William Styron’s great novel showcases the strengths of lavish, incantatory words and sentences.
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. Vintage. 480 pages.
William Styron told interviewers he worked slowly, writing his thick books by hand, in No. 2 pencil, on yellow legal pads. In Sophie’s Choice his alter ego reads his sentences aloud, testing them, as he goes. Styron had an ear for rhythm and a fearsome vocabulary that he wasn’t afraid to unleash. The lovely word motes was what I remembered about his The Confessions of Nat Turner, not much else, from my first reading of the novel when I was about sixteen, though it’s likely the book’s sonorous language sank deep. When I told a writer friend that I was rereading it, she said, “Bill Styron can flat knock a sentence out of the ballpark, can’t he?” Oh, yes.
The novel is based on the life and actions of Nat Turner, a slave who led an uprising in 1831; his angry band butchered about sixty people before being subdued. Vengeful whites murdered about two-hundred innocent slaves in retribution. After escaping into the woods for some time, Turner was caught, and, after his confession and trial, hanged and his corpse mutilated. Apparently he was a religious fanatic and perhaps crazy—probably schizophrenic—and Styron found him unappealing. His Nat is also deeply religious and highly intelligent but more normal, a man driven to butchery by the insanity of slavery. Styron called the novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize after it was published in 1967, a “meditation on history” rather than a historical novel. He said he was lucky so little was known of Turner’s life, beyond his rampage and his confession, leaving Styron free to create.
The novelist, however, had grown up in the same area of tidewater Virginia as Turner’s rebellion, was descended from a slave owner, and had thought for decades about bondage. He also read widely on slavery and devoured the handful of documents on the insurrection. Turner’s voice which tells the story is strangely believable, despite possessing a vocabulary astounding for any human, then or now. A bachelor preacher’s voice is like “the crepitation of a cricket in the weeds.” “Crackle” would’ve been a lot simpler, but the elevated, antiquarian diction suits the period and its narrator.
Early in the book, with Nat wrapped in chains, having been kicked, spat upon, and stabbed in his shoulders by women wielding hat pins, he meets with his court-appointed attorney the day of his trial, his execution inevitable:
Sluggish autumnal flies filled the cell, stitching the air with soft erratic buzzings as they zigzagged across the golden light, mooned sedulously over the slop bucket, crept in nervous pairs across Gray’s stained pink gloves, his waistcoat, and his pudgy hands now motionless on his knees. I watched the leaves merging with the shadow shapes swooping and fluttering at the edge of my mind. The desire to scratch, to move my shoulders had become a kind of hopeless, carnal obsession, like a species of lust, and the last of Gray’s words seemed now to have made only the most dim, grotesque impression on my brain, the quintessence of white folks’ talk I had heard incessantly all my life and which I could only compare to talk in one of my nightmares, totally implausible yet somehow wholly and fearfully real, where owls in the woods are quoting price lists like a storekeeper, or a wild hog comes prancing on its hind legs out of a summer cornfield, intoning verses from Deuteronomy. . . .
When he had gone and the door had closed me in again, I sat there motionless in my web of chain. The midafternoon sun was sinking past the window, flooding the cell with light. Flies lit on my brow, my cheeks and lips, and buzzed in haphazard elastic loopings from wall to wall. Through this light, motes of dust rose and fell in a swarmy myriad crowd and I began to wonder if these specks, so large and visible to my eye, offered any hindrance to a fly in its flight. Perhaps, I thought, these grains of dust were the autumn leaves of flies, no more bothersome than an episode of leaves is to a man when he is walking through the October woods, and a sudden gust of wind shakes down around him from a poplar or a sycamore a whole harmless, dazzling, pelting furry of brown and golden flakes. For a long moment I pondered the condition of a fly, only half listening to the uproar outside the jail which rose and fell like summer thunder, hovering near yet remote.
While he risked wordiness, Styron’s lavish language can satisfy in a way that submissively stripped prose can’t. He chafed at being called Faulkner’s heir, but in both cases their prose is rhetorical—concerned with style or effect—in a way different than the clear-windowpane declarative mode that’s carried the day. His descriptions aren’t dabs on the canvas but suffuse the narrative; if it’s hot, we’ll be reminded of how the characters experience heat throughout a scene, which is liable to unroll over many pages of action and lengthy explanation.
Light’s shifting quality is a motif as it swarms with motes or is “cool white” or smoky or golden or “yellowish and wan” or autumnal or dusty or “pale as water” or “pollen-hazy,” or “glimmering, crepuscular, touched with that greenish hue presaging the onslaught of a summer storm.” There’s the “slanting icicle light of Christmas afternoon.” And: “Light from the descending sun fell amid the October leaves and through wood smoke and haze lay streaming upon a tangled desolation of weeds and brambles, so furiously luminous that it seemed a field ready to explode into fire.”
The sky’s a presence too: one day a “white rack of cloud hovered, covering the heavens, impermeable, its surface crawling with blackish streaks of mist like tattered shawls.” And the wind is always palpable: “Across the roof of the woods the wind rushed in hissing, majestic swoop and cadence, echoing in far-off hollows with the thudding sound of footfalls.”
Of course, the guy could tell a story too. In this case he entered into a lost world and the foreign consciousness of the humans who inhabited it, black and white alike. The Confessions of Nat Turner underscores how much the novel is a form of history, for its ambition is to recreate, portray, explain, a world in the entirety of its emotional and physical and historical aspects.
Next: More on the book’s language, plus its structure . . .