Re­mem­ber­ing a Daddy just vis­i­ble in the dark­ness

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett

THROUGH­OUT Read­ing My Fa­ther Alexandra Sty­ron refers to its sub­ject, writer Wil­liam Sty­ron, as Daddy. This re­calls Sylvia Plath’s poem Daddy, with its fu­ri­ous erup­tion of the speaker-daugh­ter’s rage, en­larged through metaphor into a dark twist on Walt Whit­man’s bar­baric yawp.

Echoes of con­fes­sional po­etry are mag­ni­fied by an epi­graph from Adri­enne Rich’s poem Div­ing Into the Wreck. Sty­ron quotes Rich’s vi­sion of ex­plor­ing a wreck, look­ing for ‘‘ the dam­age that was done/ and the trea­sures that pre­vail’’. Read­ing My Fa­ther sounds the depths of Alexandra Sty­ron’s fam­ily his­tory as it ex­plores the wreck­ing of Wil­liam Sty­ron (1925-2006), and the wreck­age and trea­sures around him.

To­day, blog­ging, Twit­ter and Face­book and var­i­ous forms of life writ­ing of­fer forms of self-dis­clo­sure unimag­in­able to Sty­ron and his peers, in­clud­ing the con­fes­sional poets of the 1950s and 60s, whose work dis­turbed many read­ers with its (ap­par­ent) in­ti­macy and open­ness. The para­dox of con­struct­ing dis­clo­sure and the re­lated ques­tion of nar­cis­sism, along with the pos­si­bil­ity that much of this in­volves a con­fect­ing of al­ter­na­tive selves, pulse un­der each word and char­ac­ter.

Alexandra Sty­ron’s self-aware­ness keeps these ques­tions in fo­cus. She re­tains a sharp sense of the trou­bled po­si­tion of her own work here and of the wob­bly and treach­er­ous na­ture of mem­ory. Her mem­oir probes the eth­i­cal ques­tions about dis­clos­ing oth­ers’ se­crets, es­pe­cially when that other is some­one close, and some­one fa­mous.

The Wil­liam Sty­ron re­mem­bered by his daugh­ter is one whose lit­er­ary great­ness is a given. His nov­els, and his own mem­oir, Dark­ness Vis­i­ble, chart the phases of his chil­dren’s lives. The 1967 pub­li­ca­tion of The Con­fes­sions of Nat Turner pro­vokes con­tro­versy and ac­claim, both aug­mented with the pub­li­ca­tion 12 years later of So­phie’s Choice and the sub­se­quent film. It is Dark­ness Vis­i­ble (1990), though, an ac­count of Sty­ron’s de­pres­sion — ‘‘ de­spair be­yond de­spair’’ — that evokes read­ers’ great­est af­fec­tion, un­leash­ing a tide of let­ters and an un­ex­pected role as an em­blem of sur­vival. Sty­ron finds him­self called on to speak for the ill­ness, and to its suf­fer­ers, in­clud­ing those who need to be talked down from lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive ledges. Yet be­hind this pub­lic face the Sty­ron of this mem­oir is any­thing but a heal­ing force.

Alexandra Sty­ron’s mem­oir emerges from the vac­uum be­tween the pub­lic and pri­vate ver­sions of her fa­ther, the lat­ter shaped by the fam­ily to con­form with the for­mer in an act of col­lec­tive col­lu­sion. She re­calls turn­ing anec­dotes about her fa­ther into sto­ries that make him into a kind of Roald Dahl fig­ure.

This is the fa­ther, ‘‘ cur­mud­geonly and outrageous’’ but es­sen­tially warm and com­i­cal, who tells his horse-mad daugh­ter that the gov­er­nor has banned horses in the state of Connecticut, and that her beloved pony will have to be ‘‘ sold to the glue fac­tory’’. At the time, in the con­text of a glam­orous life with her fa­mous fa­ther at its cen­tre, Sty­ron un­der­stands this as the re­sult of a ‘‘ faulty radar’’ when it comes to jokes.

The Sty­rons sing Christ­mas car­ols with Leonard Bern­stein’s fam­ily and host huge par­ties whose guests in­clude Mia Far­row and Joan Baez. They hol­i­day on Martha’s Vine­yard near the Kennedy fam­ily. Stryon be­friends, fights with and is rec­on­ciled again with Nor­man Mailer. Nov­els ap­pear and are crit­i­cised, de­fended and awarded.

A more patho­log­i­cal side to Sty­ron, be­yond the de­pres­sion dis­closed pow­er­fully and sym­pa­thet­i­cally in Dark­ness Vis­i­ble, cuts through Read­ing My Fa­ther. This Sty­ron is a gloomy ab­sent-pres­ence in the house­hold, fly­ing into rages, made worse by al­co­holism.

One in­ci­dent ex­em­pli­fy­ing this oc­curs when Wil­liam Sty­ron Sr, Alexandra’s grand­fa­ther, comes to live with the fam­ily. Hav­ing asked 11-year-old Alexandra to make cook­ies for her grand­fa­ther, and dis­cov­er­ing that she has for­got­ten, her fa­ther rages: ‘‘ You. Are. A. Creep! A f . . king princess! You are a hate­ful girl! It’s an out­rage, god­dam it!’’

Read­ing My Fa­ther is an at­tempt to un­ravel myths and probe the si­lences be­tween a Stryon the world knew and the moody bully his fam­ily lived with. Sty­ron’s por­trait of a fam­ily fear­ful of the out­break of rage wraps around her own story of be­com­ing a writer, the lat­ter of less in­ter­est, ar­guably, with­out her fa­ther’s role in it. His old friend Peter Matthiessen, aware of the chasm be­tween the pub­lic and pri­vate ver­sions of Sty­ron, sug­gests that he was spoiled, im­pli­cat­ing Sty­ron’s wife, the poet Rose Sty­ron. The fig­ure of Rose Sty­ron re­mains enig­matic in this mem­oir, though there is a sense of sup­pressed hos­til­ity to­wards her for col­lud­ing with her spouse at the ex­pense of her chil­dren.

But Matthiessen goes on to sug­gest that be­cause Sty­ron was ‘‘ a real writer, a real artist’’ he de­served to be in­dulged. Alexandra Sty­ron’s com­ment is min­i­mal. Maybe, she thinks. Or maybe not. She re­mem­bers the com­ments of a male friend of her own gen­er­a­tion, a writer jug­gling fa­ther­hood and work, that the men of their fathers’ gen­er­a­tion were the Big Ba­bies.

Read­ing My Fa­ther shows the path Sty­ron took from im­pe­cu­nious­ness and re­jec­tion slips to lit­er­ary fame, and the lessons in faith and per­se­ver­ance this of­fers his daugh­ter as she be­gins to write. This is the trea­sure that pre­vails, though it is the dam­age done that res­onates here more pow­er­fully.

Felic­ity Plun­kett is po­etry edi­tor at UQP.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.