Thursday, December 20, 2007
Sophie's Choice, or The Best Novel I have Read in a Long, Looooooooong Time.
Sunday night I found myself in the sleet running up the steep slope to my apartment building. Usually, if you're wondering, my pace back home after a workout is more of an "amble," if anything, it's more of a crawl. But Sunday night there was work to be done. I had 100 pages left of William Styron's Sophie's Choice .
I can say, without a doubt, that this novel is the best work of "contemporary" fiction I have read since Ian McEwan's monolith, Atonement , which made its debut in 2001. Sophie was published in 1979.
There was a very famous, award-winning film adaptation made in 1982, (that catapulted Meryl Streep to stardom) so many of us already know what Sophie's "Choice" is (myself included, unfortunately, although I have yet to see the film). However, for those of us that don't, I won't spoil it for you. You may read with open eyes.
The novel's narrator, Stingo, has captured what it means to be an editorial assistant at a major publishing house in New York (see Chapter 1), and for this, I am in love with him. Never in my life have I laughed aloud on the subway while reading until I hit the readers reports listed in this chapter. Overall, I was surprised by the humor in this book, given that it's oftentimes labeled as a "holocaust novel." I want to write that Stingo is a brilliant invention on Styron's part to lighten-up the whole saga, but it's painfully obvious that Stingo's no invention at all. He's Styron himself. Note the similarity in their names. Styron also worked as an underpaid editorial assistant before his writerly success. Both Sytron and Stingo are from Virginia, both are obsessed with the story of Nat Turner. ( Confessions of Nat Turner and Lie Down in Darkness , Sytron's previous novels, are both chronicled as early ideas of Stingo's in Sophie's Choice .) As if that weren't confusing enough for you, basically what we have here is a writer writing about a writer who is writing his novels.
All of this fictionalized reality leads me to believe that the character of Sophie truly did exist (and perhaps her boyfriend, Nathan, as well) and that Styron really did meet them that summer of 1947. But, that's another story, I'm sure.
Sophie is a Polish, Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. She meets Nathan after collapsing in the New York Public Library from anemia, which she developed as a result of malnourishment in the concentration camp. As Stingo's story develops(mainly a tale of Southern pride mixed with Southern guilt, sexual rabidity and therefore, sexual frustration, and writer's bloc) so does Sophie's. With Nathan away, Sophie and Stingo become close friends, and Sophie's horrific tale begins to unfold.
As if her experience at Auschwitz wasn't enough, Sophie's relationship with Nathan is also volitile and violent. One minute Nathan's the sweetest, most romantic, most caring person God created—the next, he's a jealous, irrational brute out for blood. Stingo is astounded at the change—as if Nathan is literally capable of a Dr.Jekyll/Mr. Hyde transformation.
But there is something about Sophie that keeps her with Nathan. What is it? A sense of obligation? (Nathan's brother helped her recover, he's a doctor), a sense of helplessness? She screams over and over again throughout the book, "We need each other, Nathan!" There are bits of Sophie's story that are missing. Something just doesn't fit. Of course the puzzle pieces do eventually come together, but only in the end, just as you are ready to throw the book into the fireplace from anxiety.
I find it interesting that in a book that is supposed to be, presumably, an account of the Holocaust and its horrors (particularly its aftermath) that the person committing the violence in real time, in the present tense, Nathan, is a Jew.
Ultimately, for me, this is a book about surivivor's guilt. Nathan has it, Sophie has it, and even Stingo (when he goes into his family's history with slavery) has it. Nathan is an American Jew, Sophie's a Pole, and Stingo's a white boy from Virginia, living off money that was gained from the sale of a young slave boy named Artiste (which his great, great Grandmother buried in their basement). Styron obviously has a taste for the unforgiving nature of history: the book on Nat Turner is a celebration of his rebellion, but also a reflection on the heinous stain of slavery on the South, and his first book is a treatise on the suicide and depression of a young girl. His own memoir is about his struggle with serious depression ( Darkness Visible ). Styron lives in a world where guilt clings to us because we hold grudges—against ourselves.
I can't begin to describe what a heartbreaking and yet beautifully written book this is. I can only ask you to read it. It's long, but worth the ride. Believe me, you will read it in a few days. You won't be able to put it down. Many have said that the novel is too depressing but I think you owe it to yourself to read this book. There are the most incredible glimmers of what it means to be a human being—distilled in a fashion that very few writers are capable of. In particular, there is one scene where Sophie goes to buy an assortment of food (which, understandably she has become obsessed with since moving to America) and takes it to have a solitary picnic in Prospect Park. This brief moment of calm stands out amongst a novel that is full of testimony and strife. I cannot begin to describe it, so I will simply leave it to Styron himself.
But this made it all the more fun for her, a pleasant game, when at lunchtime she entered one of the glorious delicatessens of Flatbush and shopped for her Prospect Park spread. The priviledge of choice gave her a feeling achingly sensual. There was so much to eat, such variety and abundance, that each time her breath stopped, her eyes actually filmed over with emotion, and with slow and elaborate gravity she would choose from this sourly fragrant, opulent, heroic squander of food: a pickled egg here, there a slice of salami, half a loaf of pumpernickel, lusciously glazed and black. Bratwurst. Braunschweiger. Some sardines. Hot pastrami. Lox. A bagel, please. Clutching the brown paper bag, the warning like a litany in her mind—'Remember what Dr. Bergstrom said, don't gorge yourself'—she would make her methodical way into one of the farthest recesses of the park, or near a backwater of the huge lake, and there—munching with great restraint, taste buds entralled in rediscovery—would turn to page 350 of Studs Lonigan.