The most startling fact of William Styron’s existence is that it ended naturally. Suicide is the subject of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, a Faulknerian tragedy set in the aftermath of Hiroshima, which made him instantly famous at 26, and of Darkness Visible, his revealing and revered late-in-life memoir about the 1985 depression that found him on the cusp of pulling the trigger.
A second depressive episode would strike in 2000, and these two calamities constitute the sturdiest pillars of Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron’s memoir of the novelist she called “Daddy.” She notes that though the official cause of his death in 2006 was pneumonia, “Drowning would probably have been more appropriate,” given the anguish that engulfed him whenever he was not writing or drinking.
William Styron was from that virile mid-century caste of writer-warriors of which few remain; literature, meanwhile, has been relegated from the bar stool to the seminar table. George Plimpton, for whose Paris Review Styron was an early contributor, died in 2003; Norman Mailer, who once warned Styron that he would “stomp out of you a fat amount of yellow and treacherous shit” over some unflattering gossip, died in 2007.
Styron is more elusive, a Southerner who loved Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard and whose most memorable characters are entirely unlike him: a Catholic Holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice(his greatest novel) and a slave in the Confessions of Nat Turner (his most controversial).
As his daughter writes in Reading My Father, he was eternally occupied with the “dispossessed, disaffected, condemned to die, unable to die.” The confessional of Philip Roth was not for him: Only in his sixties did Styron turn to his own story, confronting demons (his mother’s fatal cancer foremost among them) that fiction and bourbon had muzzled.
Like many nurtured in the penumbra of genius, Alexandra Styron got a good story out of her privations. At twelve she totes Sophie’s Choice to school, only to be arrested by the novel’s lush sexuality. Arriving at “the bone-rigid stalk of my passion,” she slams it shut and, deciding that “Daddy didn’t actually do these things,” does not return until her late 30’s.
This episode was first recounted in a fine remembrance Styron (who has a novel, All the Finest Girls, to her name) wrote for the New Yorker in 2007. Reading My Father, an expansion of that article, attempts to combine self-searching memoir and literary biography, with only partial success.
For one, much of her father’s early life (Virginia, the Marines, Duke, New York) was recounted in a solid, authorized 1998 biography by James L. West III. The comparison to West would be unfair if it were not so obvious: Reading My Father recycles much of his material without improving on it.
But Styron’s child’s-eye-view is not without its triumphs, either, endearing the reader most when she is observing (and, often, pouring wine for) the resplendent characters who consort with her father and his poet-activist wife, Rose Burgunder: “Jimmy” Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller. To a teacher she announces, “Joan Baez was at my house last night.”
But despite her father’s prominence, Alexandra Styron says that he lived a “hunted and haunted” existence. He regularly focused his rage on the author, the youngest of his four children, berating her for being “a fucking princess” or suddenly emptying the house of junk food.
His later years were spent trying to replicate the success of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice with a war novel, The Way of the Warrior, that went through three drafts but remained unfinished. As Styron neared 60, frustration curdled into depression, culminating with him on the edge of suicide, only to be pulled back by “some last of sanity” (as he would later write in Darkness Visible) that brought him to the safety of Yale-New Haven Hospital.
A grown woman struggling to make her way in Los Angeles as an actress, Styron can now see her father with the fullness of vision missing from earlier chapters. Anyone familiar with mental illness will identify with her “almost surreal sensation of watching, up ahead of me, my once imposing father shuffle sadly down the sterile hallway, toward the locked door of the mental ward.”
There follow fifteen calmer years of Styron “squarely looking at himself,” writing finally about his own past in the story collection A Tidewater Morning. But while self-knowledge is restorative, it is hardly an armor. In 2000, depression again bowls him over. There are poignant scenes in Reading My Father of Styron panicking on an airplane, sinking into paranoid delusions (“I wonder if any of these hotels has a direct line to the Vatican”), berating his daughters as “sluts.” Finding her father “essentially ungovernable” until electroconvulsive therapy provides relief, Styron gives a refreshingly unvarnished account of how frustrating it is to play caretaker to madness.
But maybe Styron’s mind gave out only because it had been so completely engrossed in the creative process for so long. There is a lesson in Reading My Father for today’s writers, weaned as they are on the MFA’s anodyne comforts: “Writing is a matter…[of] dogging yourself to death,” he once said. They don’t teach that in workshop.