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This meticulously crafted, well-paced biography should go a long way toward burnishing Styron's reputation. Unlike most modern novelists of acknowledged weight, Styron has also enjoyed enormous popular and commercial success. Many of his eight books, such as The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice, have become international bestsellers. However, though in some circles--notably France--he is considered a writer of the first rank, Anglo-American critics have been less kind to Styron, believing that anyone of his range, accessibility, and Æ’clat is, perhaps, not meant for the ages. Not that Styron has much heeded the opinions of critics. Rather, he conceives of writing as an existential compulsion. As he wrote in the inaugural edition of the Paris Review, ""The writer . . . must go on writing, reflecting disorder, defeat, despair, should that be all he sees at the moment, but ever searching for the elusive love, joy, and hope--qualities which, as in the act of life itself, are best when they have to be struggled for. . . ."" While, as West illustrates, Styron's life has included its share of turmoil--a difficult childhood in Virginia, the heated controversy that greeted publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner, and a devastating bout with depression--on the whole he has followed Flaubert's hopeful dictum: ""Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."" And unlike all too many writers, he has contrived to spend very little time struggling financially. Early fame and a good marriage provided world enough and time for his slow, painstaking writing process. His gift for friendship--with James Baldwin, Peter Mathiessen, George Plimpton, to name just a few--also served him well. West (English/Pennsylvania State Univ.) deftly transforms the solitary, drudging life of a writer into an absolutely compelling narrative, welding astute criticism and assiduous research into an eloquent whole. A masterful achievement.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1998
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Random