November 1, 2006


William Styron, a Leading Novelist, Dies at 81 (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, 11/01/06, NY Times)

William Styron, the novelist from the American South whose explorations of difficult historical and moral questions earned him a place among the leading literary figures of the post-World War II generation, died today in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he had a home. He was 81. [...]

His peers included James Jones, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. [...]

For Mr. Styron, success came early. He was 26 when “Lie Down in Darkness,” his first novel, was published, in 1951. It was a brooding, lyrical meditation on a young Southern girl’s suicide, as viewed during her funeral by various members of her family and their friends. In the narrative, language played as important a role as characterization, and the debt to Faulkner in general and “The Sound and the Fury” in particular was obvious. A majority of reviewers praised the novel for its power and melodiousness — although a few complained of its morbidity and its characters’ lack of moral stature — and the book established Mr. Styron as a writer to be watched. [...]

The reaction to “The Confessions of Nat Turner” was at first enthusiastic. Reviewers were sympathetic to Mr. Styron’s right to inhabit his subject’s mind, to speak in a version of Nat Turner’s voice and to weave a fiction around the few facts known about the uprising. George Steiner, in The New Yorker, called the book “a fiction of complex relationship, of the relationship between a present-day white man of deep Southern roots and the Negro in today’s whirlwind.”

The book sold well all over the world, and it won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 1970 William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

But as the social turmoil of 1968 mounted, a negative reaction set in. Influential black readers in particular began to question the novel’s merits, and Hollywood, reacting to the furor, decided against making a movie version. In August, some of the angrier criticisms were published in a book edited by the African history scholar John Henrik Clarke entitled “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond.”

Mr. Styron was accused of having misunderstood black language, religion and psychology, and of having produced a “whitened appropriation of our history.” In the furious debate that followed, several admirers of “Nat Turner” recanted, and the question was raised whether white people could even understand black history — a position that to some seemed racist in itself.

Embittered, Mr. Styron withdrew from the debate and gradually moved on to his next project, “Sophie’s Choice,” a novel about a fictional Polish Catholic woman, Sophie Zawistowska, who struggles to survive the aftermath of her wartime internment in Auschwitz.

Once again Mr. Styron read extensively, beginning with Olga Lengyel’s memoir of her family’s internment in Auschwitz, “Five Chimneys,” which had haunted him since he first became aware of it decades earlier. Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” suggested the central plot development. After reading the memoirs of Rudolf Höss, the actual commandant of Auschwitz, Mr. Styron made him a character in the novel.

Working slowly and deliberately, Mr. Styron evolved a complex narrative voice in the novel, more Southern and garrulous than any he had used before. This voice ranged so widely that Mr. Styron was able all at once to answer the critics of “Nat Turner” and to document his extensive reading of Holocaust literature while distancing himself ironically from a youthful, somewhat callow version of himself, a central character who somehow mixes up his revelation of Sophie’s tragedy with the comic rite of his own sexual initiation.

Once again, Mr. Styron achieved commercial success and won prizes. “Sophie’s Choice” rose to the top of The Times Book Review’s best-seller list, won the 1980 American Book Award for fiction and was made into a successful movie, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, and an opera by the English composer Nicholas Maw. And once again, Mr. Styron’s project aroused controversy.

The initial reviews were mixed. Some critics seemed to find the complexity of the narrative troubling. But in time, critics focused on two particular objections. One was that the Holocaust so surpassed moral comprehension that it could not be written about at all; the only appropriate response was silence. The other was that even though non-Jews had also been victims of the death camps, for Mr. Styron to write about one of them, a Polish Catholic, was to diminish the true horror of the event, whose primary purpose, these critics pointed out, was the destruction of European Jewry.

It is obviously nothing more than politically correct silliness to suggest that an author can't write empathetically about any ethnicity, gender, religious group, etc., other than his own, but it would seem a legitimate critique of Mr. Styron's oeuvre that he just wrote as whoever was trendy at the moment--first he was Faulkner, then black, then a Holocaust victim -- and his memoir of alcohol abuse and depression suggested a guy who didn't much like himself.

It's also worth noting that even if you expand that rather pitiful Postwar peer group to include Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, they only wrote one great American novel between--James Jones's From Here to Eternity.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 1, 2006 11:35 PM

The Times could win a Pulitzer in a category for Politically Correct Silliness. Still, I'm puzzled how this article can mention James Jones yet avoid mentioning Herman Wouk. Perhaps they didn't like one another? Speaking of "despair beyond despair," a guy who was friends with Francois Mitterand would know what the heck he was talking about.

Posted by: Qiao Yang at November 2, 2006 9:21 AM