My first exposure to William Styron was listening to the audiobook of Sophie's Choice in the car while driving from Seattle to Bellingham. A few days and 26 CDs later, I knew I was doomed. On the page, Sophie's Choice is already a rich, incredibly layered story, but read aloud by a narrator with a gift for accents (Southern, New York, Polish, German) it transcends its own form. Like many novels that have been made into films and entered the pop culture lexicon, Sophie's Choice has become synonymous with the Holocaust. Little did I know that crippling topic makes up only about a third of the plot, and that Sophie isn't even the main character. Instead, we are introduced to Stingo, a charming, if somewhat bewildered 20 year-old Virginian living in Brooklyn in 1947. He moves into a boarding house to write his first novel and soon meets his upstairs neighbors, Sophie and Nathan. I'm not going to give anything else away, because there are so many surprises within, including descriptions of some of the most hilarious, disastrous sexual trysts I've ever read.
I despaired at the possibility that I had begun with Styron's best (much like how I feel about Paul Auster and The New York Trilogy), but when next I read Set this House on Fire and then The Confessions of Nat Turner, I was relieved to find that both were satisfying in different ways.
Styron's memoir of his experience with depression, Darkness Visible, helped me understand how he writes with such uncanny compassion for his characters, especially when they're in the cruel grasp of mental illness themselves.
Recently I was vehemently defending Styron in a conversation about The Confessions of Nat Turner, which has inspired much criticism both before and since its Pulitzer Prize win in 1968. I see it as an amazingly rich character study, not a “slavery” novel (in the same way I don't see Sophie's Choice as a “holocaust” novel), and it is made all the more fascinating when you learn that Styron was a liberal atheist descended from slave-owning grandparents.
I decided to write this post because I just finished Havanas in Camelot, Styron's posthumously released collection of essays. The title essay refers to Styron's experience smoking cigars with JFK at a party for authors at the White House (Obama, take note).
He writes with gleeful outrage about his stint in the VD ward in a military hospital at the end of WWII, and with reverence about one of his literary heroes and contemporaries, Truman Capote. While reading his essays, I kept thinking, damn, we really would've gotten along. And isn't that the best, if bittersweet, kind of thought to have while reading? Are there any other Styron fans out there? I don't run into many, but maybe you'll pick up one of his books and become one.