William Styron's 'Darkness,' Dimmed by Age

William Styron in 1952, a year after
William Styron in 1952, a year after "Lie Down in Darkness," his first novel, was published. (Associated Press)
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Friday, March 21, 2008

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

To me the biggest surprise about this series, which has run for five years and covered about 75 books, is how unsurprised I have been by what I found the second time around. A couple of books that were immensely popular in their day -- Edna Ferber's "Giant," Philip Wylie's "Generation of Vipers" -- turned out to have weathered the years poorly, but other books that I remembered fondly for literary and other merits revealed themselves, on second reading, to be as good as I remembered them, in some cases even better. I have had no significant disappointments.

Until now. Reading William Styron's "Lie Down in Darkness" 40 years ago, I was swept away. Over the ensuing years I read all of Styron's other work, reviewed much of it, and held it in high esteem, especially his celebrated novel "Sophie's Choice" and "Darkness Visible," his harrowing memoir of depression. Yet through all those years I believed that "Lie Down in Darkness," his first book, remained his best. I regarded it as a monument of American fiction, cut out of Faulknerian cloth, to be sure, but a monument all the same. Now, though, I realize that the tone of the novel is relentlessly downbeat and that it is far more derivative than I had first understood.

I first read "Lie Down in Darkness" when I was 28, only a few years older than Peyton Loftis, the beautiful, spoiled and troubled young woman whose suicide is the event at the center of the novel. I remember responding ardently to the devastating scene in which her father, Milton Loftis, wanders drunkenly through a football weekend at the University of Virginia, a "nightmare" that struck me, not so long removed from four years at Chapel Hill, as entirely, breathtakingly real. I thought that the collapse of the Loftis family was tragic, not in the glib American sense but in the profound terms of the ancient Greeks.

I was scarcely the only person to have been captivated by the novel. A few weeks ago a reader of this newspaper, noting that Styron's book was to be discussed in this series, reported that when he was younger he had been "mesmerized" by it. In the late 1970s I had dinner with a young writer who was eager to talk about the novel. From memory, he recited in full the long quotation from Sir Thomas Browne's "Urn Burial" that Styron took as his epigraph, and then went on and on about his passion for the book.

When "Lie Down in Darkness" was published in 1951, most reviewers felt the same. It was treated not merely as a serious and substantial work of literature, but as something of a phenomenon: Styron at the time was a mere 26 years old. Himself a Virginian, he had joined the Marines as World War II was ending and returned to enroll at Duke University and study under its legendary teacher of writing, William Blackburn. After college Styron worked as an editor at the New York publishing firm McGraw-Hill, a job he hated with a passion, an experience he describes with great wit in the opening pages of "Sophie's Choice." After he was fired, he spent three years writing "Lie Down in Darkness," which was awarded the Prix de Rome by the American Academy in Rome. He was off on a career that included only six other books; he was a slow writer and sometimes was derailed by depression. He won just about all the major prizes except the Nobel and had, in "Sophie's Choice" and "The Confessions of Nat Turner," two national bestsellers. He died in 2006 at the age of 81.

His first novel still offers much to admire. As readers of "The Confessions of Nat Turner" will recall, Styron had an extraordinary, visceral kinship with Tidewater Virginia, and wrote about its bleak yet beautiful landscape with great power. His prose had not yet achieved in 1951 the suppleness and force of "Sophie's Choice" in 1979, but at moments it achieves real beauty and in a few -- too few -- wit shines through. Here, for example, the Tidewater gentry reacts to gossip about Milton Loftis and his mistress, Dolly Bonner:

"Hell, they'd say in the country club locker room, you know how Milt's getting his. Everybody knew, bearing testimony to the fact that suburban vice, like a peeling nose, is almost impossible to conceal. It went all over town, this talk, like a swarm of bees, settling down lazily on polite afternoon sun porches to rise once more and settle down again with a busy murmur among cautious ladylike foursomes on the golf course, buzzing pleasurably there amid ladylike whacks of the golf ball and cautious pullings-down of panties which bound too tightly. Everybody knew about their affair and everybody talked about it, and because of some haunting inborn squeamishness it would not have relieved Loftis to know that nobody particularly cared."

