10 August 2010

Book Review: Sophie's Choice by William Styron

  
Even though I have not seen the film adaptation of Sophie’s Choice, I must say that I had a very difficult time not seeing and hearing Meryl Streep every time Sophie spoke. And while I don’t dislike Ms. Streep, I don’t think she is as brilliant an actor as the rest of the world seems to think. Whenever she plays a role, whether she nails the accent or not, I always just feel like she is Meryl Streep. So to have her flit into my mind repeatedly as I read this often weighty story was distracting to say the least.

Sophie’s horrifying Holocaust experiences are told as a story within a story. The outer story is about our narrator and “hero” Stingo, a struggling, young Southern writer who is living and trying to work in New York City in 1947. The connection between those two stories, besides Stingo’s friendship with Sophie, is ostensibly the similarities between the violence and racism of the Nazi regime and the violence and racism of the American South. One could argue the merits of such a comparison, but I think there are enough parallels that make it worthy of exploration. What was more problematic for me was the juxtaposition of Stingo’s horny, struggling writer story with the heart wrenching tale of Sophie’s life before, during, and after her time in Auschwitz. Oddly enough I think Styron himself was trying to inoculate Sophie’s Choice from that very observation. In the novel, Stingo opines about the hazards of writing Sophie’s story.
A survivor, Elie Wiesel, has written: “Novelists made free use of the [the Holocaust] in their work…In so doing they cheapened [it], drained it of its substance. The Holocaust was now a hot topic, fashionable, guaranteed to gain attention and to achieve instant success…” I do not know how ultimately valid any of this is, but I am aware of the risk.
I do think that Wiesel’s point is valid and I don’t think Styron’s/Stingo’s recognition of the risk is enough to shield Sophie’s Choice from that particular criticism. In fact, I don’t think that novelization of Holocaust experiences automatically cheapens them, but I do think that Styron’s novelization of it does. I think part of Styron’s goal is to address the cosmic inequity of life as Stingo relates the cheerful banality of his own life to that of Sophie. On the day Sophie entered Auschwitz and “fell into the slow hands of the living damnation” Stingo was enjoying a beautiful day in Raleigh where he was gorging himself on bananas. The contrasts are effective, but that, and the thoughtful comparison of the Holocaust and the American South were not enough to keep the day-to-day musings of a horny 22-year old virgin from cheapening Sophie’s story.

Even setting aside the issue of the Holocaust I was somewhat put out by Styron’s focus on Stingo’s libido. I object not for reasons of prudery, but because it just came across as the musings of one of those late middle-age white male writers who seem to think that graphic sex is somehow edgy or shocking. A male writer’s pornographic fantasy trying to masquerade as something symbolic or profound.

Sophie’s Choice is number 96 on the Modern Library’s Top 100 list. I generally don’t make comments about whether or not a particular book should or shouldn’t be on that list. And I won’t do so now, but I was struck by one rather interesting reoccurring aspect of Styron’s novel. Stingo, struggling young writer that he is, mentions many books and authors throughout the narrative and I was struck by how many of them are on the Modern Library list. It got to the point where it seemed like the panel that chose the Top 100 might have used Styron’s novel to create the list. Styron mentions 17 by name and refers to an additional four by mentioning their Top 100 listed novel. Including Styron’s own place on the list, 22 authors—almost a third of the 77 authors on the list—are mentioned in Sophie’s Choice. The Top 100 list is a pretty conventional list of reputedly canonical books so it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that Styron’s hero’s world of venerated authors is equally conventional. What is kind of amusing is that in the last third of a century of great books that Styron managed to write something that earned him a spot in the pantheon of great writers he so admired. It was almost as if invoking the names of so many “greats” assured him his place on the list.

Despite my challenges with various aspects of this novel (only a few of which are mentioned here), I am glad that I read it and I hope my review doesn’t dissuade anyone from picking it up. It is definitely worth your time, no matter what you ultimately end up thinking of it.

 

25 comments:

  1. I have always been curious about this book, but have avoided it at the same time. I'm afraid of the impact the story will have on me. Afraid I could not deal with it.

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  2. I do plan to read this one someday. It seems as though it has been on my list to read forever. I've not seen the movie either so you can tell I am a bit behind the times when it come to Sophie's Choice. Thank you for your thoughtful review.

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  3. The book moved me (my grandfather was in the Dutch underground so I have always found a connection with books from this time) as did the movie (I heard an interview the other day with a Polish woman and immediately thought of Meryl Streep!).

