Tragedy, comedy, history, kunstlerroman, social satire, cultural critique, romance, autobiography—there are a lot of modes for telling a story. Then there’s the problem of theme. Do you want to investigate madness, evil, slavery, unrequited love, sadomasochism, power, justice, gender, sexuality, creativity, jealousy, young adulthood, freedom, race, religion? It’s a lot to choose from! Most writers would do well to pick just one and stick to it. (Writing a good novel is hard enough as it is.)
William Styron’s 1979 masterpiece, Sophie’s Choice, however, contains all of the above, and then some. But if that makes it sound like some kind of postmodern hodgepodge full of plotless digressions and non sequiturs, replete with extraneous footnotes and whimsical asides (you know the kind of book I’m talking about), then think again. It’s actually one of the most engaging and entertaining novels of the late-twentieth century. It’s also one of the funniest.
I’d venture that most people know something of the plot of Sophie’s Choice thanks to Meryl Streep’s turn as the eponymous heroine in Alan Pakula’s film adaptation of the same name. Or at least they know about the horrific “choice” that Sophie’s forced to make between her two children upon entering Auschwitz. But, for reasons that elude me entirely, very few people seem to talk about the book anymore, much less actually read it.
The story is told by a young man called Stingo, a sobriquet he earned as the result of a childhood odor problem. A Virginian by birth, he finds himself living in New York (it’s the late 1940’s), working as an editorial assistant at a publishing house, and fumbling haphazardly toward a literary career. Full of the hubris and insolence of youth, he spends his days mucking around in the slush pile and writing cruel and self-satisfied editorial reports about the submissions. “How I gloated and chuckled as I eviscerated these helpless, underprivileged, subliterary lambkins,” he boasts.
Styron (and his narrator) can be just as sincere as he is funny—just as compassionate, moral, and philosophical as he is witty.
He’s a hoot to read, but this callow narcissist would seem to be an unlikely candidate for telling the tragic story of a Holocaust survivor. Yet that’s just what unfolds.
After losing his job—or quitting, depending on how you look at it—Stingo’s forced to move across the river and take up residence in a shabby boarding house in Flatbush. It’s there that he meets Sophie, a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz, and her boyfriend, the sadistic, psychotic, suicidal Nathan.
Over one summer, these three denizens of The Pink Palace, as it’s called, become embroiled in a tragic love triangle, during which Sophie relates to Stingo the narrative of her suffering at Auschwitz (and the “choice” she was forced to make there), and Stingo struggles to write a novel (which turns out to be Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness).
If this doesn’t sound quite as funny as I’ve suggested, then that’s because I forgot to say that in addition to the storyline summarized above, Sophie’s Choice is also about a young man’s coming of age, which is to say his tireless campaign to get laid for the first time.
Here’s Stingo gearing up for a long-awaited escapade with the intellectual but prudish Leslie Lapidus, “rhyming, please, with ‘Ah, feed us’ ”:
“Like any writer worth his salt, I was about to receive my just bounty, that necessary adjunct to hard work—necessary as food and drink—which revived the fatigued wits and sweetened all life. Of course I mean by this that for the first time after these many months in New York, finally and safely beyond peradventure, I was going to get a piece of ass.”
Note the ironic self-importance (“Like any writer worth his salt”), and the perfectly executed interplay of high and low register, from the archaic “peradventure” to the vulgar “piece of ass.” This is comic prose at its very best, and there’s plenty more like it to be found throughout the book.
But it’s not all fun and games. Styron (and his narrator) can be just as sincere as he is funny—just as compassionate, moral, and philosophical as he is witty. Sophie’s backstory, and Stingo’s growing infatuation with it—and with her—make for a heart-rending tale of passion, longing, uncertainty, and regret. Sophie’s Choice is as much a portrait of grief as anything else. And over some five hundred odd pages, Sophie’s despair—and Stingo’s enduring effort to understand it—accrue in mass and meaning (earned largely in counterpoint to the high comedy found elsewhere.)
Sophie’s Choice is also a triumph of literary daring. In a brilliant and impressive narrational feat that comes off not in the least bit showy, Styron manages to absorb Sophie’s confession into the novel’s intrinsic structure almost without our noticing. By seamlessly weaving a close third-person account of her experience into Stingo’s first-person, these harrowing passages of evil and depravity (as well as resilience) immerse the reader not only in the story of Sophie’s past, but also in Stingo’s honest attempt to make sense of it in the present. The device feels less like metafictional pyrotechnics and more like that most primordial act of human intimacy: storytelling.
Stingo’s (and Styron’s) best effort to tell a story to which he was not firsthand witness comes at some ethical cost, however, and the novel calculates that risk with serious consideration. “I have been haunted,” Stingo confesses in a moment of self-doubt, “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.”
What, in other words, does a young man from Virginia know—or have to say—about the evil and suffering that took place at the Nazi death camps? The horror was unspeakable, the anguish unknowable. For this reason, Theodor Adorno said there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. George Steiner said silence was the only answer.
But those aren’t arguments Styron can finally accede to. “The embodiment of evil which Auschwitz has become,” he writes, “remains impenetrable only so long as we shrink from trying to penetrate it.”
In his audacious, wide-ranging, hugely entertaining, and deeply moral exploration of evil, passion, madness, love, and guilt, Styron reminds us that storytelling—that is, the attempt to penetrate experience with language; the attempt, however feeble, to understand—isn’t an intrusion upon the lives of others, but is in fact an affirmation of all that which connects us—namely, compassion, empathy, imagination, intelligence, and, yes, humor.
Set for Life by Andrew Ewell is available from Simon & Schuster.