I’ve always thought William Styron one of the truly great American writers: I read and admired The Confessions of Nat Turner in college and was deeply moved by “Rat Beach,” a story of his posthumously published in The New Yorker in 2009—and I really never like stuff about the military (Catch-22 notwithstanding, because it’s just that good).
As for possibly his most famous novel, Sophie’s Choice, written in 1979 after he’d already achieved acclaim (and a Pulitzer Prize) for Confessions, I’d never even seen the movie based on it, which almost everybody has, even if they’ve never read the novel. I’m glad I held off, though, for while I knew the nature of the eponymous choice—revealed only in the penultimate chapter—I didn’t know how the intertwined lives of the beautiful Polish immigrant Sophie Zawistowski, her lover Nathan Landau and the novel’s narrator, Stingo (a 22-year-old aspiring novelist from Virginia) in a Brooklyn boarding house unraveled themselves. I of course won’t reveal that denouement here, but it’s not giving anything away to say that tragedy pervades the book—the tragedy of the Second World War, of the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz, of disease, of abandonment, of torture, even of of unrequited love and sexual unfulfillment. Styron is such a gifted writer that he at times almost makes you forget the verity of what he writes toward the novel’s end: that no suffering is beautiful or “precious,” that death is death and no matter what the circumstances of one’s execution (the “hero’s death,” for instance), it is always excruciating.
Sophie’s story is meant to elucidate the fact that the Third Reich’s campaigns of terror touched everybody, not just the European Jews (though there’s no denying they got it the worst, nor that the Holocaust was overtly intended as a “final solution to the Jewish problem”). Styron makes much of the fact that, despite being Polish, Sophie could pass for German: She looks the part, with her fair skin and blonde hair and Aryan beauty, and she speaks German fluently, almost better than she speaks her native Polish—a fact that managed to save her life at Auschwitz and get her assigned to the stenographer’s pool and to the home of Commandant Rudolf Höss, who was later tried by the Polish authorities and hanged for his crimes. The scene where Sophie attempts to seduce Höss in order to ensure her son’s release from the Children’s Camp will make your heart stop; it’s almost more moving than vivid depiction of the later “privilege” a camp doctor awards Sophie as she and her children arrive at Auschwitz.
Almsot every book about the Holocaust invites the reader to contemplate “survivor’s guilt”; how are the lucky few that survived staring pure evil in the face ever able to carry on, to live a semblance of a normal life? It’s considered, of course, fairly simplistic to attribute genocide to the innate evil of mankind, and surely there are other, even arguably more important, factors involved, but ultimately, one cannot escape indulging in psychoanalysis when it comes to people like Höss, or Adolf Eichmann, or even Adolf Hitler himself. When Eichmann maintained at his trial in Jerusalem that he never had any personal enmity toward the Jews, there’s no real reason not to believe him. The fact that he’s likely telling the truth is perhaps the scariest part. The more I read about and study the perpetrators of the Holocaust, the more I realize they were, despite their terrible deeds, functionaries; the “banality of evil,” as Hannah Arendt puts it, was fully operational not on an individual but a collective level. The Third Reich’s depravity, then, can almost be looked at as an emergent system, with entities that are ineffectual (I mean this in the most cynical sense) on their own but functional as a unit. You can’t “break down” the story of Germany from 1933 to 1945; hundreds upon hundreds of academics and novelists and victims have tried, but no convincing answer for how or why has ever (or will ever) appear. Styron is aware of this psychological dead end, and so he focuses instead on what can be viewed discretely: the victims. Again, Sophie’s story is so ungodly horrible, and her day-to-day domestic life in Brooklyn so unpredictable, that the reader marvels at her strength but knows, in the back of his/her heart, that Sophie is ultimately doomed.
Sophie’s Choice is a sad book, of course, but a great one. The early life of the narrator, Stingo, is startling autobiographical; an aspiring novelist, he plans to write books about the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion named Nat Turner as well as an old flame from Virginia who committed suicide by walking off a rooftop (the latter inspiration conjures Styron’s first novel, Lie Down in Darkness). The novel sometimes seems a bit “crowded” (the similarities between Nazi Germany and the antebellum South are interesting, but aren’t—or cannot be—fully explored), and Styron’s prose is sometimes amusingly florid or even laugh-out-loud ridiculous (“I was a recumbent six-foot-long erogenous zone”). But the story’s power is unparalleled; it moved me to tears, and I’m surely not the only one. Read it; it’s worth it.