    However, for me , Thomas Kennealy's Schindler's List and Spielberg's movie of same were extraordinary and leave Sophie's Choice in their trail..

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  4. Well, you talked me out of it. I've always stayed away from it, thinking that it would be too intense for the mother-heart in me (the Sophie part of the story). Having never seen the movie either, I wasn't aware that there was more than one story line going on, but I think having read your summary that Stingo would infuriate me if I was having my heart ripped out by the Sophie story line!
    Thanks for the review - I may not write it off forever, but it will be pretty far down on the list.

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  5. I had no intention of reading this, not having liked the movie much, but I must pipe in and say how very much I agree with you about Meryl Streep. I never feel like she disappears into a role the way my favorite actors do. So glad to know I'm not alone in this!

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  6. Iris: It should have been more devastating than it was. No doubt for the reasons I describe.

    Kathleen: I don't feel the need to see the film. Although I had issues with the book I am guessing I would like it better than the movie.

    Mary: How fascinating that your grandfather was in the Dutch resistance. Have you read The Assault by Henry Mulisch? Takes place in Nazi-occupied Haarlem.

    Susan: I am a little curious to see if the film has the double storylines.

    Teresa: As bloggers it is our duty to slay sacred cows and let our contrarian notions run wild.

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  7. I read this one a few years ago and really loved it. I hadn't seen the movie at the time either but have since and Meryl is amazing in it!

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  8. Interesting and thoughtful review, Thomas. I want to read this one day, but I will go in forewarned that it may not be all I expect it to be.

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  9. I've heard so much about this book, obviously because of its provocative material. But I really liked that quote you referenced by Wiesel, as I often feel the Holocaust has become an overused trope in fiction, which perhaps has started to detract from the original event.

    May still try this one someday, but your post certainly gave me much food for thought!

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  10. I have had this on my shelves for some time but didn't realise it was a story-within-a-story. You have intrigued me rather than deter.

    As for Meryl Streep, I'm not a huge fan either but I did think she was outstanding as Julia Child.

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  11. I got stuck in this one sometime in my 20s, which I seem to recall had more to do with my recoiling from his impressive vocabulary than anything else; I did read -- and finish -- his memoir Darkness Visible shortly afterward, and found that of interest, particularly given some of the themes explored in Sophie's Choice.

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  12. I have so often considered reading this - thanks for the splndid review

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  13. I haven't seen the film since it came out, but my memories are that it, and esp. Ms. Streep, were shattering. I am susceptible to virtuoso high style acting though.

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  14. I loved this book when I read it many years ago. Especially the bubblegum pink house and Leslie Lapidus! I do think you make some very good points in your review, though. RIP William Styron.

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  15. This is a really great review of a book that I have never read but have heard so much about. It's interesting how the term "Sophie's Choice" has entered the language as well, even though most people, I assume, haven't read the actual book.

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  16. Thanks for the review of the book. I do have to say it's odd to disparage Meryl Streep's acting ability particularly when you haven't seen the film for which she won an Oscar.

    Having seen her bald, bone thin, speaking German and Polish, I think it's fair to say she disappeared into that role.

    I'd also suggest if you haven't Silkwood (where her entire body language and demeanor embodies a poor Southern woman), Kramer vs. Kramer, the Devil Wears Prada, and Doubt, she deserved the recognition she got for all of that work.

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  17. By the way, looking at your favorite movie list, are you going to tell us you think Emma Thompson disappears into her roles? I see Emma every time I see her; not that it's fitting, but once an actor becomes famous, it's hard not to make this claim for all of them, and I'd dare say Ms. Streep, who is deeply admired by Ms. Thompson, disappears more into her roles than a favorite of yours. Yes?

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  18. Elise: It seems I am going to have to rent the film and she how it translated onto the screen.

    Rachel: It is definitely worth giving a try. I am glad I read it.

    Steph: I certainly think it is a real danger.

    Claire: I am glad I piqued your interest.

    Buried in Print: He does come across as a Man of Letters.

    Hannah: It was on my radar for a long time as well.

    Steve: It is clear from comments that I am going to have to rent this one.

    Vintage: I liked those parts too, I just had a hard time switching back and forth between that and the Holocaust. I think they could have been two books.

    Aarti: I didn't talk about the "choice" in my review just in case there was a reader out there who didn't already know.

