Once again William Styron has ended a protracted literary silence by the publication of an ambitious book on an overwhelmingly important subject. As with The Confessions of Nat Turner, which came out in 1967 before the Vietnam War overtook the civil rights movement as the leading preoccupation of liberal America, the timing is propitious. For one of the aims of Sophie’s Choice is nothing less than to understand the Holocaust, and the book makes its appearance just when a spate of material—historical, documentary, cinematic, and fictional—has created a mass audience for what is rapidly becoming the favorite horror show of our times.
It should not be necessary to defend the right of Styron—a non-Jew, a Southern Protestant in background—to this subject matter—any more than his right to assume, in the first person, the “identity” of the leader of a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. But there is a danger that the volatile, emotionally charged nature of the material, combined with the publicity and commercial expectations attendant upon an “important” book by a writer of Styron’s position, will obscure, one way or another, the extent to which Sophie’s Choice succeeds or fails as a work of literary art. Such was the fate of The Confessions of Nat Turner, which was exorbitantly praised by a number of reviewers and then bitterly attacked by a number of blacks on largely nonliterary grounds. A few critics—Stanley Kauffmann and Richard Gilman among them—pointed out that the book, for all its ambitions, was not a very good novel, that it was overwritten, prone to stereotyping and anachronism, and that the impersonation of Nat was finally unconvincing.
The new book presents yet another obstacle to just evaluation—at least for a critic who prefers to avoid ad hominem comment: for Sophie’s Choice is a highly self-conscious performance, full of autobiographical references, and it is narrated by a man called Stingo whose career parallels Styron’s in many particulars. How, for instance, is one meant to respond to the following passage in which Stingo, a young Southerner, is brooding, as he often does, upon the guilt-ridden heritage of slavery?
Yet how could I ever get rid of slavery? A lump rose in my gorge, I whispered the word aloud, “Slavery!” There was dwelling somewhere in the inward part of my mind a compulsion to write about slavery, to make slavery give up its most deeply buried and tormented secrets…. And were not all of us, white and Negro, still enslaved? I knew that in the fever of my mind and in the most unquiet regions of my heart I would be shackled by slavery as long as I remained a writer. Then suddenly…I thought of Nat Turner, and was riven by a pain of nostalgia so intense that it was like being impaled upon a spear….
“Fantastic!” I heard myself cry in beery joy. “You know something, Nathan, I just began to see. I’m …