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REVIEW-ESSAY GAVIN COLOGNE-BROOKES Bath Spa University This Quiet Dust Swirls Back to Life I READ THE SIX HUNDRED PAGES OF MY GENERATION: COLLECTED Nonfiction during a visit to Bucharest. Sitting each evening in an Old Town café I’d have appeared solitary and still. In fact I was all over the world,enjoyingtheeloquentcompanionshipofWilliamStyron,essayist. I’d glance up from my whiskey sours at the chiaroscuro of the reclaimed buildings and cobbled streets yet also see other times and other places. Skillfully edited by James L. W. West III, My Generation provides a constantly entertaining, provocative mental journey. Styron was fond of saying that he valued being able in his novels to transport readers to another world, and he does so through rhythm, verbal acumen, and carefully placed information. Thanks to his mastery of the art of the essay, I found myself in the 1930s gazing through a classroom window at “one of the broadest estuaries of any river in America” and thinking back to the early seventeenth century, the voyage of Captain Smith and, in 1619, another ship lumbering upstream “with a different cargo to make the James the mother-river of negro slavery for the whole New World” (61). In Tidewater Virginia in the 1940s I experienced “an orgy of moviegoing” including “ten days when we viewed a total of sixteen” (9). I attended a Rhodes Scholarship interview in Atlanta, then got “gloriously drunk on the Southern Railway local that rattled its way all night up through the Carolinas, gazing out at the bleak, moon-drenched, wintry fields and happily pondering my deliverance” from having “to row for old Balliol” and write papers “on the hexameters of Arthur Hugh Clough.” Instead, I’d be “in New York, beginning my first novel” (24-26). But soon enough I was haunting a military urological ward with suspected syphilis, and found myself called up for war. In the 1950s I sojourned in Paris. In the 1960s I met President Kennedy, discussed race with James Baldwin, and attended William Faulkner’s funeral in Mississippi and the Democratic Convention in Chicago. In the 1970s I trudged the bone-fragmented paths of Auschwitz, thankful to leave before nightfall, and grew to understand the experience of clinical 320 Gavin Cologne-Brookes depression. In the 1980s I walked the Connecticut woods with a golden retriever and envisaged a trip down the Nile with Gustave Flaubert, Maxime du Camp, and Arthur Miller. In the nineties I slept well in Vineyard Haven and thought back on decades experienced in a matter of days. All this was thanks to a writer able to put words and observations together so appropriately that he becomes your guide and companion through times and places hitherto unknown. Styron was, as West writes, “primarily a novelist” (xix). The modernistinspired Lie Down in Darkness (1951) is not least extraordinary in that so young a writer could master the form with such verve. Set This House on Fire (1960) showed Styron’s willingness to experiment, and fail, in order to advance his art. The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) has proved to be more revolutionary and impactful than its author could have realized, instigating debates about race, history, identity, and the function and meaning of the historical and the biographical novel. But Styron’s most remarkable achievement, Sophie’s Choice (1979), is the true complement to this collection. With that novel he found a way to combine the art of the novel with the art of the essay. In telling the story of Sophie Zawistowska and her family in Kraków (or Cracow, as Styron refers to it in the novel) during the Second World War, and her 1947 New York summer with Nathan Landau and Styron’s fictionalized younger self, Stingo, Styron weaves between fiction and fact in the service of verisimilitude. My Generation shows, in turn, how Styron used his novelist’s skills in the service of the essay. No less than the novels, My Generation is a testament (exercisable both for good and ill, as Styron points out) to “the power of the written word” (283). Even discounting the extended passages of nonfiction in Sophie’s Choice, this volume is not, West...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 319-325
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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