Set this house on fire, p.65
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       Set This House on Fire, p.65

           William Styron

  “Luigi stopped talking for a moment. Then he said: ‘I am not a sentimental man, you must know that. I accuse myself constantly of being stiff and cold, of failing to engage myself in the same kind of life that engages others. It is not natural, really. Sometimes I think I must have the blood of a Dutchman or a Scotchman in me. I do not know. But you ask me why it is that I lied for you in the way I did, and I can only tell you this. I can just tell you that the only other time I wept since I was a child was sometime during that day when Francesca died, and when I realized what you had done, and what would be the consequences for you if you were caught and tried. And would you believe something, Cass? It was not for you that I wept, nor for Francesca, but without self-pity for myself—because I understood something. When I wept in this extraordinary way, which is so rare for me, I could not help but think again of my brother and the Englishwoman and then all that had happened here in Sambuco, and I wept out of my own understanding. And that understanding was that this existence itself is an imprisonment. Like that Englishwoman we are serving our sentences in solitary confinement, unable to speak. All of us. Once we were at least able to talk with our Jailer, but now even He has gone away, leaving us alone with the knowledge of insufferable loss. Like that woman, we can only leave notes to Him—unread notes, notes that mean nothing. I do not know why this has happened, but it has happened, that is our condition. In the meantime we do what we can. Some day perhaps the jails will be empty. Until then to confine any but the mad dogs among us is to compound that knowledge of insufferable loss with a blackness like the blackness of eternal night. I have seen prisons, they are the closest thing to hell on earth. And you are not a mad dog. I suppose I lied to try to save you from this kind of banishment. But I suspect that that is not all. I know you and your hideous sense of guilt too well. You are a damnable romantic from the north, the very worst kind. In jail you would wallow in your guilt. As I say, I did not wish to allow you that luxury. Do you see now why I lied for you, my friend?’

  “I lay there with that handcuff chewing at my wrist. He was wrenching at my very guts. I felt like I was being suffocated. I looked at him and finally I said: ‘Luigi, you are a very singular Fascist policeman.’ He got up and went to the window again and stood there, gazing out into the night. ‘Suppose I don’t go along with you?’ I said. ‘Suppose I go to Salerno anyway and hang us both? What would happen to you? And what would I get?’ He didn’t say anything for a while, then he said: ‘I would get the limit—many years. I would get more than you. I don’t know what you would get. Three years. Five. Maybe more, maybe nothing. After all, it might be said you had some provocation for what you did. But the jails are crowded. The bureaucracy. It would be months, years, before you even came to trial. Then who knows what you would get? You might get off with only the time you spent in detention—crime of passion. You might get twenty years. Justice in this country is insane as it is everywhere else. I read of a railway mail clerk in Verona, I think it was, who for defrauding the government of ten thousand lire received a sentence of fifteen years. On the other hand, in the south there was a man who killed his father-in-law with an ax and got twenty-one months. Possibly the father-in-law deserved it, and the railway clerk was a scoundrel, but it shows you how far we are from an idea of justice.’

