If those artists who have any juice in them aren't usually loved by the establishment, it isn't that they are necessarily revolutionaries. It is simply that anyone so rawly aware of the present, the moment, also has a sense of the future and is, in fact, a bit of a prophet. And prophets terrify the guardians of the past.
When William Styron came out with "The Confessions of Nat Turner" it was 1967 and the Black Pride movement was at its height. Critics attacked him, editorial writers reviled hi, 10 black intellectuals tried to blow him out of the water in a concerted barrage.
For one thing, his slave hero was depicted as having a boyhood homosexual experience. More important, this Pulitzer-winning bestseller about a black man had been written by . . .a white.
Styron had his defenders, including his friend James Baldwin, the novelist, and psychiatrist Robert Coles, who said, "Styron has written words that will push hard at thousands and thousands of minds. He has awakened us, made us feel more and in that way given us a rather special glimmer of that elusive thing called history and that terribly concrete thing called race."
The point is, "Nat Turner" was ahead of its time. Read it now, and it rings true in a way that "Roots" rarely does. It makes one realize with a shock how much the consciousness of the white, however liberal (especially the liberal, some would say) needed raising only a decade ago.
At that, the book had been germinating 12 years. Had it come out much before '67, chances are it would have been so unfashionable as not to be paid attention to. Luckily for us, William Styron is a slow writer.
So. The slow writer has a new book. It will be published June 11, his 54th birthday. It is called "Sophie's Choice," and it is about Auschwitz.
This time the trend has already begun: The book lists are full of new works about the Holocaust, the television series is upsetting German audiences, Hollywood is turning out fantasies about Dr. Mengele as though the facts weren't horrifying enough.
Styron was still ahead of the pack, though. He started the book in 1974.
"I had a dream, curiously enough," he said, lounging in the airy, beam - ceilinged, woodsmoke - smelling room overlooking his New England hillside. "I'm been writing a book about the Marine Corps in Korea since 1969, and I'd even had an excerpt in Esquire, but I just couldn't get the momentum going. Then I had this dream about a girl I remembered from my days in Brooklyn in '47".
Her name was Sophie, and she was beautiful, and she lived with a man in the same rooming house as the young Styron, then a reader at McGraw-Hill. And she had an Auschwitz tattoo on her arm.
That was enough for the novelist. He started writing the same day he had the dream, laboriously, in longhand on yellow paper. He fills about three pages a day, struggling over every elusive adjective and ungainly phrase. ("Lots of destruction," he says.)
He rarely rewrites, though he edits considerably. The work comes off the yellow page so complete that it can be excerpted long before the book is ready. A section from "Sophie's Choice" - the hilarious account of the young narrator's attempt to seduce an American Princess - appeared in Esquire three years ago.
"I worked at a fast pace for several weeks. Didn't even tell my editor or anything, I finished the first chapters as you read them. Then I decided there was one thing missing, and I had to go to Poland, to Auschwitz."
Without further ado, he flew to Europe (he hates to fly, but does), spent an afternoon at the death camp. It was all he needed for his grimly detailed descriptions of the place.
He doesn't believe in the kind of research that makes some novels read like Baedekers, but Styron's Auschwitz has the smell and the dankness and the frightening ugliness that one remembers even today from newsreels.
"I had a strategy," he said. "I wanted to get the reader involved totally in the reality of the camps. I began in the first person and brought up the camps very gradually so that when I actually got to the descriptions of them the reader would trust me."
From the beginning he realized that he would have to tell the story through an outsider, indirectly, "because you need a sense of distance in dealing with horror. In so many war novels the description of insults to the flesh finally becomes numbing and repetitious. It loses reality rather than gains it. It's just a recap of what we already know went on there."
He also decided to make Sophie a Polish Catholic, not a Jew.
"I haven't minimized the Jewish part of the Holocaust. But I knew that if I'dmake Sophie Jewish I would have lost the reader. We're had so much about the Jewish tragedy. The fact is, the Holocaust was a human tragedy. It involved the whole human race."
