William Styron attempted to write a novel about his debilitating depression.
"Spiral," an excerpt from the novel, runs in the Paris Review's current issue. The piece comes from a handwritten draft found among Styron's papers at Duke University, according to an introduction by Styron's biographer, James L.W. West III.
Publication of such pieces is a flourishing practice among literary magazines seeking a sales boost from a famous author long after his or her death. All too often, these are juvenilia or abandoned failures that should remain hidden. The Hudson Review recently published an early short story by Sylvia Plath that was unexceptional, work that any young writer might produce.
But Styron's fragment, while not among his best writing, is worthy of publication. The piece, describing the narrator's first night at a mental hospital, was based on Styron's admission into the neurological unit of Yale-New Haven Hospital in late 1985, after he had fallen into a deep depression.
The first person narrator, Paul Whitehurst, is a famed playwright who "is plagued by an unshakable malaise," West says. "Paul's narrative is based closely on Styron's recollections of his own breakdown and hospitalization."
After a steady beginning, Styron abandoned the novel. "The prose veers from fiction to exposition," West explains. After returning home, Styron read widely about clinical depression, and "in later parts of the manuscript he seems determined to tell all he knows, but cannot find a way to do so within a fictional framework," West says.
Styron later wrote a compelling account of his struggle with the disease in the bestselling nonfiction memoir, "Darkness Visible."
"While "Darkness Visible" has become Styron's iconic contribution to the literature of psychology, "Spiral" is the author's initial attempt to set down the story of his depression, to document the complexity of the disease and its malefic effect on personality and behavior," West writes.
Styron's account of a confused, frightened and depressed man encountering his first night in a hospital falls short of his best writing. But the fragment displays enough of Styron's humor and gift for creating vivid characters to make it an worthwhile addition to his published work.