Loftis is in his early 50s, married to Helen, with whom he has had two daughters. A lawyer, he has abandoned his youthful political ambitions in favor of the solace of drink. His elder daughter, Maudie, was a cripple who died at the university hospital in Charlottesville, after her father's terrible long weekend there, leaving Helen bereft and bitter. Peyton, who is in her late teens when Maudie dies, is stunningly beautiful and obviously intelligent, but her doting father -- on his side their relationship has strong sexual undertones, and probably on hers as well -- has spoiled her so thoroughly that she expects all of life's pleasures and rewards to come her way without any effort on her part, merely as her due; precisely what anyone sees in her beyond her beauty is never made clear.

The Loftis marriage is a wreck. Early in the novel Milton is caught up in a "surge of anger and futility [that] rose up in his chest -- and sudden shame, too, shame at the fact that their life together, which had begun, as most marriages do, with such jaunty good humor and confidence, had come to this footlessness, this confusion," but things only get worse as the story unfolds. "Sober," Milton "feared Helen; for what seemed ages he had lived with her not so much in a state of matrimony as in a state of gentle irritation, together like the negative poles of a magnet, gradually but firmly repelling each other." In time "gentle irritation" descends into something very like hatred. For a time Helen takes her troubles to a kindly, well-intentioned Episcopal minister, who tries to help but finds himself sucked into a place he'd rather not be:

"And he thought briefly about madness, and this family, which had succeeded -- almost effortlessly, it seemed -- in destroying itself, and he became so overwhelmed by melancholy that his stomach rumbled and his hands and wrists became limp and trembled on the steering wheel. He thought of the wild evening after Maudie's funeral when, with Peyton absent and Loftis, he supposed, hiding upstairs, Helen had told him that everything was finished, there was no God, no anything, behold (with a nod upstairs toward Loftis, and which included, he gathered, Peyton too) this breed of monsters. God, what words she had used! . . . Who was to blame? Mad or not, Helen had been beastly. She had granted to Loftis, in her peculiarly unremitting way, no forgiveness or understanding, and above all she had been beastly to Peyton. Yet Loftis himself had been no choice soul; and who finally, lest it be God himself, could know where the circle, composed as it was of such tragic suspicions and misunderstandings, began, and where it ended?"

Unquestionably, that passage has intensity, power and intelligence. No doubt many readers will find it, as I did four decades ago, deeply moving, haunting. Yet now it mainly strikes me as lugubrious, and so does too much of the rest of the novel. By the 1970s, when he was writing "Sophie's Choice," Styron had come to understand that catastrophe and/or tragedy must be alleviated (and thus in a way illuminated) by humor, but in his mid-20s he had yet to learn that lesson. The passage quoted above about the Tidewater gossips is the exception rather than the rule in "Lie Down in Darkness." Setting out to write the story of a family doomed by its inability to love, he became so bogged down in the agony of it all -- as Peyton ruminates, "everywhere I turn I seem to walk deeper and deeper into some terrible despair" -- that he ended up writing a 400-page dirge that ultimately is far more stifling than enriching.

The book suffers from other problems. Set as it is in Virginia during and immediately after World War II, it employs the racial language and stereotypes of its time and place, as do many other books reconsidered in this series. Today's reader will be startled and probably offended by its frequent use of the most common racial slur, not merely in conversation but as a descriptive adjective. Beyond that, the novel's closing scene, in which the jubilation of black worshipers is clearly meant to provide noble and uplifting contrast with the cynicism and desolation of the Loftis family, is sentimental and patronizing. It does not withstand comparison with the scenes in Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" in which the quiet dignity of the black servant Dilsey is juxtaposed against the self-destructiveness of the white Compson family.

Styron always insisted that he was not influenced by Faulkner in writing "Lie Down in Darkness," but in fact the influence is self-evident: in the closing account of the worshipers, in Peyton's long interior monologue (which also shows much evidence of the Molly Bloom soliloquy in James Joyce's "Ulysses"), in the rich, at times overripe prose, in the story itself, which bears more than passing resemblance to the story of the Compsons.

There's nothing wrong with influence: All writers are touched by it and many benefit from it, just as do all other creative artists. But apart from its almost funereal tone, what now strikes me most emphatically about "Lie Down in Darkness" is its sheer derivativeness. That William Styron was, as a young man, a supremely gifted writer, is beyond question, but he had yet to become his own man.

"Lie Down in Darkness" is available in a Vintage International paperback ($14.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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