Reading 44

The following passage is adapted from the novel Sophie’s Choice by William Styron (© 1979 William Styron).

  1. In those days, cheap apartments
  2. were almost impossible to find
  3. in Manhattan, so I had to move
  4. to Brooklyn. This was in 1947,
  5. and one of the pleasant features
  6. of that summer which I so
  7. vividly remember was the
  8. weather, which was sunny and
  9. mild, flower-fragrant, almost as
  10. if the days had been arrested in
  11. a seemingly perpetual springtime.
  12. I was grateful for that if for
  13. nothing else, since my youth, I
  14. felt, was at its lowest ebb.
  15. At twenty-two, struggling to
  16. become some kind of writer, I
  17. found that the creative heat
  18. which at eighteen had nearly
  19. consumed me with its gorgeous,
  20. relentless flame had flickered
  21. out to a dim pilot light
  22. registering little more than a
  23. token glow in my breast, or
  24. wherever my hungriest
  25. aspirations once resided. It
  26. was not that I no longer wanted
  27. to write. I still yearned
  28. passionately to produce the
  29. novel which had been for so
  30. long captive in my brain. It was
  31. only that, having written down
  32. the first few fine paragraphs,
  33. I could not produce any others,
  34. or—to approximate Gertrude
  35. Stein’s remark about a lesser
  36. writer of the Lost Generation—I
  37. had the syrup but it wouldn’t
  38. pour. To make matters worse, I
  39. was out of a job and had very
  40. little money and was self-exiled
  41. to Flatbush.
  42. I was glad to be shut out of my
  43. job—the first and only salaried
  44. position, excluding the military,
  45. of my life—even though it
  46. seriously undermined my already
  47. modest solvency. Also, I now
  48. think it was constructive to learn
  49. so early in my life that I would
  50. never fit in as an office worker,
  51. anytime, anywhere. In fact,
  52. considering how I had so
  53. coveted the job in the first place,
  54. I was rather surprised at the
  55. relief, indeed the alacrity, with
  56. which I accepted my dismissal
  57. only five months later. I
  58. approached my job—at least at
  59. the very beginning—with a sense
  60. of lofty purpose; and besides,
  61. the work bore intimations of
  62. glamour; lunch at “21,” dinner
  63. with John O’Hara, poised and
  64. brilliant lady writers melting at
  65. my editorial acumen, and so on.
  66. It soon appeared that none of
  67. this was to come about. For
  68. one, thing, although the
  69. publishing house—which had
  70. prospered largely through
  71. textbooks and industrial
  72. manuals and dozens of technical
  73. journals in fields as varied and
  74. arcane as pig husbandry and
  75. extruded plastics—did publish
  76. novels and nonfiction as a
  77. sideline, thereby requiring the
  78. labor of junior aestheticians like
  79. myself, its list of authors would
  80. scarcely capture the attention of
  81. anyone seriously concerned
  82. with literature. So in my
  83. capacity as the lowest drudge
  84. in the office hierarchy I not
  85. only was denied the opportunity
  86. to read manuscripts even of
  87. passing merit, but was forced to
  88. plow my way daily through
  89. fiction and nonfiction of the
  90. humblest possible quality
  91. —coffee stained and thumb-
  92. smeared stacks of Hammerhill
  93. Bond whose used, ravaged
  94. appearance proclaimed at once
  95. their author’s (or agent’s)
  96. terrible desperation and
  97. McGraw-Hill’s function as
  98. publisher of last resort.
  99. But at my age, with a snootful
  100. of English Lit. that made me
  101. as savagely demanding as
  102. Matthew Arnold in my
  103. insistence that that the written
  104. word exemplify only the
  105. highest seriousness and truth,
  106. I treated these forlorn
  107. offspring of a thousand
  108. strangers’ lonely and fragile
  109. desire with the managerial,
  110. abstract loathing of an ape
  111. plucking vermin from his pelt.
  112. I was adamant, cutting,
  113. remorseless, insufferable. High
  114. in my glassed-in cubbyhole on
  115. the twentieth floor of the
  116. McGraw-Hill Building—an
  117. architecturally impressive but
  118. spiritually enervating green
  119. tower on West Forty-second
  120. Street—I leveled the scorn
  121. that could only be mustered
  122. by one who had just finished
  123. reading Seven Types of
  124. Ambiguity upon these sad
  125. outpourings piled high on my
  126. desk, all of them so freighted
  127. with hope and clubfooted
  128. syntax.
  129. I was required to write a
  130. reasonably full description of
  131. each submission, no matter
  132. how bad the book. At first it
  133. was a lark, and I honestly
  134. enjoyed the vengeance I was
  135. able to wreak upon these
  136. manuscripts. But after a time
  137. their unrelenting mediocrity
  138. palled, and I became weary
  139. of the sameness of the job,
  140. weary too of the smog-
  141. shrouded view of Manhattan,
  142. and of pecking out callous
  143. reader’s reports. Oh, clever,
  144. supercilious young man! How
  145. I gloated and chuckled as I
  146. eviscerated these helpless,
  147. underprivileged, subliterary
  148. lambkins.