his other books except Absalom, Absalom!

It's a creepy story with creepy characters and people make bad choices on every page, but that doesn't make it cheap fiction. The prose is amazing and the characters are lively and believable. Sanctuary is a good book, so far. Not perfect (one of Faulkner's devices for ratcheting up the tension is getting on my nerves and I wish he'd cut it out), but pretty darned good. I can feel the end of Act One coming soon; Faulkner might blow it during Act Two, but I doubt it. We'll see.

Why is the girl named Temple? Is that symbolic? Of what? The ruined manor house is a bit obvious. The spring is interesting and brings to mind the discovery of Moses in the rushes, because every time the spring shows up in the narrative, one character is there to do something innocent and is discovered by another character who is not so innocent. There's also a baby in a box. Hmm.


  1. What wonderful nonsense in Faulkner's description.

    Faulkner had a taste (or weakness?) for mythological symbolism, but he typically integrates it into his own world so well that it is easy to miss or ignore unless you are looking for it.

    In Sanctuary, for example, one could keep an eye out for primitive agricultural fertility gods (or anti-fertility gods), particularly as relate to that symbolic Temple.

    But I think it all tells us more about how Faulkner's imagination works than about some meaning we should carry away from the novel.

  2. I don't care about theme or "meaning" as such. I just want to get a better look at the narrative-as-machine, if you know what I mean. How Faulkner fits all the parts together. How is always more interesting to me than why.

    Right about mythical symbolism. Absalom, Absalom! is the fall of the gods.

  3. "primitive agricultural fertility gods (or anti-fertility gods), particularly as relate to that symbolic Temple"

    Yes, all the stuff about seed hulls and corn shucks, dried and dead and cast off. They only appear where Temple is put to sleep, where she's defiled. There is of course no reason to believe this stuff is intentional on Faulkner's part. Or on the part of any author. I think a good living narrative is written by ear, or at least is as much a mystery to the writer as to the reader. Working in darkness, from darkness into more darkness. I am of course projecting from my own experience, but that's really all I've got.