Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
Sophie’s Choice brings together Nathan, a charming, manic-depressive addict, Sophie, a beautiful concentration camp survivor, and Stingo, the young Southern narrator,in Brooklyn in 1947. Long sections of the book are flashbacks as Sophie tells the story of her time in Auschwitz to Stingo. Sophie and Nathan have a troubled, abusive relationship. Passages detailing the abuse, stemming mostly from Nathan’s drug use, were hard to read. Stingo befriends the couple and falls in love with them both. Nathan’s jealousy and instability doom the trio, though.
The flashbacks to Poland and Auschwitz show horror that is mostly psychological. I understand that at the time of publication, Styron got some flack for daring to write fiction about the Holocaust. Some said that only survivors had the right to pen memoirs, that no one who wasn’t there could truly understand the horror. I’d have to side with Styron on this. I don’t think it’s ok to say that any topic is off limits to writers. And this criticism gives too little credit to the human imagination. The book was also controversial because Sophie is a Holocaust victim, but not Jewish. Though more Jews were killed than any other group during the Holocaust, it is just not true that they were the only ones who suffered. I see no problem with telling the story of those people; it does not take anything away from the respect and sorrow we feel for the loss of the Jewish people.
The passages that upset me most in the book were not about Auschwitz’s horrors, but Stingo’s trysts with Leslie Lapidus and Mary Alice Grimball. Because these young ladies were content to kiss for hours but refused to have sex, the narrator goes on for pages about how he is tormented by these “cock-teases.” I have nothing but contempt for this sentiment and anyone who would call a woman this name. A woman always has the right to decide for herself what level of intimacy is acceptable to her, and it’s ok for her to draw that line wherever she wants, regardless of her partner’s feelings, and even regardless of any promises she may have made or been understood to make in the past. She can allow one act and not another, and she needs give no justification for doing so. Any man who tries to get her to move that line, just because it’s oh so hard for him to stop once he gets going, is an asshole, pure and simple. Stingo seems to think he has the right to have sex with any woman who will let him kiss her for more than five minutes. He takes it personally when he’s rejected by them, looking in his mirror for physical imperfections to explain it. He doesn’t understand that it has nothing to do with him. Why should it? In these scenes, Leslie and Mary Alice draw very careful distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable touching, which shows that they decided long before the evening began what they wanted to do and didn’t want to do. There is nothing Stingo can do to change these decisions, and the more he tries, the bigger asshole he becomes. This idea that a man is entitled to sex and that a woman is obligated to “put out” after a certain physical line has been crossed contributes to rape culture. It was unacceptable in 1947, when the book is set, in 1976, when the book was published, and today. The only thing that kept me from putting the book down in disgust after these scenes was the narrative distance between Styron and his narrator (this differentiates Styron from a true misogynist writer I’ve reviewed here). I did not get the feeling that Styron thought that Stingo was entitled to sex. In fact, being generous to Styron, I began to hope that these scenes were meant to show Stingo’s flaws and his selfishness, as well as to build up steam for his final release with Sophie at the end.
The book’s ending was tragic in a classical sense, and I appreciated the inevitability and despair of it. It was foreshadowed perfectly, and “felt earned,” as they say in workshops. Stingo (Styron) makes some big universal statements about the meaning of tragedy and the Holocaust on the final pages, some numb with disbelieving grief (“No one will ever understand Auschwitz.”), some blackly despondent (“did not Auschwitz effectively block the flow of that titanic love…or…reduce to absurdity the idea of loving, in [such] a world…?”) but the final image is of hope and morning light. That’s important, I think. A book of tragedy so bleak and far-reaching must have a taste of hope in the ending if we are not all to follow Sophie and Nathan to suicide.
I really have to praise the language of this novel. It’s very stylized, approaching grandiosity, and there were definitely times when I wanted to go back in time and burn Styron’s thesaurus, but as a whole it created a voice and a character that were engaging and charming. Stingo’s unique way of talking comes from his illusions of grandeur, but it also demonstrates an intellect and an artistry that are incredibly appealing. I listened to an audiobook version narrated by William Hope, who did a great job switching between Stingo’s Virginia drawl, Nathan’s tough Brooklyn accent, and Sophie’s Polish lilt.
The book really made me want to see the movie that got Meryl Streep her Oscar. There’s definitely Oscar-worthy material here. It’s not on netflix streaming, though, and that makes me wish Blockbuster still existed.