William Styron's books dealt with crime and punishment set against the great conflagrations of modern history.
He also inherited the brooding, morbid approach of Southern masters like William Faulkner. There was something violent, almost Gothic, in his style of writing.
IN 1968, I became familiar with William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner because, along with Allen Drury's Advice and Consent, it remained long on the list of bestsellers. The latter, which was about Washington politics, power struggle and the Cold War, was the more readable book. I took longer to read The Confessions of Nat Turner; it left me confused, angry and helpless. The book was an epic, a fictionalised account of a slave leader's revolt in 1831. It was close to history, to the struggle of the blacks against the Whites and reverberated with echoes of the civil rights upheavals, which had gripped the U.S. in the 1960s. Besides this, Styron (who died on November 1) wrote only seven more books in a 42-year old career. Another masterpiece was Sophie's Choice (1979). In his masterpieces, he dealt with themes of crime and punishment set against the great conflagrations of modern history like the slave revolt and Nazi atrocities during World War II. Such themes came naturally to Styron who admired Russian master, Dostoyevsky, and German writer, Thomas Mann.
Styron belonged to Virginia and shared the Southern guilt over slavery, the feeling of loss, longing and regret caused by the Civil War. He also inherited the brooding, morbid approach of Southern masters like William Faulkner. There was something violent, almost Gothic, in his style of writing. Throughout The Confessions of Nat Turner, as the slaves are betrayed, tortured and killed, we feel a sense of evil haunting the protagonists accompanied by a deep sense of guilt. In fact, the Southern influences haunted his writing from his first novel Lie Down in Darkness (1951), which dealt with a Southern family's trouble with alcoholism, madness and suicide. In Set This House on Fire (1960), set in Italy and the U.S., the murder scenes and the brooding atmosphere carried the stamp of Dostoyevsky. As a young soldier in World War II, Styron experienced the idea and concept of evil when he was just a small cog in the war machine. From his knowledge of Nazi killings and the tragedy of the concentration camps was born Sophie's Choice where the feeling of guilt, for the first time, shifts from the stigma of slavery.
In 1990, Styron switched from fiction to write Darkness: A Memoir of Madness, an account of the suicidal depression he suffered from 1985. In an unusual step, the New York Times chose to comment on this book editorially and quoted doctors "an invaluable document for those trying to understand an illness that had consumed them or someone they loved". Like John Gunther's Death Be Not Proud, an account of the tragic death of his brilliant son, this 84-page volume was a piece of great writing. Patients underlined passages, shared them with one another and held them dear. An unusual tribute came from humour columnist Art Buchwald, also a victim of depression. He, Styron and TV personality Mike Wallace called themselves "Blues Brothers" and went around campuses and hospitals discussing the illness. Styron, so serious and morbid in his novels, joined in the fun and called his condition, "Number 9 on the Richter scale". He was furious when Buchwald accidentally ran over a row of corn planted on his driveway and accused him of being a serial corn killer! Next morning, the humorist sneaked into Styron's property and put up a sign, "Beware of Vicious corn!" They remained friends till the end and Buchwald wrote in his column, "All I can wish is that you read his books, and all I can hope is that future generations will discover that he was one of the best writers of our times."