Tony Roberts

Re­gard­ing Wil­liam Sty­ron

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

I have ab­so­lutely no doubt – I will say this without mod­esty be­cause I don’t think mod­esty is in­volved – that in 40 years my work will be read with at least the same in­ter­est as any­one who is liv­ing con­tem­po­ra­ne­ously with me. I sim­ply have no doubt. (Wil­liam Sty­ron in 1980)

The Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Wil­liam Sty­ron (born 1925) was overly op­ti­mistic when he made the claim quoted above. Ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­view in The New York Times, his ‘lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion was in limbo, if not apoc­a­lyp­tic de­cline, well be­fore his death in 2006’. In his de­fence it has to be ac­knowl­edged that his con­tem­po­raries (Mailer, Heller, Capote, James Jones) are largely un­der-read, also. Yet it is a par­tic­u­lar pity in Sty­ron’s case be­cause his nov­els ex­plore the abuse of power and states of moral disen­gage­ment – from in­dif­fer­ence to pure evil – which are al­ways rel­e­vant and poignantly so in con­tem­po­rary Europe and Trump’s Amer­ica.

Sty­ron saw his task in Mal­raux’s ‘I seek that essen­tial re­gion of the soul where ab­so­lute evil con­fronts brother­hood’. He dealt with resur­gent, un­com­fort­able truths in big nov­els: Lie Down in Dark­ness (1951), Set This House on Fire (1960), The Con­fes­sions of Nat Turner (1967) and So­phie’s Choice (1979). He also wrote a fine novella ( The Long March, 1956) and a coura­geous au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal clas­sic, Dark­ness Vis­i­ble: A Me­moir of Mad­ness (1990). A con­stant in his fic­tion is a com­mit­ment to the ar­chi­tec­ture of the novel. His nar­ra­tives are long and pow­er­ful, their set­tings bril­liantly evoked. Sty­ron found early the an­i­mat­ing theme of his fic­tion: the com­plex re­la­tion­ship be­tween author­ity and vic­tim­hood. His world is peo­pled with the de­struc­tive, who in­tim­i­date through love, author­ity, charisma or mad­ness, and the in­ef­fec­tual, vic­tims and con­flicted ob­servers. At its dark­est, his vi­sion cen­tres on the bar­barism of slav­ery and the Holo­caust.

Sty­ron was born in the once-slave­hold­ing South, in New­port News, Vir­ginia, to an en­gi­neer fa­ther and Penn­syl­va­nia mother who died when he was thir­teen. As fel­low South­erner Robert Penn War­ren noted, Sty­ron ‘was born at al­most the last mo­ment when it was pos­si­ble to get, first­hand, a sense of what old-fash­ioned South­ern life had been, or to hear, ac­tu­ally, the word-of-mouth leg­ends about it’. He was there­fore one of the last of au­thors born un­der the in­flu­ence of Wil­liam Faulkner, who dom­i­nated a lit­er­a­ture of­ten char­ac­terised as elab­o­rate and po­etic in style, sin­gu­lar in id­ioms and mythic in its imag­i­na­tion. It rep­re­sents a cul­ture marked by guilt through its trou­bled race re­la­tions and its ten­dency to re­li­gious fever, one scarred deeply by de­feat in the Civil War.

Through­out Sty­ron’s ca­reer the ques­tion of his South­ern­ness was raised, un­sur­pris­ingly given the num­ber of his South­ern char­ac­ters. He was al­ways ready to ac­knowl­edge a debt, though care­ful to main­tain some dis­tance from its lit­er­ary tra­di­tion. In a 1980 in­ter­view he stated his po­si­tion clearly: ‘I would not call my­self a South­ern nov­el­ist. I would call my­self a com­mit­ted Amer­i­can nov­el­ist who hap­pens to write out of an aware­ness of his South­ern roots and South­ern her­itage, but I do not wish to con­sider my­self a “cap­i­tal S” South­ern writer’. He recog­nised, he said, the de­gree to which the South was chang­ing; he him­self no longer lived there, nor set his nov­els there; and he had a nat­u­ral an­tipa­thy to be­ing pi­geon­holed by crit­ics. Be­sides, he said on an­other oc­ca­sion, ‘I didn’t want to ex­ploit the old idea of wreck­age and de­feat as a pe­cu­liarly South­ern phe­nom­e­non’. Sty­ron’s com­mit­ment to wreck­age is on a more cos­mopoli­tan stage.

