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 going to make a book out of that slave.”
Fact? Fiction? Self-parody? Stingo’s claim to have also written Sophie’s Choice, as well as a book closely resembling Lie Down in Darkness, makes it difficult to unravel author from narrator, Styron from Stingo.
The “present” of Sophie’s Choice is the summer and early fall of 1947; its past—much of it fully dramatized—extends backward fifteen or more years; and its future—consisting of allusions to the narrator’s life as a successful writer—reaches all the way to the actual writing of the novel. Stingo (originally Stinky) is the prep-school nickname of a twenty-two-year-old Virginian who, at the story’s beginning, gets fired from his job at McGraw-Hill and, sustained by a $500 inheritance, moves to Brooklyn to write his first novel. There, in the heart of Jewish Flatbush, in an all-pink rooming house run by Mrs. Yetta Zimmerman, he hears, coming from the floor above, the sounds of tumultuous love-making followed by the sounds of an equally tumultuous quarrel. The participants turn out to be Nathan Landau, a brilliant, music-loving, highly literate research biologist, and his shiksa girl-friend Sophie Zawistowska, a straw-haired beauty with a number tattooed on her forearm.
Despite Nathan’s initial abuse of Stingo as a racist Southern cracker, the latter more or less falls in love with the couple and soon becomes incorporated in their lives. Repeatedly he witnesses scenes of great tenderness and rapport between the lovers; but almost as often he witnesses the abrupt transformation of Nathan into a raging, sadistic monster and Sophie into a sobbing, pleading, humiliated victim; during his vicious phase, the otherwise charming Nathan, who acts like a big brother to Stingo and praises his writing, turns on him, reviling him as a potential lyncher of blacks with the same evil tongue that he uses to denounce Sophie as a Jew-murdering Polack. It is the Nathan-Sophie-Stingo relationship, with its accompanying mysteries, that constitutes the main, ongoing action of the book.
A second line of action involves Stingo’s private concerns: his efforts to overcome his condition as a near-virgin, his relationship with his affectionate windbag of a father, his guilt over the fact that his $500 inheritance stems ultimately from the sale of a young slave by his great-grandfather in the 1850s, and the progress of his novel about a doomed Southern girl who commits suicide. Pages from a journal which he kept at this time are included, as well as a number of letters. The main element of suspense in this line is sexual—i.e., when will Stingo at last achieve the glorious copulation of which he dreams? Three candidates for partnership present themselves: a gorgeous, dirty-talking Jewish-American princess who has reached a “plateau” in her fourth analysis (Reichian), a gorgeous, wealthy Southern girl who has narrowed her sexual repertory to a single, exhausting, noncopulatory practice, and, finally, the gorgeous Sophie herself. It would be unfair to reveal the outcome of Stingo’s quest; it is enough to say that it involves him in dreadful frustrations and incredibly sustained bouts of priapism, both lovingly detailed.
Much more crucial for the novel—and for a consideration of Styron’s achievement—is the story of Sophie’s past, revealed to Stingo in stages by Sophie as they picnic together in Prospect Park or drink in a gloomy Flatbush bar. We follow her from her seemingly idyllic girlhood in a cultivated household in Cracow to her early marriage, the German invasion, and her life in occupied Warsaw; then, in 1943, during one of the periodic roundups by the Nazis, Sophie is caught trying to smuggle meat for her dying mother (her father and husband having already been killed) and sent to Auschwitz. At the camp her facility with German and shorthand eventually enables her to move into the household of the Commandant, S.S. Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Franz Höss, who uses her as a stenographer. Though still kept on near-starvation rations, she for a while manages a somewhat more tolerable existence than is possible in the unspeakable barracks. The relationship with Höss culminates in an attempted seduction of him, which ends disastrously. Sophie is sent back to the barracks, from which she emerges—a toothless and emaciated wreck—at the war’s end.
