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  • Rome to Ravello with Set This House on Fire
  • Gavin Cologne-Brookes (bio)

More than half a century after its publication William Styron’s Set This House on Fire (1960) retains the power to fascinate its readers. It is his least successful, least integrated work, and had he not already produced Lie Down in Darkness (1951), and gone on to write The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Sophie’s Choice (1979), as well as a memoir on his clinical depression, Darkness Visible (1990)—it might now be forgotten.

It has, to use Louis Rubin’s phrase, “a grievous structural flaw”: the same story is recounted twice but with little new revelation the second time around. The primary narrator is the Eisenhower-era attorney Peter Leverett. He recounts what he knows about the murders of his old school-friend, the wealthy playboy Mason Flagg, and his Italian servant, Francesca, on the very night that Peter arrives from Rome to visit him in the hilltop Amalfi coastal town of Ravello (known as “Sambuco” in the novel). In particular, Peter recounts witnessing Mason’s humiliation of Cass Kinsolving, an alcoholic painter with a long-suffering wife and small children. For much of the novel’s second half Peter cedes the narrative to Cass, and we learn that this semiliterate, self-absorbed man has helped Francesca, with whom he is romantically involved, steal medicine from Mason to give to her dying father. Believing Mason to be responsible for her rape and death (the perpetrator is in fact a local named Saverio), Cass murders Mason. Contrived though this twice-told tale is, Styron’s awkward experiments with viewpoint proved to be a dry run for the assured shifts of perspective in Sophie’s Choice. Moreover Set This House on Fire still contains enough good material for Styron’s fellow novelist Michael Mewshaw to write in his memoir, Do I Owe You Something? (2003), that it left him hoping to meet Styron and one day live in Italy. Even in this problematic work Styron knew how to captivate a reader through evocation of personality and place. Having written about visits to Styron’s other settings in Rereading William Styron (2014), I traveled to Rome and Ravello to find what further insights I might glean about Styron and his work.

Many years have passed since our friendship ended with the onset of what Styron’s daughter, Alexandra, described at the memorial service as his “epic, wretched descent” into terminal decline. Many more years have passed since I discovered Set This House on Fire, but I still feel a personal connection to it. The novel was the subject of my first publication, and during my research I found that the New Statesman carried a review of it on the day I was born. I sent Styron the essay and explained that his novels were [End Page 484] the subject of my doctoral thesis. He invited me to Connecticut. The thesis became The Novels of William Styron (1995), which contains an appendix of our conversations. He spoke of Set This House on Fire as transitional, in that he was trying to write another big book without being sure of his subject matter.

Lie Down in Darkness had brought him both personal and professional rewards, including his first encounter with Rose Burgunder, who would become his wife of more than fifty years, and the Prix de Rome, which involved a sabbatical in the Eternal City and, coincidentally, a reunion with Rose. By 1954, when he began Set This House on Fire, they were raising a family in the big house in Roxbury, Connecticut that, along with a summer place on Martha’s Vineyard, would be their home until his death in 2006. The novel, prize, and sojourn in Rome thus enabled him to follow Flaubert’s advice and be orderly in his habits like a bourgeois, in order to be revolutionary in his work.

With Lie Down in Darkness set in his Virginia Tidewater hometown of Newport News and adopted city of New York, it must have felt logical to mine his sojourns in Europe. The problem was that, after writing a first novel in which he had articulated...