SOPHIE’S CHOICE: A NOVEL BY WILLIAM STYRON. (1979) PUBLISHED BY RANDOM HOUSE.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
It took me several weeks to read this epic doorstop of a novel, 684 pages of densely-written prose with only a few chapter breaks to break up the denseness. I’d seen the 1982 movie SOPHIE’S CHOICE, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, of which I only remembered the bits set in Auschwitz, so a lot of the book was completely new to me.
It tells the story of Stingo, a young white male and wanna-be writer from the American Deep South, who is looking back on his life, in particular the year 1947 in which he wrote his first novel, and who in turn tells the reader the story of the titular Sophie. Sophie is a beautiful Polish Catholic woman who’s spent time in Auschwitz concentration camp during the war and has the tattoo on her arm to prove it.
Stingo (a nickname carried over from his school days) moves into a boarding house in Brooklyn run by a Jewish lady, Yetta Zimmerman, with the intention of ‘working on a novel,’ which he actually does do, in between sticking his nose into the lives of the other boarders, most of whom are Jewish like their landlady.
Culturally shell-shocked by the move from his quiet home in the Deep South to the noisy, more cosmopolitan Brooklyn, Stingo becomes fascinated by and obsessed with his upstairs neighbours in the boarding house.
His first experience of them is when he hears them fucking like rabbits (very vocal rabbits, lol) in the bedroom overhead, and he first meets them for real when they are slap-bang in the middle of one of their many fights. They take to Stingo immediately and quickly become his closest friends, and the people about whom he cares most in all the world.
Who are these people, and why do they exert such a strange and strong influence over Stingo? Nathan Landau is a handsome, dazzlingly charismatic research scientist at Pfizer, one of the companies involved today in creating the vaccine for COVID-19, the virus that all but shut down the world in 2020.
Nathan is brilliantly intelligent, and he and Stingo clash on the subject of slavery in the Deep South almost straightaway. Stingo is extremely sensitive on this subject. Not surprisingly, as the money that allows him to live independently today came from the sale of a slave.
Still, he can’t stay mad at Nathan for long. He shows Nathan his Work in Progress and is thrilled beyond belief when Nathan says he likes it and that Stingo is the best young writer writing in America today. Stingo makes a hero of the older man, even though deep down he has a strong feeling that Nathan is fatally flawed. He just doesn’t know how fatally…
Sophie is the one who really interests the virginal, twenty-two-or-three-year-old Stingo. She is beautiful, blonde, from Poland, with a sexy accent which, even when she mixes up her English words terribly, just endears her to him even more.
Sophie adores classical music, as does Nathan, and she works as a secretary to a chiropractor, a job which Nathan reviles and dismisses as being merely ‘assistant to a quack.’ But for Sophie, it’s just a living, and she needs it.
Sophie and Nathan together are a toxic combination. Nathan is seriously mentally ill and a drug-abuser to boot, although Stingo doesn’t realise this at first. It takes the intervention of Larry, Nathan’s elder brother, to fill Stingo in on the grisly details.
When he’s in one of his ‘moods,’ Nathan is manic, physically violent and grossly verbally abusive. He takes his moods out on Sophie, who has a deeply masochistic streak in her and puts up with everything Nathan throws at her. Literally. It’s not a healthy relaionship.
Part of her masochism certainly derives from her strong feelings of being a ‘bad’ person who’s done ‘bad’ things for which she deserves to be punished. In this instance, Nathan is the one dishing out all the punishment, and Sophie takes it all and almost wears her bruises as some kind of badge of honour, which is deeply disturbing to read about.
Although we writers are constantly being told to show in our writing, rather than tell, William Styron breaks this long-held rule by having Stingo relate Sophie’s personal story back to us, without us having been privy to any of the conversations they have together. He’s telling us something that Sophie told him, in other words, once the events of which she spoke were long since past. It’s a bit weird, but we have several hundred pages in which to get used to it!
Thus, we learn from Stingo that Sophie, whom I’d always assumed was Jewish because she’d been in Auschwitz, is not Jewish at all but a Polish Catholic who’d lived in a ghetto with her two children, Jan and Eva, during the war. She’d had friends and acquaintances who were in the Polish Resistance, but she took no part in it herself as she was afraid for herself and her children.
Sentenced to Auschwitz for the petty crime of meat-smuggling, Sophie’s skills as a stenographer-typist and her superb knowledge of the German language saw her being brought to live and work in the Commandant’s villa for a time.
The Commandant in question was war criminal Rudolf Hoess, whose two stints as the Commandant of Auschwitz saw him perfecting the use of pesticide Zyklon B in the furtherance of Himmler- and Hitler’s- vision for the so-called Final Solution of the Jewish Question.’
The Auschwitz scenes were my favourite in the whole novel, and the ones I’d been eagerly awaiting. It is here, at the infamous labour and extermination camp, that Sophie is forced to make the titular choice. Obviously, I wouldn’t ruin it for you with spoilers, but it’s a hell of a ‘choice’ all right, and not a choice at all, really. Whichever side you choose, you lose.
A final word about the sex. Le Sexe. Rumpy-pumpy. Nookie. Hide the Salami. Make no mistake about it, SOPHIE’S CHOICE is a filthy book in that sense. It’s told from the point of view of a twenty-something- year-old virgin who’s always trying to lose his virginity, after all, and is full of his sexual fantasies and longings and his many offerings at the sticky altar of Onanism.
And Sophie herself (please excuse my slut-shaming) is an absolute trollop. I had worked this out for myself, by the way, long before the scene where she bathes her face in a certain man’s ejaculate, declaring spunk to be ‘good for the complexion,’ if you please. The hussy. I didn’t know where to look, honestly.
The book is hard work in places (Stingo sure goes in for the most long-winded of introspections!) but overall worth the effort. Styron, I believe, made Sophie a Polish Catholic rather than a Jew because he wanted to move away from the notion that the Holocaust, and Auschwitz, only affected Jews and no-one else. The book was apparently quite controversial from this point of view, back in the day.
It won the US National Book Award for Fiction in 1980, pipping several other worthy contenders to the post. It’d be a great book to read over Christmas, or when you have a decent block of time to yourself. I’m off now to dig out the movie again. Happy viewing!
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO
Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books.