Sophie’s story is complicated by the fact that she tells a number of lies, most of them induced by her terrible guilt. The reader, along with Stingo, has to piece things together and make constant revisions. Sophie’s father, for instance, is first presented as a beloved, liberal professor of jurisprudence who once risked his life to save some Jews during a Russian pogrom: then, well into the novel, we have to adjust to the new revelation that he was a domestic tyrant, a Nazi sycophant, and the author of a ferociously anti-Semitic pamphlet which the desperate Sophie tries to use to better her situation at Auschwitz. Even later we learn that Sophie had a daughter, Eva, as well as the son, Jan, with whose existence we had become acquainted a few chapters earlier: their fate involves the choice referred to in the novel’s title. Eventually Stingo is satisfied that he has learned the whole story—and it is indeed harrowing.
The Auschwitz sections are the most memorable in the novel—as how could they not be, given the overpowering nature of what they depict? As he approaches them, Stingo-Styron displays a degree of self-consciousness amounting almost to nervousness. He tells us that he has “tortured” himself by reading as much as he could of the literature of “l’univers concentrationnaire” in preparation for the novel, and he gives his references: Barowski, J.-F. Steiner, Schwarz-Bart, Wiesel, Bettelheim, and others. He confesses, too, that he has been “haunted…by an element of presumption in the sense of being an intruder upon the terrain of an experience so bestial, so inexplicable, so undetachably and rightfully the possession alone of those who suffered and died, or survived it.” He quotes Elie Wiesel on the cheapening of the Holocaust by novelists who find it a “hot topic” and refers to George Steiner’s injunction of silence in the face of the unspeakable. But silence is an option that Stingo cannot accept. He argues that “…the embodiment of evil which Auschwitz has become remains impenetrable only so long as we shrink from trying to penetrate it, however inadequately.” And he adds: “I have thought that it might be possible to make a stab at understanding Auschwitz by trying to understand Sophie, who to say the least was a cluster of contradictions.”
This self-consciousness is also reflected in the author’s need to explain his choice of a Polish girl as his agonist-victim and to counter what he evidently regards as a certain Jewish exclusiveness about the Holocaust. “Although she was not Jewish,” he says of Sophie, “she had suffered as much as any Jew who had survived the same afflictions, and…had in certain profound ways suffered more than most.” Then, in a parenthesis, he points out that it “is difficult for many Jews to see beyond the consecrated nature of the Nazis’ genocidal fury” and cites as a “pardonable” void the failure of George Steiner to make more than fleeting reference “to the vast multitudes of non-Jews—the myriad Slavs and the Gypsies—who were swallowed up in the apparatus of the camps, perishing just as surely as the Jews, though sometimes only less methodically.” To Sophie’s sufferings as a victim he adds her devastating guilt not only as a survivor but also, tragically and ambiguously, as an accomplice; through her he is able to comment on the anti-Semitism endemic in Poland and to relate it (albeit tenuously and less than convincingly) to the racial situation in the American South.
In approaching the Holocaust from the Polish side, Styron has undoubtedly opened up a whole new area of historical awareness and imagined experience—at least as far as most American readers of fiction are concerned. One guesses that the research has been thorough and conscientious. The “raw material” itself is nearly always interesting, particularly as it relates to occupied Warsaw, to the troubled relations between the Polish underground and the inhabitants of the ghetto, and to the enslavement of the hapless Slavs in the manufacturing (as distinct from the exterminating) function of the camps. Styron’s grasp of the mentality of the Nazi officials is plausible, though based rather heavily upon assumptions made familiar to us by Hannah Arendt and others. In short, one must respect Styron’s ambition to enter the inferno through a new fissure, with a Polish girl as his guide.
But there is a difficulty concerning the guide herself: Styron never quite brings Sophie into fictional life. Only occasionally in his novels has Styron shown a flair for the intuitive psychological perception of character and its imaginative and linguistic projection—Peyton in Lie Down in Darkness comes to mind; in Sophie’s case the lack of such a rendering is unfortunate, since an “understanding” of her is meant to facilitate an understanding (doomed, as it turns out) of Auschwitz itself. She remains a parcel of fragments—a good girl, a liar, a tender and loyal friend, an incipient alcoholic, a candidate for suicide, and a terrific lay. These inconsistencies have, of course, their rationale; she has after all been destroyed and put together again. But the sense that there was ever a recognizably distinct personality to be undone is not conveyed. I found myself moved by the desperation of her plight without ever quite believing in her existence other than as a made-up illustration of the effects of systematic degradation. One obstacle to belief is the speech with which she has been endowed, for she is made to speak a nerve-wracking linguistic hodge-podge surely never heard on land or sea:
Because it is true, I mean it is famous that Poland has this strong anti-Semitism and that make me so terribly ashamed in many ways, like you, Stingo, when you have this misère over the colored people down in the South. But I told Nathan that yes, it is true, quite true about this bad history in Poland, but he must understood—vraiment, he must comprehend that not all Polish people was like that, there are good decent people like my family who….
