Wednesday, January 30, 2013

“Selected Letters of William Styron”—Plus Blake Bailey News

In the January 24 issue of the London Review of Books, James Wolcott has a long, perceptive review not just of William Styron’s letters but the whole post-World War ll sweepstakes to write the Great American Novel, a Cracker Jacks prize lusted after by the likes of Styron, Norman Mailer, James Jones, Irwin Shaw and, a bit later, John Updike, Philip Roth and a score of lesser-known writers left panting by the side of the literary road not quite taken.
Like Wolcott, I’ve never been a Styron fan, having started—and failed to finish—“Lie Down in Darkness,” "Set This House on Fire,” and “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” I did read “Sophie’s Choice,” particularly enjoying the narrator’s remembrances of coming to New York after the war, living in Brooklyn and working at a big publishing company, where he rejects what would become the best-selling “Kon-Tiki.” Having read “Kon-Tiki,” I believe Stingo, Styron’s alter ego, made the right call.
Wolcott’s problems with Styron are similar to mine. Here’s Wolcott: “I was never a fan of Styron’s fiction or his well-oiled, august persona. Each attempt at fording his fiction left me stranded somewhere in the marshy thickets, pushing the canoe, up to my armpits in sonorities.”
Mailer may have been nuts much of the time, but his prose—even at its worst, and in the embrace of lunacy—had a snap, crackle and pop I never encountered in Styron.
But Styron’s letters are another story. Styron had a Zelig-like ability to meet everyone, and the book’s index lights up with famous names: the Kennedys, Mailer (with whom he had a feud, but everyone had a feud with Mailer), Roth, Jones, Shaw, Updike, Lillian Hellman, Gore Vidal (Styron despised Vidal), Mike Nichols, George Plimpton (I guess everybody in the GAN Olympics knew Plimpton), Gay Talese, Frank Sinatra—the names go on and on, and Styron has funny, insightful comments on people, their character (or lack thereof), and their work.
Styron suffered from depression, and he chronicled his battle with the disease in his book in 1990’s “Darkness Visible,” but very few letters deal with this dark struggle. Styron initially beat his depression, but then fell into a final, debilitating spiral. He died in 2006, age 81.
Blake Bailey reviewed Styron’s letters in the January 13 issue of The Times Book Review. Bailey’s tone is respectful, and I bought the book based on his review. But the big news for me is the disclosure that Bailey’s next literary biography, “Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson,” will appear in March.
Charles Jackson? Who?
Well, the clue is in the title: Wilder is a pun referring to Jackson’s life and the fact that Billy Wilder turned Jackson’s best-known novel, “The Lost Weekend,” into a classic, harrowing movie in 1945 (that’s the cover from the 1948 Signet paperback—if the artist made Ray Milland any greener he could pass for a Martian from some pulpy post-war science fiction).
Bailey is a superb biographer, and if you care about 20th century American fiction, you should read his two previous books: “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates” and “Cheever: A Life.” What Yates, Cheever and Jackson share, besides their profession, is their alcoholism. Yates was mentally frail, and both Cheever and Jackson led closeted sex lives. All wounded human beings who at various times lived in that post-war, martini-soaked Manhattan cauldron of literary ambition. I can’t wait for Bailey’s new book.
Bailey mentions in his review that Styron was an admirer of Yates’s work, and helped get Yates a gig writing the screenplay of Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness” for director John Frankenheimer. The movie has yet to be produced, but Yates’s script has been published; Yates wrote a fine short story, “Saying Goodbye to Sally,” based on his Hollywood experience; his take on Frankenheimer is none-too flattering. Ironically, Frankenheimer battled his own alcoholic demons (successfully) during an accomplished career that included “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seven Days in May,” and one of the best sequels ever made, “French Connection ll.”
So read Bailey’s books, and then reacquaint yourself with the work of his gifted subjects. After posting this, I’m going to start reading “The Lost Weekend” for the second time. Unlike the movie’s ending, the novel closes on a darker note, making Don Birnam’s five-day bender all the sadder.


Blogger Levi Stahl said...

Apologies for leaving this here, but I couldn't find an e-mail address. I'm writing because I've just signed up to edit a Donald Westlake miscellany, mostly of his nonfiction writing but likely also to include an interview or two--and I was wondering if I might be able to discuss the possibility of considering the unpublished one you mentioned in the Daily News last year. If you'd be at all interested, drop me a note: levistahl at gmail. Thanks!

11:03 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home