He was ed­u­cated at Duke Univer­sity, North Carolina, be­fore en­list­ing in the marines in 1944, although he re­mained state­side. In 1947, upon grad­u­a­tion, he be­gan work­ing for the pub­lisher McGraw-Hill in New York City, be­fore be­ing dis­missed for lack of com­mit­ment. He then fo­cused solely on writ­ing, com­plet­ing his novel, Lie Down in Dark­ness just as he was re­called to the marines in 1951 dur­ing the Korean War (though he gained a med­i­cal dis­charge that same year). Lie Down in Dark­ness, with its Faulkne­r­ian echoes, re­mains in my opin­ion his most pow­er­ful and rawest novel, ex­am­in­ing the cor­ro­sive way in which parental ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity can

ruin lives. It is the only one to take place al­most wholly in the South (in the fic­tional Port Warwick, Vir­ginia). Set in 1945, it opens with the ar­rival from New York of the body of the Lof­tises’ daugh­ter and de­scribes in a se­ries of painful flash­backs the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the fam­ily lead­ing to her sui­cide.

Mil­ton Loftis, the fa­ther, is a barely suc­cess­ful lawyer, an adul­ter­ous al­co­holic, alien­ated from his wealthy and emo­tion­ally with­drawn wife, He­len. She has de­voted her­self to their crip­pled el­der daugh­ter, Maudie, while shun­ning the lovely Pey­ton who has been her fa­ther’s ob­ses­sion. Pey­ton has found it hard to take her mother’s em­bit­tered re­jec­tion and fled to New York City. To He­len, Pey­ton is ‘a shame­less lit­tle se­ducer who’s used her fa­ther’s love to get ev­ery­thing she wants in life, who half-killed her own sis­ter through neg­li­gence’ and then re­jected Loftis with the words, ‘Don’t smother me!’ We share Pey­ton’s con­scious­ness only to­ward the novel’s end, with her long Joycean mono­logue. She is a girl fated by her life, who ac­knowl­edges at its end, ‘not out of vengeance have I ac­com­plished all my sins but be­cause some­thing has al­ways been close to dy­ing in my soul, and I’ve sinned only in or­der to lie down in dark­ness and find, some­where in the net of dreams, a new fa­ther, a new home’.

Sty­ron’s highly suc­cess­ful de­but was also evoca­tive of the man­ners of the time and place (in­clud­ing some­thing of race re­la­tion­ships). He re­ported to friends and rel­a­tives the fol­low­ing year that 30,000 copies had been sold and that the print run for the Signet pocket edi­tion would be 200,000 ini­tially. He was also to be awarded the ‘Prix de Rome’ with a $3500 grant and the chance to live a year in Rome. When Sty­ron em­barked on his Euro­pean trav­els, he wrote The Long March in Paris and helped to launch The Paris Re­view.

The Long March is an out­stand­ing novella set dur­ing the Korean War. It de­tails the con­fronta­tion be­tween a Marine cap­tain and his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer dur­ing a thirty-six mile forced march on ma­noeu­vres in South Carolina. It is wit­nessed by the nar­ra­tor, a re­luc­tant re­servist, Lieu­tenant Cul­ver. The in­ten­tion of the cor­dial but im­pla­ca­ble Colonel Tem­ple­ton is to soften his re­serve troops, who have been re­called from WW11 ser­vice. To

Cul­ver and the huge, Jew­ish New Yorker, Cap­tain Man­nix, a man whose ‘dis­grun­tled sense of hu­mour’ is oblit­er­ated, it is an act of mad­ness, even sadism. Yet Man­nix’s protes­ta­tions are mean­ing­less and re­sult only in his own un­do­ing for, as Cul­ver ul­ti­mately re­alises, ‘the hike had noth­ing to do with courage or sac­ri­fice or suf­fer­ing, but was only a task to be per­formed’. Tragedy is here a con­se­quence of in­dif­fer­ence rather than in­ten­tion and the ob­server/nar­ra­tor pow­er­less to in­ter­vene.

