Monday, November 17, 2008

William Styron - Set this house on fire

William Styron’s first novel, Lie down in darkness, published in 1951, examined Southern degeneracy in a world seemingly without values and approaching ruin. Partly because of this, critics initially considered Styron’s work to be typically Southern, in the tradition of Faulkner, whose experimentation with structure he imitates, and Robert Penn Warren, but as early as 1963, Louis Rubin was pointing out this was not the case. It was this misapprehension, Rubin, suggests, that led to the hostility with which Set this house on fire was received on publication: expecting a Southern novel, critics and readers reacted badly when it did not deliver.[1]

Nonetheless, there remains a distinctly Southern flavour to Set this house on fire. It is unmistakably about redemption and salvation, wrought from violence – a familiar Southern theme. Even though it is largely set in Italy, its focus remains Southern, and the novel speaks – not always approvingly – of the Southern outlook. Of the narrator’s father, for example, we are told: ‘To be [a liberal] in New York is childishly simple; to be one in the South surpasses all ordinary guts.’[2] And more than anything it is an examination of change, of that process of modernisation which was gripping America in the 1950s and which, for traditionalist Southerners, was as much a threat as an opportunity. We are told, for example:

Nothing in America remains fixed for long, but my old home town, Port Warwick, had grown vaster and more streamlined and clownish-looking than I thought a decent southern town could ever become.[3]


In America our landmarks and our boundaries merge, shift, and change quicker than we can tell: one day we feel rooted, and the carpet of our experience is a familiar thing upon which we securely stand. Then, as if by some conjuring trick, it is all yanked out from beneath us, and when we come down we alight upon – what?[4]

There is a sense here of juncture, of the past slipping away, and not into some form of Updike-like idyll, but into something more nervous, impermanent, lost. The narrator observes at one point:

Perhaps one of the reasons we Americans are so exceptionally nervous and driven is that our past is effaced almost before it is made present; in our search for old avatars to contemplate we find only ghosts, whispers, shadows: almost nothing remains for us to feel or see, or to absorb our longing.[5]

But in structure and tenor it is different from traditional Southern novels. Rather, it is typical of an example of the new approaches to American fiction which emerged throughout the fifties and into the early sixties, what Mailer called ‘American existentialism’, a mirror of the European fiction of Sartre and Kafka, Camus and Robbe-Grillet. Rather than traditional chronicles – the unfolding of a life in considered and chronological detail, fifties novels began to explicitly examine characters, and in particular their response to a particular event or crisis.

Set this house on fire was published in 1960, and is a densely written work which fuses Southern preoccupations with modern sensibilities. Peter Leverett, the narrator is drawn into events which he cannot control and does not understand. He is a conventional man – a self-confessed ‘square’ – out of his depth amongst friends who defy convention. Nonetheless, he doggedly tries to understand, and the novel follows him in the process of uncovering the series of events which led to the death, foretold at the start of the novel, of his friend, Mason Flagg.

Flagg is an extraordinary character, one of those enigmatic charmers whose flirtation with excess is not controlled by any sense of moral duty and consequently spirals out of control. As a child he rapes a girl and has incestuous feelings towards his mother; as an adult he develops a Sadean interest in degenerate sex. He is a pathological liar and seeks to control everything and everyone around him. His complex character is unfolded in the narrative as Leverett seeks to uncover the course of events which led to the rape and murder of a peasant girl, Francesca, in the Italian village of Sambuco – crimes which are assumed to have been committed by Flagg – and Flagg’s subsequent death, after his body is found at the foot of a cliff in what is presumed to be a suicide.

The second half of the novel, in which Leverett gradually makes sense of the story, centres on a third American, an artist called Cass Kinsolving; and indeed, although the narration is still effected through Leverett, it is largely Kinsolving’s thoughts which are shared, even to the extent that some of his diaries are embedded in the narrative.

It is to Styron’s credit that, in a story in which the core event – the murder of Francesca and subsequent death of Flagg – is told immediately, interest in the outcome is sustained until the end. Throughout, it is not entirely clear what happened and it is only in the last few pages that the truth is revealed. Unfortunately, that truth – that although Flagg did rape Francesca, it was the village idiot, Saverio, who subsequently murdered her – is not wholly satisfactory, or even plausible. Melvyn Friedman suggests it is a deliberate parody of detective novels, ‘almost a caricature of the straight, unpretentious murder mystery.’[6] That may be so – Styron is undoubtedly a stylist who likes to play with form – but this novel is more than a parody and, therefore, the unconvincing nature of its ending is unfortunate.

The second half of the novel focuses on Cass’s and Leverett’s search for the full truth about the past – each knows elements of it but not the whole. This search, however, is essentially a representation of their desire to understand about themselves: they are seekers of a greater truth. As the novel unfolds it becomes more and more Cass’s story, in which he seeks redemption and understanding. It finally emerges that Cass murdered Flagg, erroneously believing him to be the murderer of Francesca, with whom Cass was romantically engaged. Subsequently, he has become an alcoholic and is unable to do any painting. His marriage falls apart. He has fallen into an existential black hole of nothingness. Dan Via, in a religious interpretation of the novel, is clear that, throughout, Cass is in search of redemption, and he convincingly explains a number of occasions when false opportunities for redemption are offered to him.[7] Whether Cass’s crisis is religious in basis or existential is open to question but, whichever, it is not easily resolved. His sense of guilt remains – after all, he murdered Flagg on the false premise that he was responsible for Francesca’s death – and with it a sense of self-loathing which is all encompassing.

Redemption, when it comes, comes when he is finally allowed freedom from that self-loathing. Luigi, a policeman who knows the truth, could have revealed it to his superiors but chooses not to. He lies for Cass, thus putting himself in a highly dangerous position. You can confess, he tells Cass, and I will be ruined. That is your choice, and I leave you to make it. This act of kindness finally breaks through the barriers of self-hatred which Cass has built around himself and he finds equanimity. ‘And the blame is my own to bear,’ he says. Nonetheless, this is not a full-frontal epiphany. There is no glib moralising in this novel, and Cass is still left as a complicated, uncertain man. Evil remains in the world, we are being told, and each must seek an accommodation with it. That, indeed, may be the central message of this novel.

Talking of Set this house on fire in 1979, at the time of the publication of Sophie’s Choice, Styron made an intersting observation:

Let's face it- we're no longer innocent. Set This House on Fire, whatever value it had, was more or less an attempt (I see it retrospectively) at a description of the fact that Americans were evil in that particular case, not Europeans. I do think that what happened at Auschwitz [the subject matter of Sophie’s Choice] was a European thing, not an American thing. But we're not really innocent; now we have Viet Nam, and we're as dirty as the rest. You can stretch that Hawthorne- James thing about being innocent Americans a little too far.[8]

It is mildly anachronistic to talk of Vietnam in the case of Set this house on fire, as it was published in 1960, before Vietnam had escalated into the bloody conflict it would become by 1963, but that underlying sense of evil is strong throughout the novel, as is the struggle to contain it. Kinsolving says near the end:

“But to kill a man, even in hatred, even in revenge, is like an amputation. Though this man may have done you the foulest injustice in the world, when you have killed him you have removed a part of yourself forever.”[9]

In the end, he is reconciled that he has, in killing Flagg, stood up to evil and, while evil remains in the world, he is not, in himself evil. In his final speech, he says:

“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 forever – 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.”[10]

It is a moment of awakening, of release.

[References removed to prevent plagiarism. If you would like details of a particular reference, email me.]

1 comment:

Nina Rejon said...

I would like the reference sources for citation 6-8 please. Im writing an essay and would the full essay you cited from.