“Reading My Father”
By Alexandra Styron;
Scribner, $25; 304 pages.
By Gina Webb
At first, his blow-ups simply epitomized the cliche of the “temperamental writer, ” recalls William Styron’s youngest daughter, Alexandra. He was a terror at home.
“(M)y father’s tempestuous spirit ruled our family’s private life as surely as his eminence defined the more public one. At times querulous and taciturn, cutting and remote, melancholy when he was sober and rageful when in his cups, he inspired fear and loathing in us a good deal more often than it feels comfortable to admit.”
But admit it she does, in her memoir, “Reading My Father, ” a harrowing and at times darkly funny tale of towering successes, dazzling potential, and an unbearable failure that would drive Styron to the brink of suicide.
He had reason to be difficult. Fame had come early to the Virginia-born writer, hailed at 26 as one of the brightest stars of his generation of writers. His first novel, “Lie Down in Darkness, ” (1951) drew instant comparisons to Faulkner and won the Prix de Rome. “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1967) garnered rave reviews and won the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1979, “Sophie’s Choice, ” later an Academy Award-winning film, catapulted him into the literary stratosphere, finally proving to Alexandra that he did more than “sleep all morning and spend the rest of the day stomping in and out through his study door.”
Yet after this staggering success Styron never completed another novel.
It wasn’t for want of trying. After his death in 2006, Alexandra found no fewer than six unfinished manuscripts — one an ambitious novel about World War II — in his papers, collected at Duke University.
For the next 20 years, Styron continued to produce nonfiction (”This Quiet Dust”), a short-story collection (”A Tidewater Morning”), book reviews, speeches, tributes, op-eds, essays and magazine articles, and introductions to other people’s books. He also began to suffer from depression so paralyzing that he would eventually seek shock treatment, despite fears that it would destroy his ability to write at all.
Did the inability to complete the novels drive him mad, or was it the other way around?
In search of an answer to that question, “Reading My Father” casts a wide net. The book opens with Styron’s funeral in 2006, then moves backward and forward in time, weaving vivid biographical details — Styron’s lonesome Tidewater childhood, his closeness to his father, his military career, his romance with Alexandra’s mother and their often tumultuous marriage—together with interviews with friends and associates, and Alexandra’s memories of growing up in Connecticut, hobnobbing with her parents’ celebrity friends and their families, watching the man she still calls “Daddy” gradually disintegrate.
Not surprisingly—after all, the author, too, is a novelist (”All the Finest Girls”) —everything meshes so fluidly that the frequent cuts only add to the emerging portrait of a complex artist that no one, including William Styron, knew very well.
Particular attention is paid to emotional scars left by the loss of Styron’s mother, from breast cancer, when he was 13. An only child, Styron was born in Newport News, Va., to parents in their mid-30s. Following his mother’s death, a cold new stepmother packed Styron off to boarding school, where he lost the comfort of his father, and also, Alexandra says, any chance to resolve his feelings. Grief, Alexandra implies, gave way to rage. But those close to Styron couldn’t imagine him harboring buried, damaging emotions.
“His anger erupted without warning, the irrationality of it as frightening as the actions that accompanied it. A toy left in his path, a pencil with no point”—anything could set him off. Though never physically violent with his children, Styron was capable of brutal tirades that would put Alec Baldwin to shame.
Nor could lack of success be to blame. In 1985, Styron was the man who had everything: “Loving family, towering talent, money, friends.” His new novel was underway, a published excerpt from which had already drawn the usual lavish praise.
Less than a year later, Styron crashed. Ironically, the ground-breaking, 15,000-word essay he would eventually write about his illness, “Darkness Visible, ” would become the basis for one of his best-selling books.
But the novel would remain out of reach for the rest of Styron’s life.
At the end of “Reading My Father, ” Alexandra refers to her father’s life as his “untold war story.” In her gallant and unflinchingly honest book about the battles her father fought to hang onto what he loved, she has finally helped him finish it.