Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays, by William Styron
Though William Styron is best know for his novels (The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie’s Choice), and a late memoir chronicling his depression (Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness), he wrote wonderful essays that draw on his power of insight, intellectual acuity, and deeply felt experience of the world, and couched in the same gorgeous sentences that define his fiction. This makes sense, after all, since Styron’s forays into the consciousness of a character like Sophie Zawistowska are the same he trains on himself.
The title essay is a reference to the cigars favored by John Kennedy, and recounts a White House state dinner that Styron (who died in 2006) and other prominent writers attended to honor the recent Nobel Prize winners. It was April, 1962 and the Kennedys, President and First Lady, were at the height of their influence and glamor.
The title’s non-ironic allusion to the Arthurian court lends the essay, and all the essays in this collection, a sense of the past that, regardless of the situation at the time, is seen with a yearning backward glance. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” Faulkner said, and with Styron, you get the sense that the glittering as well as the duller episodes take on a lovely sheen when viewed in hindsight.
Here’s Styron on the Kennedy state dinner, as the President and First Lady arrive to receive their guests:
…Jack and Jackie actually shimmered. You have had to be abnormal, perhaps psychotic, to be immune to their dumbfounding appeal. Even Republicans were gaga. They were truly a golden couple, and I am not trying to downplay my own sense of wonder when note that a number of the guests, male and female, appeared so affected by the glamour that their eyes took on a goofy, catatonic gaze.
An aspect of Styron’s voice that has always appealed to me is what I can only describe as a generational drift. I hear in his use of vernacular, his reverence for heroes and distrust of power, a tone that resembles my father’s. Both share a Greatest Generation-inflected style that to some may sound dated, but to this reader’s ear is a comfort, and brings nostalgic passage to an era of mid-century men whose rebellion was rooted in their artistic natures. Like Frank Wheeler in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, it’s a generation who went to war, and against the grain of their time, broke the conformist mode with a devotion to art, not commerce.
Among my favorites here is “A Case of the Great Pox.” It recounts a stay in a military infirmary after Styron was diagnosed with syphilis. He served in the Marine Corps during World War Two, and before basic training ended, was on a ward at the Navel Hospital in Parris Island, South Carolina, otherwise known as The Clap Shack.
The piece encompasses the best of the personal essay form. It combines personal and political history, informative detail (in this case, a history of STDs), and a sharply structured plot that takes us with Styron on the various stages of his syphilitic journey.
Voltaire never let the horrid nature of the illness obtrude upon his own lighthearted view of it—he wrote wittily about the great pox in Candide—and throughout Casanova’s memoirs there are anecdotes about syphilis that the author plainly regards as excruciatingly funny. Making sport of it may have been the only way in which the offspring of the Enlightenment could come to grips with a pestilence that seemed as immutably fixed in history as war or famine.
Each of the fourteen essays in the slim but affecting collection is similarly astute and readable. Essays on the author’s longtime rivalry with his peer Truman Capote; on Styron’s early experience with publishing and the censorship of the 1950s; on his beloved Vineyard Haven in Martha’s Vineyard.
Mostly I love the soft collision here of harbor and shore, the subtly haunting briny quality that all small towns have when they are situated on the sea. It is often manifested simply in the sounds of the place—sounds unknown to forlorn inland municipalities…these sounds might appear distracting, but as a fussy, easily distracted person who has written three large books within earshot of these sounds, I an affirm that they do not annoy at all.
You could sit down with this book mid-afternoon and consume it by lights out. It will go too quickly though, I guarantee, requiring that you start from the beginning and read it again.