Sunday, October 08, 2017

Sanctuary (1931)

The first and only other time I read this novel was in the '70s, so I was surprised that I noticed the difference between it and this "Corrected Text" version, which came along in 1981. Mostly what I noticed was the absence of William Faulkner's "misleading" introduction, written a year after the original publication, which he then changed his mind about and did not want included in later printings. But there it was in 1975 or so, a heaving disavowal of Sanctuary as a potboiler, "the most horrific tale I could imagine," written for the money and ultimately failing even at that. I suspect at bottom it's an issue of embarrassment—Sanctuary is a profile of a mindset of which Faulkner evidently was not entirely in control at the time of writing. The basic story is about a white college girl of 18 in Oxford, Mississippi—Temple Drake—and her coercion into prostitution. It's a solid foundation, even classic Zola style naturalism, but from that point on we are hard into Faulkner-land, and he's straining remember. The man who turns out Temple is known as Popeye. He is impotent and sickly, though lethal and dangerous. Faulkner thinks Popeye thinks he can do the job with a corncob. This is sufficiently lurid, yes, but I think we're losing track of believability, never mind taste. There is also a scene no doubt beyond lurid for its times, but far more graphic displays of it can be found by the hundreds now in the "cuckold" section of your favorite porn site. In a word: eww. But one word won't do: eww, eww, eww. Thus my fair warning to you, gentle reader, and too late now for spoiler warnings. I'm a little embarrassed myself by this overheated funk, but that's not really my main complaint. I've seen worse. At the same time, with its insistence on the poetic concrete—to the point I'm not always certain what is going on except on a base experiential level—he seems to want to have it two ways, writing a potboiler and maintaining his literary dignity. He is often examining light and shadow closely, and people and scenes slip easily into affects of oil paintings. He has a particular fascination with the texture of eyes, describing them as soft black rubber, knobby, and utterly black. In the Faulkner universe, this novel is slightly to the side. We run into a couple of the Snopes brothers, who I tend to enjoy though obviously they are a stereotype of poor white trash. I know the name Horace Benbow too—he is the attorney and knock-kneed moral compass here and has appeared elsewhere in Faulkner's work. Sanctuary is an interesting curiosity but I don't think it ranks with the best of his work. For its raw action it's not much fun to read either, though the language as always has its points.

In case it's not at the library.

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