With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Sophie’s Choice by William Styron. Random House, 515 pp. $12.95.
Early in Sophie’s Choice a character accuses its narrator — and though Styron has stated flatly that his story is fabricated, the narrator of this imagined tale is plainly William Styron — of writing at the end of a worn-out tradition. It seems to me silly to regard any literary tradition as worn out, but certainly Styron does write squarely within a Southern tradition of elaborate rhetoric, intricate plot, and flashes of melodrama. After a period in my youth when I was much taken with such writing, I find that I no longer especially enjoy it. I thus approached Sophie’s Choice with a bias, but one which I was clearly conscious of, and also with a great respect for William Styron as a novelist.
Despite its wealth of realistic detail — in providing a descriptive background for his story Styron is almost without peer — and despite its being very much set in a time and place (New York City just following the Second World War), Sophie’s Choice is not a realistic novel. Its action is often melodramatic, and shot through with coincidence. Its narrator relates at great length scenes at which he was not present and which no other character, except a formidable novelist, could possibly have described to him so vividly. Its characters can seem less human beings than embodiments of various points of view, though they remain alive and memorable for all that. Sophie’s Choice would be better located in another American literary tradition, that of the romance, which started modestly enough with Hawthorne, ballooned into the wordy, difficult, and tempestuous works of Melville, and filtered down into the Southern tradition through Faulkner and such more recent writers as Robert Penn Warren. The romance can be an intellectual form, the drama not so much in the story being told as in the mind that is meditating the telling, and, as Hawthorne stated, deals not so much with the truths of everyday probability as with those of the human heart. Styron, who daringly took up an examination of slavery in his controversial The Confessions of Nat Turner, has here turned his attention to a more sweeping oppression, that carried out under Hitler in World War II.
The story focuses on the relationship of the narrator, nicknamed Stingo, with two friends whom he meets in his Brooklyn boardinghouse, Nathan and Sophie. Stingo has left a publishing house to write his first novel, is vulnerable, intentionally aloof, and painfully virginal. Nathan and Sophie are the noisy lovers who live above him, and when circumstances throw the three of them together they form an immediate and very warm friendship: the intense, beautiful and worldly woman, her charming and vastly intelligent lover, and the green young writer. Stingo immediately sees much that is problematic; his friends fight as loudly as they make love, Nathan with a violent irrational rage, Sophie with a resignation that borders on the masochistic. It isn’t long before Stingo notices on her wrist the tattoo of a concentration camp number.
Styron has thus entered imaginatively a world of experience far removed from his own, but has done so in no easy or obvious way. Nathan is the Jew of the story, obsessed with the persecution of his people, but he is also a paranoid schizophrenic who was 4-F during the war and whose rages are obviously sick. Sophie is the concentration camp survivor, but she is also a Polish Catholic whose father was a fervent anti-Semite and whose own attitude toward Jews is ambivalent. Stingo missed the war by arriving too late, but sees a parallel in his situation — as does the raging Nathan — in his involvement in the earlier tragedy of the American South; as he is writing his novel, in fact, he is supporting himself with an inheritance that came through the sale of a slave. Though Sophie’s Choice handles larger themes — the nature of evil itself, for instance, which Styron examines through the literature of the holocaust — it is really a book about guilt, in particular, the guilt of survivors.
As such, it centers on Sophie, and episodes of her relationship with Nathan and Stingo alternate skillfully with the long narrative of her past. Her life has been full of ambiguity. She was a member of a cultured Polish family whose father, despite the oppression of his own country, was dedicated to Germanic principles. She hated him, was somewhat repelled by his anti-Semitism, but did love the life of her childhood, and, as the spectre of Nazi Germany began to arise, would willingly have ignored the whole thing. Eventually, partly as a result of friendship with members of the Polish resistance, she and her children were sent to Auschwitz, where she had the long and terrifying experience, including intimate contact with Rudolph Hoss, which she ultimately survived. Those who took a stand, the members of the resistance for instance, were invariably killed, and Sophie’s guilt is not just that of the survivor but also that of the uncommitted. The terrible choice which she was forced to make at Auschwitz, the telling of which climaxes her story, points up her non-commitment but also forces her to commit herself in an awful way. Auschwitz became a hell in which she was punished for a lifetime of non-commitment: she was forced to make a choice and live with it.
Even allowing for my original bias, I found Styron’s elaborate and euphemistic style in this novel wordy and annoying. The tone is odd; despite its tragic subject matter, the narrator throughout much of the book remains as aloof and superior as his young protagonist. The frequent humor is misplaced and ineffective, particularly in its long accounts of Stingo’s sexual mishaps, which hardly seem to belong in the book anyway. Much in the book does not seem to belong. One is reminded of the old line that reading Henry James is like watching an elephant pick up a pea. When Styron is narrating tragic events, as in Lie Down in Darkness, or The Confessions of Nat Turner, or in Sophie’s camp experiences, his elaborate rhetoric seems appropriate and effective, but in lesser situations — when he is picking up a pea — it just gets in the way. The problem with most elaborate stylists is that they make even everyday experiences sound incredibly complicated. As many reviewers have suggested, Styron himself made a brave choice when he set out to describe Sophie’s choice. But he should have left most of Stingo’s choices out of it.