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William Styron: Set This House on Fire

This book did not do well in the United States but it did do better in Europe. It certainly is not an easy read, even though it is a sort of murder mystery. The story is told in the first person, narrated by Peter Leverett, a New York lawyer, born in Virginia. It tells of two other men – Cass Kinsolving and Mason Flagg, the former, as we learn, having killed the latter. Mason is the son of a Yankee who has come to live in Virginia. Peter and Mason go to prep school together, where Peter is attracted by Mason’s charm and money However, he soon finds out that Mason is a liar. Mason is finally expelled for having seduced a half-witted girl. They meet again in New York and then Mason invites him to Sambuco, where an American film company is making a film, with some of the cast staying in Mason’s house. Peter joins in the fun but when Mason, apparently, kills himself, they leave. Much of Peter’s narration is about his subsequent conversation with Cass. Cass had suffered a breakdown during the war and has now become an artist. He starts out in Paris and then moves, with his wife and four children, to Sambuco where he meets Mason, whom he kills when Mason rapes Francesca, an Italian girl Cass has fallen in love with.

Much of the story is Cass recounting his early life, from his time in Virginia to his wartime experiences to his life as a painter in Paris and Italy. In particular, we learn of the strange hold that Mason seems to have over him. Ultimately the novel is about what has driven Peter and, in particular, Cass to where they are and how do you deal with someone as evil as Mason. However, as Styron points out, evil is not quite a simple as that and Cass and Peter are no saints, though Luigi, the Italian police corporal takes the view that Cass should not be punished for his murder of Mason. It is certainly a complex novel – Styron’s most complex – and this may explain why it did not have much success in the United States but did in Europe and it certainly is no easy novel to read but I do feel that it addresses complex issues and addresses them well.

Publishing history

First published 1960 by Random House