In 1953, in Rome, Sty­ron mar­ried Rose Bur­gun­der, whom he had first met in Amer­ica. The cou­ple set­tled in Roxbury, Con­necti­cut and he be­gan work on his next novel, com­pleted in late 1959, by which time the Sty­rons had three chil­dren. Set This House on Fire is prob­a­bly Sty­ron’s most am­bi­tious and flawed novel. Its ti­tle comes from a ser­mon of John Donne’s, which wit­nesses the tor­ment of an ab­sence of God – and the novel is rid­dled with tor­ment re­sult­ing from the ir­re­spon­si­ble ex­er­cise of power, the abuse of al­co­hol and from car­nal ap­petites.

It tells firstly of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a New York lawyer, Peter Lev­erett, and his school friend, the charis­matic Ma­son Flagg, scion of a wealthy North­ern fam­ily con­nected with the film in­dus­try. Flagg is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the worst of Amer­i­can ma­te­ri­al­ism. Ev­ery­thing in the novel takes place in re­ac­tion to his de­struc­tive en­er­gies. He is a also a charm­ing, in­vet­er­ate liar:

I mean, to think that you – you of all peo­ple – can’t make the sub­tle dis­tinc­tion be­tween a lie – be­tween an out-and-out third-rate lie meant ma­li­ciously – be­tween that, and a jazzy kind of bull­shit ex­trav­a­ganza like the one I was telling you, meant with no mal­ice at all, but only with the in­tent to ed­ify and en­ter­tain.

Lev­erett, a South­erner and the first-per­son nar­ra­tor, is end­lessly for­giv­ing. Drawn to Sam­buco, Italy, by the prom­ise of one of their event­ful meet­ings, he finds his friend in mon­strous form. A death, a rape and sus­pected sui­cide fol­low.

Some­time later Lev­erett turns his at­ten­tion to Cass Kin­solv­ing, a cru­elly poor and al­co­holic artist and fam­ily man, orig­i­nally from South Carolina.

Kin­solv­ing was im­pli­cated in the events in Sam­buco, where the two met at the time, and Sty­ron shifts the nar­ra­tive to him, in the form of con­ver­sa­tions, flash­backs and com­ments from Cass’s note­books. When the two meet again in Charleston the mys­te­ri­ous events sur­round­ing the deaths are there ex­plained and we are to imag­ine some form of re­demp­tion.

In Amer­ica Set This House on Fire was the most coolly re­ceived of Sty­ron’s nov­els (though it was crit­i­cally ad­mired in France) partly be­cause in at­tempt­ing to switch nat­u­rally from a first per­son to a third per­son nar­ra­tive, we seem to have two nov­els in one. Also, the char­ac­ters are given long mono­logues by way of ex­po­si­tion, most un­con­vinc­ingly in the case of Kin­solv­ing, who re­mem­bers events in in­or­di­nate de­tail de­spite the fact that with his chronic al­co­holic bouts he might have been ex­pected to have blot­ted out much of his mem­ory. Then there are char­ac­ters like Luigi, the prag­matic fas­cist in­tel­lec­tual po­lice cor­po­ral, who do not en­tirely con­vince.

In 1964 the Sty­rons bought a house on Martha’s Vine­yard, and a fourth child fol­lowed the year be­fore The Con­fes­sions of Nat Turner was pub­lished. There are two nar­ra­tives to this novel: one Sty­ron had con­tem­plated for many years; the other con­cerns its re­cep­tion. Sty­ron in­tended his novel to deal with the prob­lem of re­spon­si­bil­ity, of moral choice and the use of vi­o­lence. It also pointed to con­tem­po­rary race re­la­tions.

In his hands, Nat Turner – the leader of a slave re­bel­lion that cost seventy lives – is given more depth than the scant his­tor­i­cal records al­low. At the open­ing of the novel we meet the 30-year-old Turner in his Vir­ginia jail cell, the day of his trial in Novem­ber, 1831. The story flows from him in flash­backs, a de­vice Sty­ron bor­rowed from Ca­mus’s The Stranger (‘For me there was a spir­i­tual con­nec­tion be­tween Meur­sault’s frigid soli­tude and the plight of Nat Turner’). Both men are aban­doned by God and both re­act vi­o­lently. Turner is prompted to his ‘con­fes­sions’ by the prose­cut­ing at­tor­ney, though it is the reader who hears the truth.

