Thursday, 3 May 2001

William Styron: Sophie's Choice (1979)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1979
Review number: 813

Sophie's Choice must rank as one of the most powerful novels I have ever read. It is the story of young writer Stingo, who meets an older couple, dynamic Nathan and beautiful Auschwitz survivor Sophie. They have a strange, three-way relationship which gradually leads to increasingly harrowing revelations about Sophie's time in the concentration camp, finally culminating in the truly horrific choice she was forced to make.

The novel is not quite as simple as this summary indicates. Important issues separate from the main plot include the fact that Nathan is Jewish but Sophie isn't; not all the victims of the "final solution" were Jews. Stingo is a liberal Southerner, and some parallels are made between Nazi racism and the treatment of blacks in the South. This isn't insisted on terribly strongly, for the obvious reason that the situation in the US has never been as bad as in Germany, but Styron clearly wants to say something about the ways in which things could have developed. (He talks about the way in which populist white politicians such as Huey Long tended to drift into racism at one point; there would have been some possibility that a man like this could have ended up as an American Hitler).

The emotional centre of the novel is, cleverly, not Sophie's devastating flashback descriptions but Stingo's experience of his relationship to the older couple. This contains lust and pity for Sophie, admiration for Nathan combined with apprehension about his growing mental instability, and envy of the love the couple share. This helps the novel because a bare description of the realities of Auschwitz would be numbingly intense; it affects the reader more because of the contrast and relief afforded by the scenes from the novel's present, the late forties. (The odd reference makes it clear that it is supposedly written by Stingo many years later.)

Clearly, Sophie's Choice is an important novel, providing a powerful viewpoint looking back at one of the most terrible atrocities of the twentieth century, helping us to feel why it is important not to let it happen again. It doesn't cover all the aspects of the Holocaust - there is little on why it could happen, or what drove particular officers to such heights of cruelty, for example - but for the themes it concentrates on (being a survivor, being an American Jew discovering what happened after the war), it is masterful.

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