Regarding William Styron
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