Turner, a house slave taught to read and write, was also taught to as­pire and with the col­lapse of his owner’s ex­pec­ta­tions comes the fail­ure of his own

dreams. As Sty­ron said ‘The seeds of re­volt are in the prom­ise’. The vic­tim of moral and sex­ual hu­mil­i­a­tion, he turns to the apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­o­lence of the Old Tes­ta­ment (‘Of all the Prophets it was Ezekiel with his di­vine fury to whom I felt clos­est by kin­ship’) when sold to a deviant preacher and then hard­scrab­ble farm­ers. A ‘vi­sion’ leads him to at­tempt to seize the ar­moury of the county seat, Jerusalem, by killing all in his way, and to es­tab­lish an em­pire in the neigh­bour­ing Dis­mal Swamp. The re­sult is a macabre fail­ure.

Ini­tially the novel was con­sid­ered a tri­umph, win­ning the Pulitzer Prize for fic­tion in 1968 and sell­ing in great num­bers. While to Sty­ron the novel of­fered a way to un­der­stand the African-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence, by adopt­ing the con­scious­ness of a slave, to oth­ers this was merely dress­ing up. The adop­tion of a first per­son nar­ra­tor and what were seen as racist stereo­types in the novel – the lust for a white girl, the idea of vir­tu­ous slave-own­ers and the is­sue of the urge to vi­o­lent re­bel­lion – alien­ated many read­ers, who also balked at the na­ture of the pre­sen­ta­tion of slav­ery, par­tic­u­larly the way Sty­ron ‘voiced’ the slave.

Many de­fended Sty­ron. A Yale Lit in­ter­view from 1968 de­scribed him as ‘a lib­eral caught in an in­ten­si­fied, per­haps paradig­matic ver­sion of the dilem­mas which be­set the con­tem­po­rary white in­tel­lec­tual: how to help the black man without con­de­scen­sion; how to bal­ance the de­mands of black power with an in­tel­lec­tual and vis­ceral com­mit­ment to in­te­gra­tion’. How­ever the novel ap­peared at a time – as now – of height­ened racial ten­sion, with the as­sas­si­na­tions of Dr. Martin Luther King and Sen­a­tor Robert Kennedy, the rise of the Black Pan­ther move­ment and the ri­ot­ing in cities. A col­lec­tion of es­says, Wil­liam Sty­ron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writ­ers Re­spond fur­ther po­larised opin­ion on the novel’s value.

While the furore passed, the novel’s im­pact upon lit­er­ary is­sues con­tin­ued. Ac­cord­ing to Jess Row, in a 2008 piece for The New York Times, ‘Al­most overnight, “The Con­fes­sions” be­came the cen­ter of a de­bate that has helped shape Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture ever since’. What was at is­sue was the way the past might to be adapted for the pur­poses of fic­tion: ‘to take a term from the Rus­sian lit­er­ary the­o­rist Viktor Shklovsky, nov­el­ists have [since] wished to

“de­fa­mil­iar­ize” his­tory by mak­ing it un­rec­og­niz­able, un­know­able, fan­tas­tic, bru­tal. “Beloved,” with its harsh, frag­mented nar­ra­tion of in­fan­ti­cide, is the most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple’. The nov­el­ist John A. Wil­liams did have this to say in Ten Black Writ­ers Re­spond: ‘I do not be­lieve that the right to de­scribe... black peo­ple in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety is the pri­vate do­main of Ne­gro writ­ers’.

Mor­ti­fied by the re­cep­tion if not the sales of The Con­fes­sions of Nat Turner, Wil­liam Sty­ron moved on to his next project, a play en­ti­tled In the Clap Shack, per­formed at Yale and pub­lished in 1973. It is de­scribed as ‘a darkly hu­mor­ous play’ set in a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal. The play did not pros­per crit­i­cally and Sty­ron turned back to the novel which was to bring him his great­est suc­cess: the Na­tional Book Award win­ning, So­phie’s Choice. By 1981 nearly two mil­lion copies of So­phie’s Choice had been sold and the au­thor re­ported that five years’ work had earned him $700,000.

