Once upon a time in New York, a girl and her friends were away from boarding school for the weekend. The talented, youngest child of a famous American novelist, the girl decided that they should all go to see the movie Sophie’s Choice. This wasn’t the first time she had seen the movie: in fact, she had been at the premiere with her parents some months before, and had loved the whole evening, feeling dazzled to find herself so deeply planted in a world of adult accomplishment.
Like many children of the famous, however, our heroine became aware that night of there being a great deal to live up to; as the cameras flashed and the microphones were extended, she rightly recognized her overwhelming need to go from being the offspring of “someone” to being “someone” in her own right. Yet the later screening with her friends allowed Alexandra Styron to feel something simpler—something fleeced of doubt. Here is how she talks about it in her stirring memoir:
In front of us a woman sat alone, weeping quietly during the film’s most wrenching scene and then openly sobbing as the show ended and the credits rolled. When the houselights came up, one of my schoolmates reached over, tapped the woman on the shoulder, and pointed at me. “Her father wrote that,” he said. “He wrote the book.” I blushed madly as the woman wiped her eyes and looked at me with astonishment. But the truth was I couldn’t have been more proud if I’d written the book myself.
Though she doesn’t refer to them, there are a number of psychologically taxing implications in that “wrenching scene.” It might be the most famous scene in literature where a daughter is given away by a parent, unless we conclude that King Lear gives Cordelia away. Sophie’s choice is to hand over her son to certain death in a Nazi camp or to give away her daughter, and it is the little girl, Eva Maria Zawistowska, who is delivered into the hands of a crazed commandant and seen to disappear into the distance holding her teddy bear and her flute. Alexandra remembered a question her father had asked her while driving her home from school one day. It resonates in the mind. She must have been about ten at the time.
“What kind of instrument would a little girl your age play?” he asked.
“Umm…a piano?” I answered, my hand out the window, tracing the arc of the power lines.
“No, too big. How about a flute?”
I figured he was asking for his work. I wanted to be a help. My friend Lili had a flute.
“Maybe,” I replied, leaping a tree with my fingers.
There is a sense in which William Styron struggled to hold onto his children just as he struggled to hold on to his mind. The two things cannot be disconnected, and the best of his writing choreographs the movement of inner turmoil and outward action—a thinking person’s relation to history, or the play of the mind in the workings of families and nations—in ways that we might find to be convincing and beautiful. For my money, Styron was the purest stylist among the male writers who emerged, ruby-cheeked and ready to go, from World War II, a generation that would include Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, James Baldwin and James Jones, Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger. Like many of them, Styron was born, in a literary sense, into the age of annihilation, and his prose sets a certain store by violence and lyricism, while maintaining dialogue with the three great American literary heroes of the previous generation, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway.
Questions of power and bravery, of faith and refusal, would rise and fall graciously, momentously, in Styron’s best work, making him an American existentialist with a new song to sing in those first years after the war. All his life, even long before his mental breakdown at the age of sixty, Styron struggled to find a fluency or a confidence to match his gifts. It was no easy journey, but it left us with a few masterpieces, and it must be time, long since time, to celebrate the story of his talent without succumbing to regrets over what else he might have done.
Styron was one of those novelists whose talent brought with it a knowledge of death. From the beginning, he gave his characters over to death, and sometimes to self-slaughter, long before he admitted to having any such thoughts about himself. The fate of daughters in his work should be borne in mind, too: even the most even-handed procreator has to think twice about letting the young die on the page, but Styron never hesitated. Lie Down in Darkness, his first novel, opens with Milton Loftis waiting on the train that carries his daughter’s coffin into town. There is a sense of personal breakdown everywhere in the book, and a fine, perfectly modulated account of parental ennui. A decade and a half before we had Sylvia Plath evoking her black-hearted daddy with the “Mein Kampf look” we have the daughter, Peyton Loftis, who grows up in a perfumed savannah of gothic rituals, a place where no person is simply one person, and where images of the good daddy give way to the feverish iconoclasm of “Daddy Faith,” a local religious leader. “Oh, daddy, I don’t know what’s wrong,” writes Peyton in a letter to “Bunny,” her father, “I’ve tried to grow up—to be a good little girl, as you would say, but everywhere I turn I seem to walk deeper and deeper into some terrible despair. What’s wrong, Daddy? What’s wrong?”
