josh rosner

Posts Tagged ‘Alexandra Styron’

READING MY FATHER

In Book Review on June 15, 2011 at 6:36 am

I recently reviewed Alexandra Styron’s book about growing up as the youngest daughter of a famous writer, in a house frequently visited by famous actors, artists and writers. It’s a difficult, yet fascinating, read. Difficult because Styron seems unable to successfully reconcile her anger towards a distant, alcoholic, depressive father. Fascinating because Reading My Father is an otherwise unobtainable insight into the private life of a famous writer. At times I felt too much on the inside of the Styron’s lives.

William Styron wrote one of the most famous books about the debilitating effects of depression. Darkness Visible is a book I’ve recommended or gifted to everyone I have ever known who has suffered from deep depression. In William Styron’s case, it frequently got so bad that he was hospitalised by his long-suffering, yet long-supportive wife, Rose. Yet despite the difficulty of publicly discussing his illness, William Styron does so with a disarming honesty.

His daughter is an excellent writer herself. For the writing, it is worth taking a look at. If you are a fan of William Styron, it is worth taking a look at. But I have a theory about reading and learning too much about people I really admire. And that is, that the writer’s writing becomes somehow tainted the more we learn about them and their writing. It has begun to happen with David Foster Wallace since his death. As more is written about him and his experience with depression and its influence on his writing, the more it changes the meaning of his words. And that is irreversible.

Nonetheless, I highly recommend Styron’s book about her father. But, read it aware of the risks involved.

Reading My Father. By Alexandra Styron. Scribner. 289pp. $35.00

I’m not impressed by, or in any way attracted to, celebrity. But if pressed to name a famous writer I wish I had met before he died, it is Bill Styron, the incomparable author of classics like Sophie’s Choice and Lie Down in Darkness.

I came to Styron late. The first of his books I read was Darkness Visible, and then only a few years ago. It had been recommended to me as the perfect non-clinical book on depression. Styron’s traumatic telling of his struggles with depression is the most difficult, yet rewarding, of all his books.

After Darkness Visible I was hooked; a confirmed Styron fan. I made my way through his back catalogue, impressed, intrigued and delighted. Styron’s collection of personal essays, Havanas in Camelot, is a favourite I have returned to many times.

As often occurs when we have no other perspective from which to draw, we create an image of the writer based on his or her words on paper (or on a screen, if you are a post-modern reader like me). I always imagined William Styron to be someone who strutted about like a cowboy, complete with Stetson, but who occasionally revealed his tender side when the time called for it. A kind of John Wayne of the literary world. False illusions are quickly shattered once a posthumous biography is published.

William Styron’s youngest daughter, Alexandra – herself a novelist – has done a fine job of shattering the finally crafted image I had created in my mind of William Styron.

“The novel,” Styron’s daughter writes, “owned his heart.” And with that observation, Styron has her theme. Her father achieved fame as a novelist early in his life. He was heralded as a wunderkind when his first novel, Lie down in Darkness, was published in 1952 when he was 26 years old. But he was also a perfectionist – in his 81 years he published only 4 full-length novels – an alcoholic and prone to debilitating bouts of depression that left him hospitalised.

He was, by his daughter’s account, a difficult man to live with. But what writer isn’t? Certainly this reviewer has raged at the bitter absence of his muse, certain the words would never come again. Writers can be moody, solitary, arrogant and aloof. William Styron had these attributes in plentiful supply.

I’m always skeptical when a family member of a famous person writes a ‘tell-all’ in the guise of a serious biography in which they rail against their now dead relative’s proclivity to get drunk, to womanise, or to completely ignore the existence of said family member. One should approach Reading My Father with the same skepticism.

Although Styron details her childhood experiences alongside those of her siblings, her story is – obviously, and by necessity – a highly biased version of history. She does not reveal whether her brother and two sisters shared the same sense of domination and abandonment that was Styron’s experience growing up as the child of a famous, yet deeply troubled, writer.

Styron doesn’t ask the question outright, but Reading My Father is obviously a search for the answer to one incredibly difficult question: did my father love me?

Styron’s childhood was dominated by her father in two central ways. First, she felt a sense of abandonment because of the inordinately long hours he spent holed up in his study writing, and second, the Styron family’s cohesion was dominated by her father’s depression.

“Did my Father’s depression steal his creative gift? Or was it the other way around, an estrangement from his muse driving him down in increments till he hit rock bottom?” Styron ponders.  In her search for answers she interviews his closest friends and trawls through his archival material, now housed at Duke University.

Unfortunately for Styron, there are no answers. Only speculation. She clearly loves her father, as any child would their parent, but Reading My Father reveals a daughter’s struggle to understand her father and her attempts, perhaps unfulfilled, to like him.

When her father’s depression descends into madness and his wife admits him to a psychiatric hospital, Styron joins her siblings sitting by his bed, reading to him. But, she tells us, she didn’t do it for him, “but for the good of the collective.”

As death finally calls her father – he died of pneumonia in 2006 – Styron attempts to make peace with the man she felt had often ignored her as a child. Her account of his final days is deeply moving and only the hardest heart will not be touched by William Styron’s final hour as his wife and children “coached him on toward a death that just couldn’t be forestalled any longer.”

Alexandra Styron may have shattered the hero-image I once held of her father, but in many ways I am thankful for that. Reading My Father depicts a man who was highly brilliant, yet deeply flawed. In other words, like you and me, less of the heroic and more of the human. Not a bad way to be.

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