Reading about the camps, he came to understand that they were not simply extermination depots but a whole separate form of human society based on total domination. The extermination facilities, after all, were built long alter the original network of slave labor camps was established.
Curious. "Nat Turner" was about slavery too.
"It wasn't the same, though. It was an institution here, but it wasn't stated government policy the way it was in Nazi Germany. I don't know, there's something in me that gets outraged at domination and power. It's a rebelliousness, a reaction to authority. To some extent it's the same with military service, though I don't feel the same moral thing about military authority at all."
"Sophie's Choice" is about domination and slavery. It is about the Jewish tragedy (though as Styron notes, most of those tattooed survivors, especially the thousands in eastern Europe, are not Jews, since the Jews usually didn't survive).
Above all, the novel is about the long arm of death, reaching seductively through time to embrace still another victim.
"I expected some reaction from Jews," remarked Styron, "but when I had a close friend who is Jewish read the book, he said the people who might react won't be Jews, but certain feminists. I might get some flak about Sophie's character. Of course, I'm not holding her up as a paragon of womanhood. She's an individual, and this is what happened to her. If she's not exemplary, what can you do about it? It's not my fault."
His friends may call him something of a male chauvinist, but still: He's been married 26 years, has four children, and when you see him with his wife Rose you sense the casual solidarity ofa long - enduring bond.
If the household revolves around him - his hours, his work space, his friends - it is because Rose arranges it that way. "He'd be helpless without her," a friend said.
His life, in turn, revolves around his work. A later starter, he writes in the afternoons, agonizing through his daily 1,000 words ("I feel morally obliged to write every day; it's not a physical compulsion but it's painful, it's pain every inch of the way"). The yellow sheets are Xeroxed before going to a local typist. Then they're stored in a safe deposit box while the typescript goes to the agent in batches.
Even at the Styron summer place in Vineyard Haven on Martha's Vineyard, a beautiful house with lawns sloping down to the water, the writer has a windowless shack at the back where he works every day.
Writing: He never gets away from it. If it's not a novel or a book review or the editing job for Paris Review or the editorial board of The American Scholar, then it's the film project he has been working on with his crony John Marquand, a satirical version of the Snyder-Gray murder case that has picked up $60,000 in options but never was actually filmed.
Rose is a published poet and translator, an editor, a nonfiction writer specializing in Amnesty International.
By no means reclusive, the Styrons nevertheless shy away from the iterary social scene, occasionally driving to New York for a dinner party or dashing off to the Hamptons for a visit. Everything, it seems, is peripheral to his work.
You see it in the house itself, with its stacks and shelves and whole walls of books, the presentation copies of "Sophie" piled on a chair, the "Sophie" cushion on a sofa, the Paris Review posters, the books on Poland, on the death camps, on the American South. (He spent his boyhood, by the way, in Nat Turner territory in Virginia.)
The house, a sprawling yellow classic Colonial, is a few decades short of two centuries old, not old at all for Roxbury, where the local cemetery is full of Warners, Crofuts and Thomases who fought in the Revolution.
'I've sunk my roots here, I love it. I used to say I was going to inherit a peanut farm (as does the narrator in "Sophie," who was also a publishing house reader) and became Southern whiskey gentry, but that was all a romantic fancy. I have no uncle with a peanut farm. But I still like the idea of farming."
What next? After a quick trip to Europe, he wants to get back to his Marine Corps novel.
"It still fascinates me. I'm exploring a certain kind of military mind, the intellectual officer. I can't damn the military out of hand like a lot of people. There have been some very good people in the service, in my experience [Marine Corps, World War II, Korea 1951] on many levels. It's an attempt to really examine an idealistic military mind when it finds itself in a terrible bind over the meaning of war and killing and sacrifice."
He is two years into it already, is calling it "The Way of the Warrior." We may not see it for several more years. Can we expect that just about then liberal Americans will be deciding that their scorn of the military is no longer fashionable? CAPTION: Picture, William Styron: "There's something in me that gets outraged at domination and power."