Sunday, April 20, 2008

New from William Styron

William Styron is my man. I feel a personal bond with the writer who died in 2006; he has been my guide on some formative literary experiences. In the space of four brief pages, Styron's essay "Death Row" moved me permanently from my place on the fence about the death penalty to the conviction that killings authorized by the state are as barbaric as the crimes they claim to punish.

Styron accomplished the nearly impossible by describing the experience of profound depression in his memoir Darkness Visible. "My brain had begun to endure its familiar siege: panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnamable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world." When I read his identification of the illness as "a condition of helpless stupor in which cognition was replaced by (in William James' words) 'a positive and active anguish,'" I felt connection and relief - here is a name for the pain - here is the beginning of understanding.

I have lots more to say about Sophie's Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner, (I have a love-hate relationship with both these books for very different reasons) but right now I'm telling you about Havanas in Camelot, a collection of short pieces, some found in Styron's papers after his death. He writes, often with great humor, of his friendships with JFK, James Baldwin, Terry Southern and Truman Capote and an episode with a misdiagnosis of syphilis. It's not a major collection, nor always a satisfying one - some stories seem cut short by his lack of notes or memory -- but I loved the chance to connect again with a favorite writer.

Here is what he says about the adaptation of Sophie's Choice into film: "When I first saw the film it was a joy to note the smooth, almost seamless way the story unfolded in scrupulous fidelity to the way I had told it; there were no shortcuts, no distortions or evasions, and the sense of satisfaction I felt was augmented by the splendid photography, the subtle musical score, and, above all, the superb acting, especially Meryl Streep's glorious performance, which of course is already part of film history." He continues (what writer whose baby has been adopted by another could not?) with a lament for all that was not included, but I think the film only benefits by omitting the lengthy comparisons of Sophie's butt to pieces of fruit and the scene where she gives Stingo a handjob on the beach. The Godfather and The Bridges of Madison County easily refute his claim that "for the true experience one must return to that oldest source - the written word--and confront the original work" but I wouldn't deny the writer a preference for his medium.

The collection ends with an essay from 1990 (the same year Darkness Visible was published) that is a reverie about the dumpy village on Martha's Vineyard he called home. After witnessing his horrific war with the demons of mental illness that robbed him of sleep and pleasure, I read with satisfaction evidence he had recovered the ability to enjoy the world again. The book concludes with the words, "And at night to fall gently sleep to the far-off moaning of the West Chop foghorn. . . . Vineyard Haven. Sleep. Bliss."

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