Friday, September 28, 2012

Review: Sophie's Choice by William Styron

The Gates of Auschwitz via
Reviewed by Connie

Published: 1979

It's about: "Stingo" is a 22-year-old Southerner who moves to New York in 1947 to become a novelist. Not long after moving into his Brooklyn apartment, he befriends an unlikely couple who live above him -- she, Sophie, is a beautiful Polish survivor of Aushwitz concentration camp; he, Nathan, is a charming Jewish research biologist prone to extreme fits of anger. The book follows the intertwining stories of all three characters, frequently including lengthy recollections of Sophie's experiences in Auschwitz.

I thought: I really, really enjoyed this book. It is beautifully done. I love how the story progresses, alternating among Stingo's struggles (to become a great writer, to reconcile his family's history with slavery, and to get laid), Nathan and Sophie's turbulent history, and Sophie's recollections of Germany-occupied Poland and her more than one-year stint in Auschwitz Concentration Camp. It varied the tone and pacing of the book enough to keep me interested for all 600 pages.

Also, it's just great story-telling. Sometimes, you learn something about Sophie's history only later to learn it was all a lie, a lie that Sophie tells Stingo and herself because she can't bear to admit the truth. Her Aushwitz experiences are not presented chronologically but in bits and pieces as Sophie becomes more comfortable opening up to Stingo and revealing her dark past.

Styron has been accused of pretentiousness because of the extensive and frequently obscure vocabulary he adopts in the book. It's true -- there are a lot of infrequently used words, words I haven't seen since studying for the GRE. But I found the prose endearing and well-suited to the voice of the main character, a self-important aspiring writer who even invents rave book reviews for his as yet unfinished, unpublished works.

I also find the elevated prose contrasts wonderfully with Stingo's twenty-two-year old sexual frustration to hilarious effect. For example, take the following passage:

"I was mulling all this over when I was made suddenly aware -- in the room directly over my head -- of a commotion so immediately and laceratingly identifiable, so instantly, to my tormented ears, apparent in its nature that I will avoid a more circumlocutory 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 f***ing like crazed wild animals."

It's probably the former English major in me, but I feel like I could write about 10 different critical essays on various topics in this book. For example, I find Styron's comparison of anti-semitic Europe to racism and slavery in America very compelling. I won't share the many other topics I've thought of writing about, as they might spoil one of the surprises in the plot for you.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about this book is that though I find Stingo's sexual frustration generally amusing, there did come a point around page 400 when I found it rather wearying. I found myself thinking, "Oh come on, just lose your virginity already and quit fantasizing about and agonizing over it." Although, I imagine that's how Stingo also felt, so in a way, I was forced to relate to his experience in some way.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf

Meryl Streep as Sophie
Reading Recommendations: I read this book before seeing the Oscar-winning movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep, which I plan to watch in the near future. I'd recommend doing the same, as the meaning of the title isn't clarified until the very end of the book. I imagine it would be harder to work your way through the near 600 pages of the book if you already know the ending.

Warnings: This is definitely an R-rated book. There's no shortage of f-words as well as other profanities used in reference to body parts. There are also several descriptive sex scenes.

Favorite excerpts:
"There are friends one makes at a youthful age in whom one simply rejoices, for whom one possesses a love and loyalty mysteriously lacking in the friendships made in afteryears, no matter how genuine."

"Someday I will understand Auschwitz. This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will ever understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: Someday I will write about Sophie's life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world. Aushwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Aushwitz was not a statement at all, but a response:
The query: 'At Aushwitz, tell me, where was God?'
And the answer: 'Where was man?'"

"I did not weep for the six million Jews or the two million Poles or the one million Serbs or the five million Russians -- I was unprepared to weep for all humanity -- but I did weep for these others who in one way or another had become dear to me, and my sobs made an unashamed racket across the abandoned beach; then I had no more tears to shed, and I lowered myself to the sand on legs that suddenly seemed strangely frail and rickety for a man of twenty-two."

What I'm reading next: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (!!!)