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Paris Note #1: (Un)Assigned Reading

So, as you know, I spent last week in Paris, attending the Paris Writers Workshop. It was a wonderful week on so many levels: revisiting my beloved city; catching up with a dear friend who happened to be there at the same time; focusing on the possibility of turning something that hasn’t quite worked as a short story into a novel; and establishing what promise to be a couple of long-lasting friendships with others in my workshop.

That workshop, billed as a “Master Class” in the novel, also included discussion of two assigned novels: Andrei Makine’s Dreams of My Russian Summers, and James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Before I left New York I expected that after my return I might write here about one (or both) of those books, and the workshop analyses of them. But rather than write about either of those fine works of fiction, I want to tell you instead about the essay collection I read while I was away: William Styron’s Havanas in Camelot. Because, quite simply, I loved it.

Actually, I’ve mentioned this book here before. And it’s doubtful that I can do as good a job of writing about it as “Oronte” already has.

So all I’ll say is this: I found it nearly impossible to put this book down (and fortunately, due to its slender size, I didn’t need to do so very often). Its appeal wasn’t, I think, simply a matter of my longtime admiration for the author of Sophie’s Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Darkness Visible. In many ways, Styron was a witness to history, and his accounts of everything from his presence at “what turned out to be possibly the most memorable social event of the Kennedy presidency” to the culture of censorship that surrounded his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (finished, writes Styron, “about two hundred years ago—it was 1951, to be exact”), will capture and hold the attention of any reader remotely interested in the social and cultural history of the United States from World War II forward.

And then, as the mention of his first novel may suggest, the elements of this book based in Styron’s experience as an author among authors proved irresistible for this practicing writer. See especially the pieces grounded in Styron’s friendships with Truman Capote, James Baldwin, and Terry Southern (the account of a special VIP tour of the Cook County Jail that Styron and his wife enjoyed in Southern’s company, thanks to the efforts of their Chicago host, Nelson Algren, is unforgettable).

I finished reading Havanas in Camelot early in my Paris week, sad that I’d reached the final page. And sad, once again, that Styron is no longer with us.

(More “Paris Notes” to follow.)

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