    GreatDane1: Interesting, I thought I was going to get in trouble for going after Styron's book and not for my comment about Meryl Streep. You may have a point about once an actor becomes famous it is hard to not see them in the role they are playing. As for Goddess Emma Thompson) no, I don't particularly think that she disappears into her roles or at least she disappears to the same degree that Streep does. My undying love for Emma Thompson is when she plays the character that I expect her to play like in Howard's End, Sense and Sensibility, Remains of the Day, An Education, and to some extent Peter's Friends and In the Name of the Father. I think the thing with Emma is that I tend not to like her as much when she plays contemporary characters. I am afraid to see Last Chance Harvey for that very reason.

    Because I hadn't seen the movie, it was Streep's voice from that awful, awful movie she was just in with Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin that kept popping into my head as I read the book. And that, is not the voice that one should here when reading this book.

    And Oscars are not a very good gauge of an actor's talent. If it were I should be allowed to go over to Helen Hunt's house and rip hers off the mantle and hand it over to Julie Christie or one of the other amazing female actors who were nominated that year.

    I have seen Silkwood and The Devil Wears Prada and a many other Streep films and while she plays almost every part well, I still just see Meryl Streep. Now is it as problematic for me as say Winona Ryder who can only play herself even when she wears a bustle (Age of Innocence)? Not even close. But that is because Ryder couldn't act her way out of a paper bag.

    But I keep going back to your comment about all famous actors having a hard time disappearing in roles. I think you may be right on that.

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  19. I don't see the virtue of "disappearing into" a role. Almost any iconic actor that I can think of is iconic (or a force of nature, or bigger than life, or a star) partly because of the power of their personality. Same goes for singer - you never for minute forget that it's Callas or Fischer-Dieskau. In fact, the same goes for writers who have a strong voice; their personality intrudes on to every page that they write.

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  20. I am not surprised that most of books name-dropped in a novel would be considered modern classics, but I am surprised by the sheer number.

    I have not read "Sophie's Choice" (I actually saw the movie a few years ago, which is rare for me) and I suppose some day I will, but I suspect I will have to be in the right mood for it. I feel that setting aside the Holocaust story, I might still have difficulty reading the book (your point about Stingo's libido comes to mind). Very interesting review.

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  21. I appreciate the thoughtful response, but I will quibble in this sense:

    I find it hard to believe that you see that Emma disappears into her roles to the degree Meryl Streep has -- I see the same British woman, same stance, same voice, same everything but outfit.

    My guess, rather, is that your affection for British novels and period pieces makes her seem more fitting for those characters, while you see Streep trying to stretch herself more, in films that don't necessarily appeal to your taste in the same way.

    Especially if you're not convinced by her skills, that of course could also account for your views.

    I still maintain that, as to Sophie's Choice book, Streep's Sophie is a beautiful realization of that character. The most poignant scenes in the book are pitch-perfect on screen, and the concentration camp footage is heartbreaking. Very few other American actresses, including Emma, could have pulled it off.

    Maybe it should have been cast with a Polish actor unknown to American audiences, but it might not be on DVD if it were.

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  22. Steve: I think you may be right.

    Biblio: The sheer number had me surprised too. I didn't even mention all the classics that noted that weren't on the Top 100 list.

    Great Dane: I am going to number my thoughts so I can keep track of them. 1) I put Sophie's Choice at the top of my Netflix queue, so I will be seeing it soon. 2) I may have overstated about Emma disappearing into her roles, but I also think it is subjective, 3) I as much as admitted that I like a certain kind of English fiction and film, HOWEVER, I read and watch many, many other things that don't fit that mold and I love a wide range of it. So I must disagree with the notion that I am incapable of appreciating a "stretch" or some role that is not all English and cozy. 4) My husband agrees with you!

    :)

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  23. Well, you certainly haven't dissuaded me. In fact, you've made me think I ought to move it along to the first chapter of my TBR tome.

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  24. Wasn't Styron actually on the board that chose the Modern Library Top 100 books? It always seemed like a conflict of interest at best and a shameless act of ego at worst that his work was included when he served as a judge.

    As for your assessment, I agree completely. If Styron is trying to challenge Wiesel's assertion, he fails. Should I ever make a personal "Top 100," Sophie's Choice will be conspicuously absent.

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  25. Emily: I am glad this made you more interested in reading it. I wouldn't really want the opposite.

    Dormouse: If he was on the board that would sure explain a lot. I wonder if any other board members have their books on the list.

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