I first read Sophie’s Choice in a Bantam paperback 1979 edition. The cover montage featured a glamorous and pensive Sophie Zawistowska, before Meryl Streep’s role in Alan Pakula’s 1982 film became forever imprinted on the character. In those days, most of my reading was done in bed, which consisted of a mattress on the floor by the light of a drafting lamp clamped to the windowsill. I lived in San Francisco then, working part-time while I finished art school, and at the time the most pressing concern was — well, to be frank, there were no pressing concerns. It’s almost embarrassing now to admit how little weighed on my mind during the time I read that novel.
Then, when I read fiction, I tended to seek out the familiar, and knew nothing about Styron or his book, which I think my sister passed along saying it was “a good read.” Of course, Sophie’s Choice is number 96 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels.
In 1979, I knew as much about the Holocaust as any other 20th-century-born, third generation, college educated, half-Jewish Unitarian. Which is to say, not much. Both my mother’s parents had relatives in Europe during the war, some of whom fled the States, but neither their escape or lives before were rarely spoken of to grandchildren. Still, as John Gardner wrote in his review, “guilt is everywhere,” a statement that is as true for our family as any in which there is unspoken grief, loss and shame. Sophie’s Choice puts these front and center, but I was a naive reader, raised with what amounts to a protective shield of silence, and I read those aspects of the novel at a remove, and instead, was drawn in by the intricate plot, the love story (or stories, to be more accurate), and the voice of the narrator, Stingo.
Gardner’s review of Sophie’s Choice is, to put it mildly, favorable. He called the book a “splendidly written, thrilling, philosophical novel on the most important subject of the 20th century.” The assertion, which appeared in his 1979 review in the New York Times, must have seemed radical at the time, for surely there were other events foremost in the collective memory — the Cold War? The Civil Rights marches? Vietnam? The assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King?
Here’s Gardner again:
[Styron] shows us how serious this novel is as not merely a story of other people’s troubles, but a piece of anguished Protestant soul-searching, an attempt to seize all the evil in the world — in his own heart first — crush it, and create a planet for God and man.
There’s a story that when Styron was writing The Confessions of Nat Turner, his friend James Baldwin caught a glimpse of the early drafts and said, “Bill’s going to catch it from both sides.”
That was a trend that would continue for Styron, as Sophie’s Choice brought controversy yet again. The thesis of the novel, that the evil of Nazi Germany threatened not only Jews but humanity as a whole, received sharp criticism. On the other side of the issue, Sophie’s Choice challenged prevailing opinion, which amounted largely to silence and an uncritical response to the Nazi atrocities. Thirty years in the past, the Holocaust was still on the periphery of American Jewish consciousness, but with the novel’s publication, Styron had a role in challenging prevailing thought, so much so that Sophie’s Choice came to be considered a revisionist view. Then, in 1978, NBC aired a four-part miniseries (which garnered both praise and controversy as a subject). That same year, Jimmy Carter established the Commission on the Holocaust, which would lead to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Two years later, a shorn Vanessa Redgrave portrayed Fania Fénelon in the film Playing for Time, based on the memoirs of the French pianist and cabaret singer who survived Auschwitz by forming an orchestra to play for the SS. By the mid-1980s, the Holocaust discourse, as it’s called, would emerge as a distinct idea, differentiated as Peter Novick says, “from other Nazi atrocities and from previous Jewish persecutions, singular in its scope, its symbolism, and its world-historical significance.”
Styron based his novel on his memory of a real-life woman named Sophie, a survivor of Auschwitz he met during in his youth in Brooklyn. From that encounter, he constructed a character, not Jewish, but Polish Catholic, though the story is narrated not by Sophie, but the twenty-two-year-old Stingo, who has recently arrived in New York City from Virginia. A young and ambitious writer, he loathes his job as a manuscript reader at McGraw-Hill. The discontent manifests as a “work stoppage” that culminates in his letting loose a half-dozen balloons from his 20th-floor window at McGraw-Hill, a prank for which he is fired. Unsure of how long his funds will last, Stingo realizes he must finally write his novel, a point at which fate intervenes in the form of a letter from his father. Stingo turns out to be the recipient of a family inheritance based on the sale fifty years before of Artiste, a family slave:
Years later I thought that if I had tithed a good part of my proceeds of Artiste’s sale to the N.A.A.C.P. instead of keeping it, I might have shriven myself of my own guilt, besides being able to offer evidence that even as a young man I had enough concern for the plight of the Negro as to make a sacrifice. But in the end, I’m rather glad I kept it.
With the funding, Stingo goes to Brooklyn, rents a room in a Flatbush house to write his novel, and there encounters his neighbors Sophie and Nathan.
