Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What I'm Reading: Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron

To be a truly great artist, or performer, or athlete, to maximize your potential, to drain every last drop of talent from your being, your chosen vocation must come first, before all else - love, family, health, money. Your 'career'  must be the singular love of your life. Anything else is mere dressing. I've long believed this. Art  of the highest order demands not only inordinate sacrifice, but unreasonable selfishness. It's why so many people who operate at the highest altitudes of their craft leave behind them trails of destruction in their personal lives. I don't mean to over romanticize it, 'the artist's way.' But the number of healthy, happy families borne of the very greatest artists are few. If you have examples, I'd be curious to hear them (I was about to suggest Nabakov, and his wife Vera, as an example. But then I thought of the unavoidable strain of paedophilia that runs throughout his work, which at a certain point, has to elicit suspicion). 

Alexandra Styron's memoir of living with a difficult father tells of an unhappy relationship, but does so in a clear-sighted way that is far from vengeful, as some such memoirs tend to be. It's a book that doesn't propose to have all the answers - clearly, it's an exploration, a search for the man her father was, and answers as to why he proved so difficult and ugly, even before he crashed hard on the obliterating rocks of depression. In some ways, the book represents a daughter's journey in trying to find a way to love her father, in spite of the havoc he reeked upon his family. An understated detail towards the end of the book suggests that Alexandra, the youngest of Styron's children, reconciled a complicated love for her father with all the feelings of hate she grew up with, even into adulthood: she named her first born William, after her father.

One more thing. The book mentions that Styron's books have never been received in England with the same praise they've received in the States. One reason suggested here is that Styron's Southern voice is too florid for English tastes. I find this interesting, only because of my reaction to Sophie's Choice when I read it a few years ago...that despite the beauty and sorrow of the books denouement, as a whole, it read overly sentimentalized to me. I wasn't always comfortable with the prose. My Englishness, perhaps?

No comments: