I have just finished the prolonged process of reading a fascinating novel, Set This House on Fire, by the southern American writer William Styron. The novel was published in 1960, was Styron’s second major work, and although not a great success in the United States, either with the critics or the public, on publication in France it far outsold the American edition, and was regarded as a masterpiece, to which accolade I think it is entitled.
Certainly it is a remarkable piece of writing, containing many long scenes that one simply cannot put down, although it does recall the truth of Styron’s own dictum that “the good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis”.
The book is heavy, and in places a tough read, in that it deals with some terrible --- one might say, evil --- people, and describes the dissolution of several characters with such a plethora of detail that it has a slightly miasmic effect on the reader from time to time. It was excoriated by some American critics for its slow pace, and they might have added that it has a tendency to repeat events, although usually as seen by different eyes. But none of this diminishes from the fact that it is a triumph of literary elegance, of a complexity that few writers have ever been able to match.
As someone who has made his living by writing words for 65 years, I am completely in awe of the elegance and power of Styron’s mastery of the English language, and I can recommend this book to anyone like myself who loves the language.
The subject of the book is a group of American expatriates in Italy, and their awful behaviour. The narrator is one Peter Leverett, who visits an old acquaintance, Mason Flagg, with whom he went to school, and finds him in residence in a declining castle in a village south of Naples. Flagg was always a spoiled, charismatic, and prating brat, who came into an inheritance of two million dollars which he has used to sustain a wild, amoral lifestyle. Also resident in the castle Leverett finds a rich cast, including a crew shooting a Hollywood film, Flagg’s wife, mistress and assorted girl-friends, and a man called Cass Kinsolving, a degenerate artist, or pseudo-artist who has failed to produce any work for many years because of his determination to turn alcoholism into an art-form that has destroyed him. Although friendly and attractive, Flagg has moments of pure evil, and he has reduced the artist, who also has dragged along his long-suffering wife and band of children --- the wife alone, a forgiving God-loving, fragile woman, is a major literary creation --- to pathetic, disgusting exhibitions of abasement after reducing him to an alcohol stupor.
But these descriptions of terrible events are interspersed throughout the novel by magical passages of wise, inspiring and even funny prose. Here is an example, a description of the United States that is as true today, apparently, as it was when written half a century ago: "What this country needs... what this great land of ours needs is something to happen to it. Something ferocious and tragic, like what happened to Jericho or the cities of the plain - something terrible I mean, son, so that when the people have been through hellfire and the crucible, and have suffered agony enough and grief, they’ll be people again, human beings, not a bunch of smug contented cows rooting at the trough."
It is understood early in the book that its events revolve mostly around the death of Flagg, and the second part is narrated by the artist, describing at length the process of his drunken dissolution, and explaining how he came to murder his friend in revenge for his having raped and killed a beautiful peasant girl who acted as their servant. It turns out that Flagg was not guilty of the murder, and the artist was absolved by the Italian police from responsibility for the death, but the details of Kinsolving’s self-destructive abuse have never been better --- of more achingly --- described.
Another mantra of Styron’s, apparently, was that “a great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted. You should live several lives while reading it.” The reading of this novel proves this contention. I have dipped into a couple of other novels during the few weeks I have spent reading this one, just for some relief, and there is no comparison between the intensity and depth of Styron’s writing, and the stuff to be found in most other novels. Persisting in it to the end was one of the better decisions I have made recently.