Styron’s sentences are rich, fluid and at times have a too-conclusive, overwritten quality. As a result, Sophie’s nightmarish account, recounted by Stingo in retrospective installments that alternate with present-time action, is both heightened and dampened by the florid style. Here, Stingo recounts her arrest in Krakow (for smuggling a contraband ham), a crime for which she and her children are sent to Auschwitz:
They found the four-kilo cut of ham almost immediately. Her stratagem — fastening the newspaper-wrapped package to her body beneath her dress in a way that would make her appear corpulently pregnant — was shopworn enough by now almost to call attention to itself rather than work as a ruse; she had tried it anyway, urged on by the farm woman who had sold her the precious meat.
‘They’ll surely catch you if they see you carrying it in the open. Also, you look and dress like an intellectual, not one of our country babas. That will help.’
But Sophie had not foreseen either the Iapanka or its thoroughness. And so the Gestapo goon, pressing Sophie up against a damp brick wall, made no effort to conceal his contempt for her doltish Polack dodge, extracting a penknife from the pocket of his jacket and inserting the blade with relaxed, almost informal delicacy into that bulgingly bogus placenta, leering as he did so. Sophie recalled the smell of cheese on the Nazi’s breath and this remark as the knife sank into the haunch of what had been, until recently, contented pig.
‘Can’t you say ouch, Liebchen?’ She was unable, in her terror, to utter anything more than some desperate commonplace, but for her small pains, received a compliment on the felicity of her German.
The scene is both terrifying and cleverly written, the language ornate and weirdly sexual, a feature of course of Stingo’s point of view. From his first encounter with Sophie, he obsesses about her, his thoughts simultaneously idealizing and degrading her. In the decades since the novel’s publication, this has I think worked against the novel, for the obvious reason that for a reader, there is something uncomfortably complicit about the portrayal of a concentration camp survivor as a point of sexual desire (spoiler alert: Sharon Oster, in her essay “The Erotics of Auschwitz,” reminds the reader that at the time Stingo tells the story, Sophie is already dead). Embarrassing as it is to admit, that point eluded me on my first read — maybe I’d yet to crack that art theory chapter on identity politics — but at any rate, I was clueless about feminist thought beyond the photos of burning bras I’d seen in Life magazine a decade or so before. (This aspect of the novel is well covered by Ed Champion here.)
On this second read, however, Sophie’s portrayal reminded me of one of those plastic covers you see on sofas; the actual experience of the sofa is there, but it’s hampered by something else, something that’s not like a sofa at all. Sophie’s story — life before the war, her role in the Polish resistance, her arrest and imprisonment and subsequent life in Brooklyn with the charming and dangerously bipolar Nathan — they are all there, and depicted carefully, but in the end, altered by Stingo’s obsessive desire. At this point, I think again of Gardner and the “Protestant soul-searching” he declares essential to Styron’s vision and the larger sphere of the story. Within a decade after the novel’s publication, identity politics and literary theory would bring about a consciousness for “other people’s troubles” to be told by those people themselves. To a contemporary reader accustomed to diversity and ownership of those narratives, Sophie’s Choice will likely feel a bit off, as Sophie’s view is appropriated in the classic sense of the word. But these are the terms of the novel, and in the end, still worth reading through.
In fact, the novel endures, and the title has become a familiar figure of speech — used to stress the impossible decisions no one wants to make, a Sophie’s choice. On that point, this read proved more difficult for me, since I have a daughter now, and contemplating any sort of forced separation from her was frightening enough to make me dread what was coming. As I moved through the chapters — the scene in question comes near the end of the novel, the first of three high dramatic moments that take place in the last 40 pages — I felt a sickening fear, a testament itself to the power of the Styron’s book.
On my first read, that crucial moment Sophie faces was of course the most affecting, the kind of scene that, as Gardner says, continually comes back “with astonishing vividness — perhaps the most obvious mark of a masterpiece.” And that scene was surely the one that caused the novel to enter my consciousness, took me out of that easy life and made me uncomfortable. That is, after all, what novels do: they make the reader see things she didn’t see before. But at the time, limited reader that I was, I don’t think I reflected much about it. When I finished the book, I returned it to my sister. “Whoa,” I might have said, “good book.”
That summer, we would pack up our few pieces of furniture, and give notice on the flat on Clement Street. My sister and Ben rented a flat in North Beach, on Stockton Street, and I was rootless for the summer. In those years my life was insular, happy and without upheaval, the kind of the life my grandparents wanted me, and all their grandchildren, to have. And soon enough, I forgot about Styron’s book. But that summer, in need of something to read, I scanned my grandmother’s bookshelves and pulled out a thick novel. I think it was The Thorn Birds.