  “He turned around and faced me and after a second he said: ‘For the sake of my own skin I do not think I would ever be so foolish as to do again what I have done. But now that I have done it, I believe that what I did was right. Is not my notion of justice as good as that of some judge who might not like your face and sentence you to five years? Ten years? I think true justice must always somehow live in the heart, locked away from politics and governments and even the law. Maybe it is a good thing I did not succeed in becoming a lawyer. I would have made a poor one. But now I have done what I think was right. And this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to unlock that manacle. Then you will be free to go. You may go to Salerno and implicate yourself—both of us. Or you may go free; you may leave here and go back to America, where you really belong. So I am going to strike off that manacle. Go to Salerno if you wish. Short of killing you, there is no way that I can stop you. But before you do, consider this. Consider a number of years in jail. It is more than a possibility. Think whether these years in jail, away from your family, will satisfy your guilt and your remorse in a way that is not satisfied by the remorse you will have to live with for the rest of your life. Then consider this, too, my friend. Simply consider your guilt itself—your other guilt, the abominable guilt you have carried with you so long, this sinful guilt which has made you a drunkard, and caused you to wallow in your self-pity, and made you fail in your art. Consider this guilt which has poisoned you to your roots. Ask what it was. Ask yourself whether it is not better to go free now, if only so that you may be able to strike down this other guilt of yours and learn to enjoy whatever there is left in life to enjoy. Because if by now, through what you have endured, you have not learned something, then five years, ten years, fifty years in jail will teach you nothing.‘ He came close to me. His face was shining with sweat. For the love of God, Cass,’ he said. ‘Consider the good in yourself! Consider hope! Consider joy!’ Then he stopped. ‘That is all I have to say. Now I am going to strike off that manacle.’ And he struck it off… .”

  “So as I told you, I came home in the dark with Luigi and I left him at the door of the palace and I went downstairs and sat there in the bedroom, looking out at the sea. Poppy was still asleep. It was close to dawn. On the gulf the fishing boats were coming in, these lights moving across the water like a crowd of stars adrift, and a pale glow the color of smoke came into the sky above Salerno and the coast sloping down toward Sicily. I could hear a dog barking, far off, and a cowbell clanking faintly somewhere against the hills. I thought of Francesca and Michele, and all that I had lost, and the grief came back in a wave, then it went away.

  “I thought of Mason, too, but nothing happened. I was past all rage now, and grief. If I had been branded by fire I wouldn’t have stirred, wouldn’t have moved.

  “Then you know, something as I sat there—something about the dawn made me think of America and how the light would come up slowly over the eastern coast, miles and miles of it, the Atlantic, and the inlets and bays and slow tideland rivers with houses on the shore, all shuttered and sleeping, and this stealthy light coming up over it all, the fish stakes at low tide and the ducks winging through the dawn and a kind of apple-green glow over the swamplands and the white beaches and the bays. I don’t believe it was just because of this at all, but all of a sudden I realized that the anxiety and the anguish—most of it, anyway—had passed. And I kept thinking of the new sun coming up over the Coast of Virginia and the Carolinas, and how it must have looked from those galleons, centuries ago, when after black night, dawn broke like a trumpet blast, and there it was, immense and green and glistening against the crashing seas. And suddenly I wanted more than anything in my life to go back there. And I knew I would go… .

  “After a while I heard the two older kids whispering in the other room. Presently I heard them creep down the stairs and outdoors into the garden, and I heard Poppy stir in the bed behind me, and now in this rising morning light I heard the children call out to each other, and I could see them playing some game which was more like a dance. I didn’t know what it was but there they were sort of strutting face to face and soundlessly clapping their hands together, like some vision of Papageno and Papagena, or something even more sweet, paradisaic, as if they were children not really of this earth but of some other, delectable morning before time and history. I watched them as if I were watching them for the first time in my life, or as in a dream.

  “Then I heard Poppy stir again and she rose up in bed and I heard her say, ‘Oh, Cass, you’ve come back!’ And I went over to her and sat down beside her and took her in my arms. I tried to say something apologetic, but I just couldn’t—then, at least. ‘I thought you would never come bac
k!’ she said. ‘I was worried frantic! Where have you been?’ Well, I told her some sort of lie, figuring that there’d be time enough to tell her later where I had been. I calmed her down. And we talked for a while and she asked me a lot of questions, then after a bit she got to yawning and she asked me what time it was, and she lay back against the pillow. ‘Well, as usual I don’t understand about you,’ she murmured as she drifted off, ‘but I’m very glad you’ve come back.’ So again I went over to the window and sat down.

