Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lie Down in Darkness

Southern literature is something I'm "into" right now, although I admit that I've always been "into" it. Faulkner and McCarthy rank as two of my most favourite authors. William Styron, who wrote Lie Down in Darkness when he was 25, has always been on my "to read" list. I thought I'd start with his first novel, often hailed as a masterpiece of modernism and Southern literature. But does it hold up?


Lie Down in Darkness covers only a couple hours in the lives of Milton and Helen Loftis, parents of the recently deceased Peyton, their beautiful daughter. During the present, Milton and Helen, in different cars, drive to the cemetery, and remember so vividly their lives. The bulk of the novel is reminisces , and trying to piece together their broken lives in fragments of memories.

This is a very depressing and sad novel, but full to the brim with ideas and concepts and images and motifs and Styron's immaculate sense of phrasing. The very first scene in the book is a train traveling in the Deep South, and Styron takes his time and paints a vivid portrait of the South. This is a very old fashioned style opening that suits an old fashioned novel.

While Lie Down in Darkness takes its theme from Anna Karenina's opening lines, it transposes them to the Southern novel architecture, with its oppressive heat and oppressive religiosity. The stakes in Southern novels are almost always life and death, trying to decide the ultimate fate of mankind. Styron takes that mindset and puts to an intimate family portrait, one of unhappiness and tragedy at the Classical level.

The whole novel culminates in the virtuoso first person inner monologue of Peyton, the hours before she commits suicide. It's an obvious nod to the Penelope sequence of Ulysses, but that doesn't detract from the emotion. Styron, who has carefully set up all these background motifs that aren't apparent in the beginning, executes this whole background set for Peyton, creating what seems like new imagery, but isn't. It's also painfully emotional and provides the title of the novel.

Lie Down in Darkness is a masterpiece. There's really not much else to say about it. I loved this book, even if it was sometimes a little hard due to Styron's modernist touches. That's all outweighed by Styron's poetic sensibilities and -much to my surprise- extremely well-crafted dialogue. I am super excited to read another Styron novel, and now I can fully understand why people were so agog about this.

[I can't remember exactly what his position on it was, but Richard Yates, my literary hero, had some very strong opinions on William Styron. He either hated Styron, or loved him (there was no middle ground for Dick), but either way, I get some strong echoes of Yates in this book.]

Next up for this particular reader is Pnin by Nabokov, which looks like a mercifully brief novel. I'm consistently thwarted by Nabokov save for Lolita, and I really want to read something else of his (Also on the docket is Nabokov's The Defense). I'm also looking at Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (not the greatest title, is it?) and more William Gay. Join me, will you?

2 comments:

Jessica said...

Hmmm never been into southern lit, but i feel like I should give it a try now. i love beautiful phrasing, and vivid mise-en-scene.
-jess
http://dysfunctionalbeginnings.com/

matthew. said...

The great thing about Southern lit is that everything is so vivid and epic and all the stakes are so high. I'm not sure if I'd start with Styron, if I was going to try Southern lit. I'd go with "As I Lay Dying" a mostly accessible Faulkner novel that's flawless and amazing.