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Remembering William Styron: A Small Detail
Today’s NYT Book Review section contains a review of Alexandra Styron’s new biography of her father, William Styron, Reading My Father. The review reminded me of the enormous debt I owed to Styron.
In 1975, a book I authored, The Cunning of History, was published. It was almost completely ignored. To the best of my knowledge, no Jewish publication ever published a review.
During the academic year 1976-77, I was a post-doctoral Fellow at Yale’s National Humanities Institute and by the following year I had given up all hope for the book. My attitude was Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate. [Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.] At Yale, I became friendly with Peter Holroyd, then the chaplain of the Taft School. He invited me to speak at the school and told me that he had read The Cunning of History and had recommended it to Styron, whose children were attending Taft. Within a short time, I received a phone call from Styron who told me that he had been reading the book and invited me and Betty to visit him and his wife Rose at their home in Roxbury, CT.
When we came to his home, he told me that he wanted to read from the new novel he was writing, Sophie’s Choice. I was surprised that the section he read was a laudatory discussion of The Cunning of History. When he finished, I simply said that the book was a dead book. It had not been reviewed either in the mainstream or Jewish publications. He then said to me, “I can change that. I will write to Harper and Row and tell them that,” if they published a paperback edition, I will write an introduction.” Harpers took him up on his offer. When they received the introduction, which was more than any author could have hoped for, they told him to feel free to publish it as a review. The introduction appeared in the June 28, 1978 issue of the New York Review of Books. The book was finally launched, and it, not After Auschwitz, has been my best-selling book ever since. It is available in French, Swedish, Japanese, and Hungarian translation. There is also a Kindle edition. Styron also included the introduction in his essay collection, This Quiet Dust. Without Styron the book would have gone nowhere.
Styron also indirectly influenced the publication of the French translation and La Perfidie de l’Histoire. Ghislain Chaufour, a French translator, told Olivier Véron, who was to become my French publisher, that his late wife, a Styron scholar, had read Styron’s praise of The Cunning of History and the book. She recommended that he take a look at it. Chaufourread the book and called it to Véron’s attention. Then, one day in 2003, I received an e-mail message from Véron requesting permission to do a French translation. I was delighted. 28 years after publication the book was still very much alive and, of course, I agreed.
Véron then wrote to me asking whether I would consider writing “une postface,” an afterword bringing the book up today. I agreed and the postface doubled the size of the book which was published as La Perfidie de l’Histoire, with Styron’s introduction in 2006.
If I hadn’t learned it before, I learned an important lesson from my encounter with Styron. A writer never knows in advance whom he will reach, but he or she must always write as he sees things and never worry about whether what he has to say pleases or displeases any particular audience.