That debut novel is like nothing else, with characters suspended in a kind of liquid darkness. Camus loved it, as everyone else more or less did, because it took a classic, wan, Faulknerian mise-en-scène and transformed it into a universal outburst about the postwar family breakdown. Styron’s love of battle was not yet a battle chiefly with himself, but one suspects the rudiments of that track were always in place. “Why is happiness such a precious thing?” asks Peyton, and, indeed, she would find, as the author would in time, that happiness is a virtue best understood in the manner of its absence. From the start, in Styron, parents were giving away their children, societies were giving away their civilized values, history was giving up its certainties, and war was giving up its dead, while the writer could only attempt to capture this with honesty while he or she still had the strength. A sense of spiritual breakdown, however, lies not at the end of Styron’s journey but at the beginning, when sleep and optimism were still possible and literary success came as proof that America was able to ask big questions of itself.
The fall from heroism is a story known not only to fathers but also to old soldiers, and Styron was both. In The Long March, a second, short novel, he wrote a pitch-perfect account of a generation that was no longer fit for heroism; a generation, Styron’s own, that had shown its character in World War II but was sick of itself by the time of Korea, when many were called back to uniform. Domestic life and a new refrigerator had held out a promise to these men: they would never see such mire again, or so they thought, and their spirit would be tested by making their living, surviving the sex wars, and excelling at the swimming hole. He writes of the leading character:
It was simply that after six years of an ordered and sympathetic life—made the more placid by the fact that he had assumed he had put the war behind him—it was a fact almost mystically horrifying, in its unreality, to find himself in this new world of frigid nights and blazing noons, of disorder and movement and fanciful pursuit.
If Hemingway’s soldiers and hunters are always on the front foot, taking their lacerations for granted, Styron wrote of men who lived perpetually on their heels, teetering on the brink of collapse and spiritual dissolution. Captain Mannix, the diehard marine in The Long March, walks ten miles straight with a nail sticking up on the inside of his boot. The Suicide Run, a posthumously published collection of fiction pieces from Styron’s war, contributes something to our understanding of the fear of annihilation that ripped through his generation. Not just the fear, but the seeming inevitability that comes with mutually assured destruction. These are not men, as it happens, who really believe they can fight their way out of trouble. They are not supermen, but civilians stranded in uniform, arguing with their own nature, strung out in a no-man’s-land, waiting for Godot or the Bomb to drop.
And yet the tone is not mere hopelessness, but something more interesting: Styron shows us a generation, his own postwar crowd, whose disappointment turned harsh, building a cold war aggressiveness in the American story, instituting an element of corrupt policing in what would soon be called the military-industrial complex. One of the stories in The Suicide Run is called “Marriott, the Marine,” and it captures all of this and something else: the growth of a depressive tendency in the life of its Styron-like narrator. “But whatever our situation,” he writes, speaking for himself and his fellow Marines,
we were all bound to each other by a single shocked awareness, and this was that for the second time in less than a decade we were faced with the prospect of an ugly death. In an abstract way it was possible to say that it was our own fault we were here. Yet suddenly, as my gaze wandered from face to face among this sullen, murmurous assembly of misplaced civilians—these store owners and office managers and personnel directors and salesmen—I was gripped by a foreboding about our presence in this swampy wilderness that at once transcended and made absurd each of our individual destinies, and even our collective fate. For it seemed to me that all of us were both exemplars and victims of some uncontrollable aggression, a hungry will for bloodshed creeping not only throughout America but the world, and I could not help but abruptly shiver in that knowledge.
Man’s fate, we see from Styron, is no longer dependent on his personal morality, his judgment, or his courage: in the end, it will unfold as part of a mechanical joke, a scientific event consequent of a moment’s panic or a domino theory, and future man, we can begin to assume, will be married to extermination as much as he is committed to life.
This was the legacy of World War II—a legacy Styron would return to—but at this point in his career his take on the soldier’s lot seemed to be not only a moral warning but a description of his own state of mind. Even at the height of his first success, he was embattled, making ready, one assumes from his writing, for new kinds of warfare on new fronts. No wonder the French loved Styron so much: they saw in his delicacy the vulnerability of the period, and they heard an existential lullaby beside the rocking cradle of cold war strife. By the time he published his third novel, Set This House on Fire, the author had traveled into some of the central questions of his time. He asked just what depths of evil there might be in being a man.