I would like to meet this Mr. Weelyam Faulkner…and tell him that he make it very difficult for Polish people when he don’t know how to end a sentence. But oh, Stingo, how that man can write! I feel I’m in Mississippi.
It will be observed that the improbabilities are not merely linguistic.
Then there is the difficulty faced by any novelist bold enough to advance directly into the mortal hell of Auschwitz: how is such “extreme” material to be contained within a fictional or dramatic framework, how is it to be kept from “leaping out of the book,” so to speak? It is a problem, essentially aesthetic, that pertains to serious works of art and not to (say) collections of documents, reminiscences, historical studies, or (need one say it!) semipornographic exploitations. Good art can of course accommodate scenes of terrible cruelty (witness King Lear) provided the context is strong enough, profound enough, formally and stylistically gratifying enough, to permit a degree of mastery, of “catharsis,” to occur. But even for a master novelist the stuff of the camps might well prove intractable—a reason why, I believe, the most successful fictional approaches to the Holocaust are likely to be deliberately tangential, employing a variety of screening devices; such is the case with Leslie Epstein’s recent (and affecting) novel about a Judenrat in Poland, The King of the Jews, in which the extermination camps exist as an offstage menace, barely glimpsed.
Although Styron does not linger over the horrors of life in the barracks, the moral and physical sufferings of Sophie, even in her relatively sheltered position, are so nightmarish and her “choice” (revealed late in the novel) so excruciating that they invoke to an unsettling degree the reader’s own capacities (however undeveloped) for a sadomasochistic response that subtly contaminates one’s sense of outrage and pity for the victim. The absorption or at least partial sublimination of such feelings within a larger context is, I believe, necessary if the novel is to succeed as a work of art.
And that is what does not happen in Sophie’s Choice. Although the Warsaw-Auschwitz sections together amount to no more than one-fifth of the total length, the remainder of this long novel is no match for their intensity. Styron’s attempt to create a fictional matrix strong enough to sustain them leads him into melodrama and into thematic and stylistic hypertrophy that undermine the high seriousness of his intentions. For a while I was caught up in the Nathan-Sophie relationship, but soon my curiosity gave way to annoyance at the crudity of the plot manipulations and the growing preposterousness of the characterization. Every time Nathan-Jekyll turns into Nathan-Hyde, the reader is expected not only to ponder the mystery but to expect the worst: surely, in this round, Sophie—or perhaps Stingo (for Nathan is murderously jealous)—will be done in. Deadly props—a recklessly speeding car, cyanide capsules, a pistol—are introduced. And then during the halcyon periods, the reader is simultaneously encouraged to hope that the good times will last and given less than subtle warnings that of course they cannot.
Efforts are made to whip up suspense by having the narrator drop hints of the “had-I-but-known” variety—a particularly crude device since Stingo is not only telling the story in the first person but looking back upon the events from a thirty-year perspective. (“But even today I can’t help wondering whether it would not have been better for Sophie….”) Here is Stingo’s reaction to Nathan’s exuberant announcement (more than four hundred pages into the novel) that he and Sophie are going to be married and that they want Stingo to be their best man:
“God Almighty!” I yelled. “Congratulations!” And I strode over to the chair and kissed them both—Sophie next to her ear, where I was stung by a fragrance of gardenia, and Nathan on his noble blade of a nose. “That’s perfectly wonderful,” I murmured, and I meant it, having totally forgotten how in the recent past such ecstatic moments with their premonitions of even greater delight had almost always been a brightness that blinded the eyes to onrushing disaster.
