At the heart of “Reading My Father,” Alexandra Styron’s beautifully honest memoir of her father, William Styron, is her attempt to make sense of the discrepancy between his deeply moral novels, whose focus on man’s inhumanity to man elicits so much pathos, and his egregious behavior “to the people closest to him.” She notes that her father’s fourth and last novel, “Sophie’s Choice,” was published in 1979, 27 years before his death in 2006. It was followed by multiple breakdowns, the first of which yielded his remarkable 1990 account of madness, “Darkness Visible.” Pondering his horrific unraveling leads her to a chicken-and-egg question: “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?”
Alexandra Styron joins a pantheon of daughters who have written admiring but critical biographical memoirs about their famous writer fathers. These include Susan Cheever’s “Home Before Dark” (1984), indispensable for John Cheever scholars with its bold confrontation of his alcoholism and long-hidden bisexuality; and Janna Malamud Smith’s “My Father Is a Book” (2006), which, in attempting to resurrect Bernard Malamud’s literary standing, addresses the uncomfortable, “sometimes creepy familiarity” experienced when reading a parent’s autobiographically based fiction. Coming this summer is Erica Heller’s “Yossarian Slept Here,” about her father, Joseph Heller, best known for his novel “Catch-22.”
While Malamud Smith waited nearly two decades after her father’s death to write about him, Styron, like Susan Cheever, wasted no time in addressing her mixed feelings about the man around whom her family performed a delicate dance. Her obliquely autobiographical first novel, “All the Finest Girls,” published in 2001, was a furious, hauntingly grim tale about a seriously dysfunctional, “love handicapped” family. She’s softened somewhat in the decade since, and her supremely apt epigraph from Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck” puts us on notice that “Reading My Father” will attempt to look at both sides now: “I came to see the damage that was done/ And the treasures that prevail.”
Born in 1966, Claire Alexandra Styron is the youngest of William Styron’s four children by a wide margin. Because her siblings left their Roxbury, Conn., home for boarding school and college when she was still young, she had little buffer for the worst of her father’s difficult personality and her parents’ marriage, with its “epic” discord.
“I was deeply attached to my identification as William Styron’s daughter,” she confesses. She clearly enjoyed association with her parents’ glittering circle of friends, which included Arthur Miller, Teddy Kennedy, Lillian Hellman, Mia Farrow, Peter Matthiessen and Leonard Bernstein and his family. But there were downsides: “melancholy when he was sober and rageful when in his cups, he inspired fear and loathing in us a good deal more often than it feels comfortable to admit.”
Although she and her father shared a dark sense of humor, she was terrified by his unpredictable, flammable temper, which might erupt over something as minor as a pencil with no point. Among the adjectives she marshals to describe “The Great Man at home” are transgressive, curmudgeonly, outrageous, tempestuous, querulous, taciturn, cutting and remote.
Christmas was a particularly fraught time. Fiercely disapproving of his independently wealthy wife’s “runaway consumerism,” Styron often deliberately slept through the family’s festivities. One of the saddest sentences in this book is: “Of all the joys of Christmas morning, surely the greatest was that my father was never a part of it.”
Young Styron’s reaction to her father’s combustibility was to retreat into television-watching and horseback-riding. Her congenitally cheery, energetic mother, Rose Burgunder Styron, escaped “the tinderbox her marriage had become” by traveling constantly for various causes — which meant she often wasn’t with her daughter.
Styron eschews chronology, opening with her father’s funeral near their beloved Martha’s Vineyard house and a quick summary of his career highlights, beginning with his enormously successful first novel, “Lie Down in Darkness,” published in 1951, when he was 26. She then vaults to 2008, when, amid the 22,500 items in the Styron collection at Duke University, his alma mater, she found herself transfixed by a jumble of unfinished manuscripts, including an epic war novel that he struggled with unsuccessfully for decades — graphic evidence of his literary frustration.
Zigzagging through time with the finesse of a skier attacking a mogul-ridden slope, Alexandra Styron gives us a multi-dimensional, continually fascinating portrait of William Styron’s life, from his roots in Tidewater Virginia to his membership in the club of “Big Male Writers” that “perpetuated, without apology, the cliche of the gifted, hard-drinking, bellicose writer that gave so much of twentieth century literature a muscular, glamorous aura.” Far less glamorous, of course, were his behavior to his family and his long, torturous decline. Demonstrating some of his bite, his daughter in the end grants him this much about his embattled life: “It was a great yarn, Daddy. Furiously told. . . . A war story, after all.”
By Alexandra Styron
Scribner. 285 pp. $25