Review of Sophie's Choice by William Styron

First read: 7/2000
Reviewed on: 7/20/2000
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

This is the fourth draft of my Sophie's choice essay.  I'm finding it very hard to write, because I usually start these things off by saying something personal about myself, or what I was doing when was reading the book, or whatever.  But this book has stirred up enough in me, that as soon as I start writing, all of a sudden I'm writing a personal essay about myself that is long even by my own standards, and I have to start again.

I keep wanting to think, "This was primarily a novel about <>" and I'm always wrong.  But it isn't a hodgepodge novel either, flitting from subject to subject in a desperate method to be deep.   Ultimately, this is a great novel in my opinion because it tells a good story, and it also gives the reader a lot to think about.  Maybe I'm writing this too soon.   My mind is still buzzing from reading it.

Like many novels I wind up loving, and like many novels I wind up hating, the first couple of sentences filled me with fear of incipient tedium:   "In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn.  This was in 1947, and one of the pleasant features of that summer which I so vividly remember was the weather, which was sunny and mild, flower-fragrant, almost as if the days had been arrested in a seemingly perpetual springtime."  I read that, and then immediately checked the page count.   562 pages.  Shit.

But the weather has been very nice, and work is going well, and basically I've really been in a mood to read.  So I wasn't going to get depressed, I was going to read.  And this book was wonderful.  I found myself reading it every chance I got.  I stayed up late, I got up early.  Not just because the plot was gripping but that this was a book I enjoyed being in.

I'd seen the movie previously.  It was made back when Meryl Streep was discovered as the United States' greatest active actress, and there were no roles for her.  So she was often promoted as a carnival sideshow act.   "Come and See our own Meryl Streep!  In THIS movie, she speaks German with a Polish accent!  Can you believe such a thing?"  The book and the movie had the same rough plot (The book having more of it, of course) but they were entirely different experiences.  This is a tale that really takes time to experience, and a movie just can't give you that time.

Also, the movie cut out the funny parts.  Once, when I was in college, and fairly inexperienced, I had unsuccesfully flirted with a woman who was visiting my house.  She left, and I felt terrible.  Then, when we were talking on the phone, she said, "Oh, I would have loved to stay and fuck you silly, but I had to get home and walk the dog.  Maybe I could come over Friday?"  The agony of waiting those three days, and my total inability to concentrate on anything during that wait is something I just can't describe.  But Willyam Styron can; something very similar happens to Stingo, and I was laughing both at him and at my younger self.   Out loud. 

This part also made me laugh out loud, for a different reason.   Stingo, our Southern narrator, is speaking with Nathan, a Jewish whirlwind.   The latter is speaking:

"...historically and ethnically, Jews will be coming into their own in a cultural way in this postwar wave.  It's in the cards, that's all.  There's one novel already that's set the pace. ... it's the work of a young writer of absolutely unquestionable brilliance."

"What's the name of it?"  I asked.   I think my voice had a sulky note when I added, "And who's the brilliant writer?"

"It's called Dangling Man," he replied, "and it's by Saul Bellow."

SAUL BELLOW!  I've read The Adventures of Augie March and thought it was terrible.  I hated that book.  It doesn't matter that Saul Bellow is Jewish like me.  It doesn't matter that his niece bought me sushi two months ago.   I hate his writing, and it was very jarring to have him pop out like a Jack-in-the-box.

I was forced to confront my own bigotry while reading this 'un.   The narrator is Southern, and his origins are very important to him, his character, and the novel.  Yet he uses literary allusions, and is clearly an intellectual.   That was jarring to me.  The fact that it jarred me meant that there was something festering and ugly in me, that I hadn't noticed until I read Sophie's Choice, which alone made the novel worth the $14.00 I paid.  (My Uncle Irving might have been able to get it for me wholesale!)  It was appropriate that I had to deal with that in myself; one of the major themes that is explored is the relationship between the northern Jew, Nathan, and the southern Gentile.  Nathan comes down on Stingo for the bigotry in the south.  When Stingo denies bigotry in him, Nathan doesn't yield, claiming that he has to share culpability if he did nothing to stop it.  Stingo loses it, and points out people have been blaming all Jews for the death of Christ for years and years, and maybe Nathan should, of all people, understand the dangers of common guilt.   Which ties into the whole Holocaust thing, and Sophie's experience, and I haven't even started talking about Sophie, the MAIN CHARACTER, who is the most...

See, I'm beginning to talk too much again, and I don't want there to be a draft five.

Sophie's Choice is an incredibly rich novel that may actually be my new all time favorite.  There is a lot of depth to it, a lot to think about it, but it doesn't read like a work of Philosophy.  It reads like a great tragic story, with three main characters that will probably be with me for the rest of my life.   All I want to do is write more... there is so much that this book makes me want to say. 

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