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US novelist William Styron dies

The American writer, William Styron, has died of pneumonia in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, aged 81. His novels included Sophie's Choice, the story of a Holocaust survivor from Poland, which was filmed with Meryl Streep and also became an opera. He also wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner, which won him a Pulitzer prize. Styron's other works included a best-selling memoir, Darkness Visible, which told of his battle with near-suicidal depression. Styron had been in bad health for some time and had published no full-length novels for more than 25 years. "This is terrible," novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a long-time friend, told the Associated Press news agency.

"He was dramatic, he was fun. He was strong and proud and he was awfully good with the language. I hated to see him end this way."

Mother's death

Styron was born in 1925 in Newport News, Virginia, the son of a shipbuilder, and lost his mother when he was 13. During World War II, he served in the Marines, and ended a conflict he did not expect to survive stationed in Okinawa. "Some of my problems I think came from a continuing anguish over my mother's death and if I had gotten shot it would have been, I suppose, some kind of completion," he said in a 1990 interview. Returning to the US, he studied at Duke University and moved to New York. In 1951, he completed his first novel, Lay Down in Darkness, a Southern family saga of alcoholism, mental anguish and suicide.

After The Long March and Set this House on Fire, he made his name in 1967 with The Confession of Nat Turner, the story of a slave who led a bloody and failed revolt before the American Civil War. It won him a Pulitzer Prize, but the furore which followed fulfilled James Baldwin's prediction that "Bill's going catch it from black and white". Styron was accused of racism and historical inaccuracy, but he defended himself, saying writers had a duty to "meditate" on history.

Fall into depression

In 1979, he published Sophie's Choice about a Southerner who meets a Polish concentration camp survivor in New York. The novel was filmed starring Meryl Streep, and in 2002 Nicholas Maw's opera had its premiere. Again, Styron came under fire for his treatment of a difficult historical subject. By the mid-1980s, he was suffering from severe depression and spent some time in hospital after coming near to suicide. "Death was now a daily presence, blowing over me in cold gusts," he wrote in Darkness Visible. Politically liberal, he counted former President Bill Clinton and the playwright Arthur Miller in his social circle.

"Death was now a daily presence, blowing over me in cold gusts"
William Styron, Darkness Visible.

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