In "Reading My Father," William Styron's youngest child explores the life of a fascinating and difficult man whose own memoir, "Darkness Visible, "so searingly chronicled his battle with major depression. Read more...
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In "Reading My Father," William Styron's youngest child explores the life of a fascinating and difficult man whose own memoir, "Darkness Visible, "so searingly chronicled his battle with major depression. Alexandra Styron's parents--the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Sophie's Choice "and his political activist wife, Rose--were, for half a century, leading players on the world's cultural stage. Alexandra was raised under both the halo of her father's brilliance and the long shadow of his troubled mind.
A drinker, a carouser, and above all "a high priest at the altar of fiction," Styron helped define the concept of The Big Male Writer that gave so much of twentieth-century American fiction a muscular, glamorous aura. In constant pursuit of The Great Novel, he and his work were the dominant force in his family's life, his turbulent moods the weather in their ecosystem.
From Styron's Tidewater, Virginia, youth and precocious literary debut to the triumphs of his best-known books and on through his spiral into depression, "Reading My Father "portrays the epic sweep of an American artist's life, offering a ringside seat on a great literary generation's friendships and their dramas. It is also a tale of filial love, beautifully written, with humor, compassion, and grace.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-01-24
- Reviewer: Staff
The youngest daughter of the late novelist William Styron fashions a conflicted, guarded, ultimately reverential portrait of a deeply troubled artist. Dogged all his life by depression—which was not diagnosed properly until the devastating 1985 episode that later prompted Darkness Visible—the Virginia-born Styron was a difficult man to live with. Novelist Alexandra Styron (All the Finest Girls) delved into her father's papers at Duke University, his alma mater, to uncover the life and work of a man she never knew growing up in their Roxbury, Conn., home, along with her mother, Rose, and three older siblings. Styron was an only child whose mother died of cancer when he was 13, a Marine in World War II who never saw combat, and an abysmal student; though he was also a charming ladies' man and published his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, in 1952 at the age of 26, to great critical acclaim. The author was born just before her father finished his third novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, in 1967, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; the anticipation of his next work—"like a constant drumbeat under everything we did"—gripped her childhood, until Sophie's Choice was published in 1979. In this intimate portrait, William Styron emerges through his daughter's eyes as a towering talent who proves all too human. (Apr.)
Elegant reflections on William Styron
On October 31, 2006, the great novelist William Styron died, surrounded by members of his family who tried to ease his journey into the life beyond. For Alexandra Styron, his youngest daughter, this deathbed scene might just as easily have been his family’s attempt to help him write the ending to his story, a “great yarn, furiously told, urgent and grand.” In Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron offers her own riveting tale, similarly “urgent and grand,” of growing up in the ambivalently loving Styron household, in the shadow of the celebrated author of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner.
Styron’s elegant reflections are as much a search for her father and a memorial to his life and work as they are a quest for redemption, forgiveness or closure. Following her father’s death, Styron goes to Duke University in search of his papers, especially his unfinished manuscript, titled The Way of the Warrior. William Styron had intended this World War II story to explore his own ambivalence about the glory and honor associated with patriotic service, raising questions about the Vietnam conflict in much the same way that The Confessions of Nat Turner raised questions about civil rights. He put aside the manuscript, however, after he awoke from a powerful dream about a woman, a Holocaust survivor, whom he had met in Brooklyn as a young man. Very quickly he began work on Sophie’s Choice and set aside The Way of the Warrior.
This unfinished manuscript acts as Alexandra’s madeleine, leading her into extended reflections on her relationship to her father and the celebrated family in which she grew up. She remembers that dinners at her house were magical affairs with guests from Philip Roth and Arthur Miller to Mike Nichols and Leonard Bernstein. She recalls her father’s deep slide into depression and her early bewilderment at his mood swings. After 1985, and his own chronicle of his depression, Darkness Visible, William Styron found himself sinking further and further into a depression from which he would never recover.
Alexandra Styron’s electrifying memoir reveals her father’s heroic struggles with the black dog of depression, but it also offers us a glimpse of the ways that his daughter so ably mitigated her father’s illness in her own days with him.