  “Now I suppose I should tell you that through some sort of suffering I had reached grace, and how at that moment I knew it, but this would not be true, because at that moment I didn’t really know what I had reached or found. I wish I could tell you that I had found some belief, some rock, and that here on this rock anything might prevail—that here madness might become reason, and grief joy, and no yes. And even death itself death no longer, but a resurrection.

  “But to be truthful, you see, I can only tell you this: that as for being and nothingness, the one thing I did know was that to choose between them was simply to choose being, not for the sake of being, or even the love of being, much less the desire to be for- ever—but in the hope of being what I could be for a time. This would be an ecstasy. God knows, it would.

  “As for the rest, I had come back. And that for a while would do, that would suffice.”

  Charleston, S.C.

  November 3, 195-

  Dear Peter,

  Enjoyed your letter. Please excuse this card but am harried & overloaded. Charleston will never become the Florence of the New World Im afraid but the Sunday amateurs are keeping me busy & Im up to my ears in work. Also, another trauma. Overpopulation. Race-suicide. Poppy is having another baby next June & Ive been walking around Charleston like a wounded elephant, staggering with the usual pride & despair. Kinsey was distinctly wrong. A man doesnt even get started until he moves in toward il mezzo del cammin. Anyway will write more later but wanted to tell you how glad I am that N.Y. goes O.K. for you now. You didnt tell me her name but hope you will bring her down here some day. Who was it in Lear who said ripeness is all. I forget, but he was right.

  Buona fortuna,




  Order of the Daughters of Wisdom

  Via Alessandro Manzoni, 38


  16 December 195-

  Mr. P. C. Leverett

  30 West Eleventh Street

  New York 11, N.Y., U.S.A.

  Dear Mr. Leverett:

  Returning from a visit to my home in France, I found on my desk your nice letter with its customary cheque. I am sending this cheque back to you. We are, as usual, grateful for your kindness, but this time I must inform you that we are declining your gift, and for the most extraordinary and wonderful reason! God has been most merciful to Luciano di Lieto! In my absence, I was told, Luciano made an amazing recovery from the state of coma in which he has been languishing these many, many months. Sister Veronique, who was attending him at the time, tells me that at one moment Luciano was in the profoundest slumber when, like the Phoenix risen from the ashes of his own affliction, he sprang up in bed complaining loudly of a violent hunger. Upon examination it was discovered that the pressure upon his brain had alleviated itself. Luciano was pronounced well by Dr. Cipolla the examining physician. After two weeks of convalescence (during which he ate like a pig and cheerfully berated our Sisters for their inattention) he was sent home to Pompei fully recovered. I knew that this would be joyous news to you, and am hastening to send this message off to you so that you may share in the knowledge of such a wondrous miracle! God’s mercy is great!

  Thanking you again for all your help, I beg to remain, as ever,

  Sincerely Yours in Mary’s Immaculate Heart,

  Sister Marie-Joseph, D.W.

  Director of Nursing Care

  P.S. Since writing the above, I was informed by Sister Veronique that Luciano was readmitted to the hospital this very morning, suffering from a broken collar bone. He incurred the injury by falling down a flight of stairs in his home in Pompei. The durability of this young man is truly remarkable! I have just now come from seeing him, where he is sitting up in bed, cheerfully smiling and eating like a pig. He sends his felicitations to you, and tells me that he has become affianced. I do somewhat pity the girl but I do not doubt that, if she is at all like Luciano, it will be a match of long duration. He will live to bury us all.

  A Biography of William Styron

  William Styron was born on June 11, 1925, in Newport News, Virginia, to W.C. and Pauline Styron. He was one of the preeminent American authors of his generation. His works, which include the bestseller Sophie’s Choice (1979) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), garnered broad acclaim for their elegant prose and insights into human psychology. Styron’s fiction and nonfiction writings draw heavily from the events of his life, including his Southern upbringing, his mother’s death from cancer in 1939, his family history of slave ownership, and his experience as a United States marine.

