Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron
This is the first book in a long, long time that it’s taken me over a week to read. In fact, I was at this book for a solid two weeks. This might well be because of the subject matter–I love Holocaust literature. I think watching the ways that different authors handle the subject is fascinating and worth extra time to pay attention to the specific verbiage that’s used. For me, these are not books you read for plot.
I didn’t know Sophie’s Choice was a novel, but I’ve never seen the movie and I couldn’t even remember who was in it, so I think that gave me a fairly clean slate to start from. And when I first started reading it, I also recalled that it’s been a really long time since I read anything from the 70s. In fact, my tastes skip largely over the 1970s. In recent months I’ve read books written in the 1800s, in the 1930s and 1940s, and of course the 80s, 90s, and 00s, but not in the 70s. I think this is why:
Do you see that? Do you see the enormous unbroken paragraphs of text? I think this is why. When I think back to Rabbit, Redux, or The World According to Garth, this is what I remember. Long, intimidating paragraphs. Maybe I’m wrong. But these are just my impressions.
Okay. Anyway. Sophie’s Choice was highly entertaining. It was a little too meta for my taste: a writer sifts through his memories about a woman he met over 25 years ago, ostensibly with the goal of eventually writing a novel about her from these memories. The very meta-ness contributed to the long passages in this book, and also to some of the asides and references that any normal researching writer would make if he were actually in the midst of crafting a novel from a life experience. There were a few offhand references to contemporary writers (Stingo, the protagonist, is at his funniest and most revealing when he comments that some of his own characteristics and stylings appear in books like The Catcher in the Rye) and some diction that was so annoying flowery that my urge to look them up was overpowered by my annoyance at Stingo’s affectations.
But these are all things that, ultimately, allowed me to get to know Stingo and become as vested in what was happening around him as he was. The thing I love about this book is that, although Stingo feels overpowered by his experience with Sophie and her lover Nathan, and by her history at Auschwitz, his narration is truly coming-of-age story.
It wasn’t immediately obvious to me why I kept on plowing through this book: there was so much stuff in it. There are some fairly interesting historical anecdotes, and Sophie’s tumultuous relationship with Nathan is like watching a train wreck. Her personal history is just as interesting, especially because she’s a totally unreliable narrator of her own tale, and Stingo tells us so at the beginning. We are always waiting to see what else she left out.
In the end, I was surprised to note that this book wasn’t interesting to me because of the tattoo on Sophie’s arm, but rather, because I was anxious to see Stingo grow through his summer in Brooklyn, and because I was curious to see what would happen to him.
Stingo’s a fine protagonist–headstrong and stupid with youth and love, supported by a meager sum of money and his own wits. He also has the capacity to grow. So while he’s very much a watcher in the events that unfold in front of him, he’s by no means a Nick Carraway, content to stand by as the other character’s lives unfold in ever more destructive ways.
He’s a classic strong protagonist. And if 1970s literature is peppered with characters like this, then perhaps that decade is worth another look-see, long agonizing paragraphs notwithstanding.