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In Defense Of 'sanctuary'

Though I by and large agree with Clay Risen's derision of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature (I've taken issue with the literature Nobel myself), I differ with his dismissal of William Faulkner's sixth novel, Sanctuary, as "by most accounts one of his worst."

It's true Clay has Faulkner himself as a source, but of all the things Faulkner was known for, honesty was never high on the list. He spent years telling people he had fought with the Royal Air Force in World War One, though in truth he never made it further than training in Toronto. He described fantastic battles that never happened. He pointed to a (non-existent) metal plate in his head. The officer's uniform he occasionally wore had been purchased after his discharge. He completed As I Lay Dying after many revisions, not in the single, perfect draft he claimed. He said he wrote Sanctuary in three weeks, though we now know it took him four months. But he had good reason to lie about the novel.

Following the abysmal sales and critical acclaim of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary was met with unusual commercial success (it was even adapted into a very bad movie), but it was popular due to its highly controversial sex scenes, not its considerable literary merit. Faulkner likely thought he needed to rebuke Sanctuary's success, and the novel itself, if he wanted to continue to be known for works of under-appreciated genius and not for high-selling, sex-soaked sensationalism.

Faulkner must have placed some importance on Sanctuary--he spent a sizable amount of his own money to postpone the novel's printing not to enrich the sex scenes, but to better mold the layered, gothic plot. Though that earlier draft may not match up to Faulkner's best works, the final, completed Sanctuary certainly does. Clay's right about Le Clezio's ridiculous speech (skip to the part where he argues that blogs could have stopped Hitler; it's jaw-dropping), but citing Faulkner's Sanctuary should be a strike in favor of Le Clezio, not against him.

It's also worth noting that Faulkner's first published work, the poem "L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune," was for The New Republic. You can read it here.

--Max Fisher