Set in New York City in the sum­mer of 1947, the novel con­cerns an as­pir­ing writer who moves into a cheap board­ing house in Brook­lyn where he be­comes en­tranced and en­meshed in the lives of two un­sta­ble lovers, So­phie Zaw­is­towska, a beau­ti­ful Pol­ish Holo­caust vic­tim, and the bril­liant but volatile Nathan Lan­dau. It is an­other tragedy of the en­slaved, though a com­plex one, its char­ac­ters be­ing not mere ci­phers. Be­hind the wildly dys­func­tional love re­la­tion­ship, Sty­ron’s in­ten­tion was to deal with the sub­ject of Auschwitz and, by ex­ten­sion, hu­man evil gen­er­ally, thereby ex­tend­ing his preoccupation with the ‘bru­tal­ized spir­i­tu­ally’ of Nat Turner’s time. As with the ear­lier novel, So­phie’s Choice was plunged into con­tro­versy, on this oc­ca­sion through the au­thor’s per­spec­tive on the Holo­caust.

His So­phie Zaw­is­towska is a Catholic and had been sent to the con­cen­tra­tion camp for smug­gling food to a dy­ing par­ent. Sty­ron presents Auschwitz, there­fore, not as an ex­clu­sively Jew­ish suf­fer­ing, but as a night­mare for all mankind. His aim, in ex­plor­ing hu­man evil, is to avoid the no­tion of purely Chris­tian sin and guilt, and to tie the de­mented cap­i­tal­ist slave so­ci­ety of the camps to other his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences of slav­ery.

The novel does not flinch from the hor­rors of the events or the con­di­tions of the camp, which are pow­er­fully pre­sented (‘the Rus­sian voice – a bass bari­tone but harsh, cor­ro­sive as lye – pierced her delir­ium, pen­e­trated the sweat and the fever and the ken­nel filth of the hard straw-strewn wooden shelf where she lay, to mut­ter over her in an im­pas­sive tone, “I think this one is fin­ished too”’). Sty­ron also seeks to bring home the hor­ror by do­mes­ti­cat­ing it in New York City: by telling much of the tale there and by im­pli­cat­ing its cit­i­zens for their in­no­cence of those events tak­ing place while they lived their cush­ioned lives (‘the enor­mity of [the camps ex­is­tence] had been for Nathan, as for so many Amer­i­cans, part of a drama too far away, too ab­stract, too for­eign (and thus too hard to com­pre­hend) to regis­ter fully on the mind’). New York has its own hor­rors not­with­stand­ing. So­phie Zaw­is­towska is vi­o­lated in the New York sub­way as well as be­ing the vic­tim of vi­o­lent ar­gu­ments with her lover. Yet the tale is told with vigour and of­ten hu­mour, es­pe­cially in the sex­ual ob­ses­sions, ac­tiv­i­ties and ob­scen­i­ties of its char­ac­ters. (Sty­ron’s nar­ra­tor is a younger ver­sion of the au­thor with some of his own ex­pe­ri­ences). All this was also guar­an­teed to be con­tentious.

De­spite the suc­cess of the novel and the Os­cars show­ered on the movie ver­sion with Meryl Streep, the fol­low­ing years were to be­come dif­fi­cult for the au­thor. Sty­ron seems to have been some­thing of a tor­tured man and artist. Ac­cord­ing to his daugh­ter, Alexan­dra Sty­ron ( Read­ing my Fa­ther: A Me­moir (2011), he could be ‘at times queru­lous and tac­i­turn, cut­ting and re­mote, melan­choly when he was sober and rage­ful when in his cups’. He was brought low by de­pres­sion in the 1980s. The buried ori­gins of this, he con­cluded, lay per­haps in the death of his mother when he was thir­teen, although there were other fac­tors, in­clud­ing his fa­ther’s bouts of ‘the mor­bid con­di­tion’, and his own de­pen­dence on al­co­hol, which he had re­cently stopped. When the de­pres­sion be­came clin­i­cal, he was hos­pi­talised. These ex­pe­ri­ences led to Dark­ness Vis­i­ble: A Me­moir of Mad­ness, a book enor­mously help­ful to some read­ers.

This short book be­gan with read­ers’ re­sponses to a piece Sty­ron wrote for The New York Times when an­gered by neg­a­tive re­ac­tions to Primo

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