  Growing up, Styron was an average student with a rebellious streak, but his unique literary talent was markedly apparent from a young age. After high school, he attended Davidson College in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a year in the reserve officer training program before transferring to Duke University, where he worked on his B.A. in literature. Styron was called up into the marines after just four terms at Duke, but World War II ended while he was in San Francisco awaiting deployment to the Pacific, just before the planned invasion of Japan. He then finished his studies and moved to New York City, taking a job in the editorial department of the publisher McGraw-Hill.

  W.C.’s recognition of his son’s potential was crucial to Styron’s development as a writer, especially as W.C., an engineer at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, provided financial support while his son wrote his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951). Published when Styron was twenty-six years old, Lie Down in Darkness was a critical and commercial success, and the culmination of years spent perfecting his manuscript. Shortly after the book’s publication, however, Styron was recalled to military service as a reservist during the Korean War. His experience at a training camp in North Carolina later became the source material for his anti-war novella The Long March (1953), which Norman Mailer proclaimed “as good an eighty pages as any American has written since the war, and I really think it’s much more than that.”

  Starting in 1952, after his service in the reserves, Styron lived in Europe for two years, where he was a founding member, with George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen, of The Paris Review. He also met and married his wife, Rose, with whom he went on to have four children. Styron’s second major novel, Set This House on Fire (1960), drew upon his time in Europe. He spent years preparing and writing the subsequent novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), which became his most celebrated—and most controversial—work. Published at the height of the civil rights movement, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize and was hailed as a complex and sympathetic portrait of Turner, though it was criticized by some who objected to a white author interpreting the thoughts and actions of the black leader of a slave revolt. Styron followed with another bestseller, Sophie’s Choice (1979), the winner of the 1980 National Book Award. The novel, which was made into an Academy Award-winning film of the same name, borrowed from Styron’s experience at McGraw-Hill as well as his interest in the psychological links between the Holocaust and American slavery.

  In 1982, Styron published his first compilation of essays, This Quiet Dust. Three years later he was beset by a deep clinical depression, which he wrote about in his acclaimed memoir Darkness Visible (1990). The book traces his journey from near-suicide to recovery. His next book, A Tidewater Morning (1993), was perhaps his most autobiographical work of fiction. It recalled three stories of the fictional Paul Whitehurst, one of which depicted Whitehurst’s mother’s
death when he was a young boy, an event that mirrored Pauline Styron’s death when Styron was thirteen years old. The book was Styron’s last major work of fiction. He spent the remainder of his life with Rose, writing letters and dividing his time between Roxbury, Connecticut, and Martha’s Vineyard. William Styron died of pneumonia on November 1, 2006.

  William Styron in 1926 at ten months old. He was an only child, born in a seaside hospital in Newport News, Virginia. As an adult, Styron would describe his childhood as happy, secure, and relatively uneventful.

  The Elizabeth Buxton Hospital in Newport News, Virginia, in 1927, two years after William Styron’s birth. Styron was born on the second floor, delivered by Dr. Joseph T. Buxton, whose daughter, Elizabeth, would become Styron’s stepmother in 1941.

  The house where Styron grew up, in Newport News, Virginia, and where he lived with his family from 1925 until he was fifteen. Styron’s youth in Newport News instilled in him a sense of the tangibility of history that would later form the bedrock of many of his novels.

  The photo from Styron’s sophomore-year high school yearbook, taken in 1939. He did poorly in school that year, earning mostly Cs and Ds and getting in trouble for disobedience. His father sent him to Christchurch boarding school in Virginia in 1940 to finish his last two years of high school, hoping the change would make Styron more focused and disciplined.

  As a youth, Styron worked at the Hilton Village Movie Theater in Newport News. It was in this theater that he first saw movies such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Grapes of Wrath, which sparked his lifelong interest in film. Today, the building, above, is home to the Peninsula Community Theatre, which presents musicals, dramas, and children’s plays.


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