Spectator – Carla Carlisle

Although William Styron was in many ways a man blessed, he was unlucky to die one week before the mid-term elections. He would have found solace in the redistribution of power in Washington, and been unamazed that his native state of Virginia hogged the limelight by bucking at the inevitable.

Somehow, I missed the announcement of the writer’s death. The news came via email from a friend: ‘Another giant gone. The world feels skimpier.’ It felt like bad manners to ask how he died, so I Googled for obituaries instead. The word ‘pneumonia’ seemed synonomous with state of grace. I said a silent prayer of gratitude that this great Southern writer hadn’t suffered a relapse of the near-fatal melancholia that overwhelmed him soon after he turned 60. When he recovered, he wrote about his harrowing descent into deep suicidal depression in a slender volume called Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.

My copy is as worn as a prayer book, loaned to friends trying to understand an illness that has engulfed them or someone they love, read regularly by me to scare off the ghosts of everyday sadness/planetary predictions/the 7 o’clock news.

The first novel I read by Styron was The Confessions of Nat Turner, a fictional account of the violent rebellion led by the slave Nat Turner that took place in 1831. The book was the text for an American history course at Princeton taught by the historian Martin Duberman. I was the only female in the class, the only Southerner, and the only one who’d been involved in the civil-rights movement.

I felt honour-bound to join the attack on Styron for presuming to inhabit a black man’s mind, to speak in a black man’s voice. The problem was, I thought the book revealed the savagery of slavery in a way that no one had since Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was about more than a slave revolt: it was about relationships, about religious fanaticism, about a world deeply divided. Sticking up for Styron in the class was the beginning of my kinship with the writer. I read Sophie’s Choice with an intensity that baffled friends. I also acquired a little file of Styronmania. He loved music and liked to write to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola and ballads by Emmylou Harris. I have both on my iTunes.

If only I could emulate his writing schedule: sleep until noon; read and think in bed for another hour or so; lunch with his wife, Rose, at 1:30pm; errands, mail, music, daydream and gently rock into work until 4pm; up to his work-room to write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words are as good as they can be; drinks and dinner with family and friends around 9pm, stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning reading, listening to music, drinking and thinking. I reckon that is a near-perfect routine.

William Styron was one of nature’s Demo-crats. Lunches at his house in Martha’s Vineyard often included Jacqueline Kennedy and, later, Bill and Hillary Clinton. He told the story of an evening when they played ‘what’s your favourite novel?’. Clinton’s was The Sound and the Fury, and within seconds, the President began to quote from it verbatim. Like Faulkner, William Styron chose mighty themes, in part because he believed that ‘human beings are a hair’s breadth away from catastrophe both personally and on a larger historical level’. He would have found consolation in having a few more Democrats in office who we can only hope will slow down the march into darkness.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 16 November, 2006.