Among the other things Stingo has totally forgotten in offering congratulations to these beautiful people are the dizzying transformations he has witnessed, his knowledge that Nathan is an amphetamine freak with violent proclivities, and Sophie’s account of a Connecticut weekend during which Nathan tried to coerce her into a joint suicide. A few pages later, when Stingo receives additional dire information (from Nathan’s brother Larry)—that Nathan has been a paranoid-schizophrenic since childhood and that he has never gone to Harvard or been a biologist at all—he murmurs that he thinks things might get better. Well, to no one’s great surprise, things don’t get better. And when the catastrophe, so richly adumbrated, finally occurs, poor Stingo can only murmur, “Why, why, why?” The characterization of Nathan never coheres at all; he remains, for all the trappings of speed and psychosis, a confection from the gaslight era, neither psychologically nor theatrically credible.
“All my life I have retained a strain of uncontrolled didacticism,” says Stingo at one point, and Sophie’s Choice bears him out. The novel is made to drag along an enormous burden of commentary, ranging all the way from the meaning of the Holocaust, the ineluctable nature of evil, the corrosive effects of guilt, the horrors of slavery, and the frailty of goodness and hope to such topics as the misunderstanding of the South by Northern liberals, Southern manners as opposed to those of New York taxi drivers, and the existence of prejudice and cruelty in even the best of us; there is even space for literary history in the making, as when Nathan cites Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man to Stingo as a portent that “Jewish writing is going to be the important force in American literature in the coming years.” My objection is not to significant themes as such (great novels need them) or to the inclusion of numerous obiter dicta (good novels can usually afford them) but to the fact that so many are insufficiently dramatized, that they involve so much adolescent breast-beating, that they too often seem like obvious bids for profundity—or else merely symptoms of Stingo’s garrulity.
As may be apparent by now, the weakest element in the novel is the voice and personality assigned to the narrator—to “old Stingo,” as he regularly refers to himself, resorting to the third person. His style is at once elephantine and coy, a style that in its prolixity and facetiousness suggests late-Victorian pornography as well as melodrama.
…I was made suddenly aware—in the room directly over my head—of a commotion so immediately and laceratingly identifiable, so instantly…apparent in its nature that I will avoid what in a more circumlocutionary time might have required obliqueness of suggestion, and take the liberty of saying that it was the sound, the uproar, the frenzy of two people fucking like wild animals.
Leslie, the Jewish-American princess, is “achingly attractive”; her “harmoniously proportioned Elberta peach of a derrière” is “achingly desirable”; her laughter is “tinkly.” Of course not all of Sophie’s Choice sounds like this (the European sections in particular are more soberly written); but such archness is far from uncommon, and an element of rhetorical inflation pervades the entire novel. The account of Stingo’s sexual strivings sounds as if it might have been written by a raunchy Booth Tarkington having fun with a seventeen-year-old, and it consorts feebly with the weighty concerns in the other parts of the book.
The older Stingo’s projection of himself as a callow Southern youth encountering Jews and the effects of the Holocaust must have seemed a promising device; unfortunately, the older Stingo in his comments often sounds just as callow as his younger self. And there are serious inconsistencies within the voice itself. I find it hard to reconcile the Stingo who boasts that his book on Nat Turner refuted the idea that the novel was “dead as a smelt” by finding “hundreds of thousands of readers” with the Stingo who, a few pages later, is gravely reflecting upon George Steiner and all the problems inherent in writing about the Holocaust. Could the younger Stingo, as presented, have written a book as good as Lie Down in Darkness—or are we meant to think that he would have written something very different, which nonetheless won great critical acclaim?
One’s instinct is to detach Styron from his Doppelgänger. Is it possible that Styron is playing a complex literary game of some sort, endowing Stingo with the externals of his own career, using him for purposes of self-parody, establishing him at an ironic distance from himself? Or is the whole thing an exercise in self-castigation? Alas, there is no way of telling, for Stingo’s voice is the only voice we hear (apart from dialogue), and there is nothing in the novel itself (as distinct from what Styron might tell us elsewhere) that can be used to gain perspective on the author’s intentions with regard to his persona. For me, the voice of Stingo, added to the other deficiencies of the novel, makes it difficult to regard Sophie’s Choice as even a noble failure.
July 19, 1979