Life in a nutshell

Lead review

Life in a nutshell

My Generation: Collected Nonfiction
William Styron
Edited by James L W West III
Random House
2015, pp 630, Rs. 2,320

William Styron’s literary reputation was in limbo, if not apocalyptic decline, well before his death in 2006. His big novels — Lie Down in Darkness (1951), The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Sophie’s Choice (1979) — can seem like elegiac museum pieces, or mass-market paperbacks left too long in the sun.

His stark and pathbreaking memoir of depression, Darkness Visible (1990), gave his career a second perch. There was much to feast upon, too, in Styron’s selected letters, published in 2012. What a book.

Styron and his wife, Rose, knew everyone, from John F and Jacqueline Kennedy to James Baldwin to Carly Simon, and entertained them in the couple’s dacha-like houses in Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard. Styron’s letters overflowed with the detritus of a big life lived up to the nostrils, and his literary gossip was locally sourced and lightly fried. His playful mind was set loose.

A bromantic early letter to Philip Roth, for example, contained a sexual fantasy involving Roth’s mustache, and ended, “Please destroy this letter.” As James Wolcott said of this letter in The London Review of Books, “It was the 1970s, after all.”

The acuity and humour in Styron’s letters made me eager to revisit his nonfiction, repackaged now in My Generation. This new volume collects all the material in his previous two collections, This Quiet Dust (1982) and Havanas in Camelot (2008), and includes 33 new pieces, some previously unpublished.

This book comprises memoirs, book reviews, reportage, speeches, eulogies, essays and op-eds and covers a 50-year span, from 1951 to 2001. Many first appeared in The New York Review of Books (his criticism ran in that publication’s inaugural issue), The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation or Harper’s.

Styron reports that his editor at Harper’s, Willie Morris, liked to call him long-distance and, in a reference to the narrator’s name in Sophie’s Choice, proclaim: “Stingo, this is Willie. Are you in good spirits?”

There’s no Willie Morris-like joy in reporting that Styron’s nonfiction has not aged well. These pieces tend to be self-important when not underinflated, defensive when not blandly homiletic. This raked-up material mostly drifts like flotsam in a muddy, meandering river.

My Generation has a title, and a foreword by Tom Brokaw, that remind you that Styron was a veteran of World War II. The title further reminds you of another greatest generation, that of the great white literary sharks of the postwar decades, men like Mailer and Roth and Updike and Bellow.

Styron’s nonfiction does not compare well with theirs. Unlike Updike, he had little ranginess and no zing as a critic. Unlike Mailer, his reported pieces (Styron covered the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago for the New York Review of Books and wrote about a death row inmate in 1962 for Esquire) are impassioned but square and dated.
His first-person recollections, including several about his childhood in Virginia, have none of the wiry buoyancy of autobiographical writing by Bellow and Roth.

Of the eulogies and appreciations in this collection, the less said the better. Styron dealt mainly in clichés and generalities when describing the writers he loved. On Roth: “Throughout his career Philip has worked with the focused energy of the committed writer, turning out a shimmering body of work.”

On James Dickey: “Jim was rambunctiously and vigorously alive to a degree I’ve rarely known in anyone.” On Peter Matthiessen: “We behold a writer of phenomenal scope and versatility.”

Styron’s account of a trip down the Nile, written for GEO magazine in 1981, seems longer in the reading than the experiencing. Sample sentence, in which the author appears to be napping and typing at the same time: “Tourism is, in general, a human activity that is neither desirable nor undesirable, merely existing in relationship with some landscape or other because people in their incessant curiosity will travel and observe and explore.”

Three things, to my mind, are particularly worth seeking out in My Generation. The first is a 1988 op-ed published in The Times about the suicide of Primo Levi. It was the seed that eventually germinated into Darkness Visible. Styron spoke of his own depression and noted of Levi’s suicide: “not a shred of moral blame should be attached to the manner of his passing.”

There is also a shrewd and funny account of how Styron’s trench mouth was misdiagnosed as syphilis while he was in the service. This appeared in The New Yorker in 1995. Finally there is a startling piece, composed for inclusion in This Quiet Dust, about the aftermath of an article he wrote that helped a man escape the electric chair. Styron was a vocal opponent of the death penalty.

When the man was ready to be paroled, Styron was asked if he would allow him to stay at his house while other accommodations were made. Styron said yes. A few days before he was to be released, the man escaped from a prison work detail and raped a woman. Watching Styron work his moral abacus on this complicated matter is, unlike so much of My Generation, memorable and entirely worthwhile.

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