on August 21, 2006
In Sophie's Choice, William Styron does a masterful job of telling a horrific tale in bearable way. Sophie is a Polish Christian who survived 18 months in Auschwitz before the camp was liberated by the Allies. Of course her story is heartbreaking. But Styron unfolds the tale in a way that allows the reader to take it all in without being crushed by the sadness of it.
First, instead of marching out the story of Sophie's capture and imprisonment in chronological order, Styron layers it on, each layer building on the next. When the 22-year-old narrator, Stingo, a Southerner who moved to Brooklyn to write novels, first meets Sophie in the summer of 1947, she gives him only the briefest of versions of her experience in the war. It is only as they grow closer as friends that Sophie, through a series of drunken encounters, provides more details to Stingo, each time admitting that she had lied to him before in earlier versions of her tale.
By presenting the horrifying particulars bit by bit, Styron seems mindful of the warning, and even quotes Stalin as saying, that a "single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." The reader sees the tragedy of Sophie's experience because, by offering just a little at a time, Styron allows the reader to digest her story, along with a great deal of information about the Holocaust in general. If Styron had presented her story in full from the beginning, the awfulness would be numbing.
Also, Styron balances Sophie's tragic past with her tragic present in Brooklyn. In love with Nathan, a brilliant drug addict subject to violent fits of jealousy, Sophie has no chance of building a "normal" life in America. But, given her experiences in the concentration camp, it is impossible to imagine how she could. Rather than present an unbelievable fairy tale of survival, Styron uses the tortured relationship between Nathan and Sophie as the catalyst for her revelations to Stingo, as well as the vehicle of her ultimate, and well-foreshadowed, undoing.
Finally, for all its sadness, there is plenty of humor in the book. Some of Stingo's failed romantic adventures are downright funny, as are his self-deprecating descriptions of his writing efforts. Again, without these side stories offering a respite from the main narrative, Sophie's story would be unbearable.
Sophie's Choice is going in my Top 10 favorite novels of all times. I don't know yet what it is bumping off the list, but it is definitely going on.
on December 7, 2001
Sophie's Choice almost lost me in the first thirty pages or so, but thank goodness I hung in there. A tragic yet surprisingly non-depressing story (at times humorous, at times sad, but always compelling and riviting) of three people, Stingo (the narrator, a Southern youth yearning to be a writer living in the utterly strange world of New York), Nathan (Sophie's lover, brilliant, fascinating, and troubled) and of course Sophie, the beautiful Polish Auschwitz survivor who utterly captivates Stingo's imagination, who become, as Stingo quotes Sophie, "the closest of friends." And the friendship this lonely Southern young man develops with these two exotic (to him) individuals is at the heart of this compelling novel. Styron's story actually weaves together two stories: that of Stingo's journey of self-discovery "in a place as strange as Brooklyn" and that of Sophie, a "bruised and battered child[ren] of the earth," whose gently playful personality stuggles to survive her guilt about her past and her passionate but difficult and sometimes shocking relationship with Nathan. Styron accomplishes the difficult task of making the reader appreciate, understand, and even admire the character of Nathan by telling his story through Stingo's eyes, so despite Nathan's flaws, and indeed Sophie's as well, the love Stingo feels for them both is believable and moving. The gradually revealed tale of the concentration camp is grim and realistic, and Sophie's telling of it illuminates the source of the guilt which is destroying her : her choice, or choices--for there are many choices, although the one referenced in the title stands starkly, horrifying alone. By the end of the book, I loved Stingo, Nathan, and Sophie and while I did not exactly foresee the ending, afterward its inevitability...even its rightness...convinced me that this book was lovingly crafted by Styron. The movie, for which Meryl Streep deservedly won an Oscar, is a honorable attempt to be true to the heart and soul of this story, but only reading it allows one to experience its true power. Don't be discouraged if the first pages don't grab you; your patience will be rewarded with a gem of a book, a genuine work of literature, and something approaching, if not actually achieving, greatness.
on March 2, 2000
Often compared by literary critics to Toni Morrison's 1987 Beloved, for the choices women and mothers are forced into under the most desperate of circumstances and conditions, William Styron's 1979 novel Sophie's Choice is a non-step textual tugging at the heart. In spite of the long passages replete with narrator Stingo's onanistic details (he hasn't gotten any, so the irony is, of course, that he lives in a place called the "pink palace"...hmmm...what's that a euphemism for?), this novel of a Holocaust survivor is not easily put out of one's memory. There are few books I internalize and metaphorize and carry around with me; this is one of those books. The humorous description of the McGraw/Hill publishing offices in Manhattan in the late 40s is a superbly hilarious way to open this novel. We are then introduced, at a rooming house in Brooklyn, to Sophie Z. and Nathan Landau, two of the novel's central characters. We learn that Sophie is a Catholic Pole who survived Auschwitz, but is still haunted by a "choice" she was forced to make while there. I agree with my fellow critic who states that the scene of Sophie's choice (set in the novel on April 1st, nonetheless, echoing, I would assume, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man)is so dramatically underplayed that I had to re-read it three times to make certain I didn't miss some critical nuance. Styron's choosing to portray the scene from which the novel's title comes as quietly and near the end as possible is a stroke of literary brilliance and keeps the reader page turning without end to find the answer to the question: What was the "choice"? Of course, in the course of the novel, Sophie Z. is faced with numerous choices, but only one choice matters; no, scratch that, all her choices matter, but this one choice is the most soul destructive of all; the self she fled with will ultimately be destroyed by a Brooklyn Jew. Forget the film; it damages this beloved text like any film does. William Styron's brilliance and specificity create a novel (based on a true story--in part, from Olga Legnya's Five Chimneys, which Styron discusses in the re-released 1999 afterword) that deals not only with the Holocaust and its implications for discussion and analysis (Sophie is a Catholic Pole, after all, not a Jew) but with the more mundane factors in life--like brilliance hindered by madness and insanity. A very sharp and unforgettable reading experience. I ask you to approach it with an open heart.
on March 2, 2000
William Styron has written a profoundly moving and disturbing novel with 'Sophie's choice'. The story of Sophie, a beautiful Polish Catholic who survived Auschwitz and was left with no family, and Nathan, her schizophrenic American Jewish lover, as related by Stingo, a naive but sensitive 22 year-old Southerner wishing to be a writer, is, perhaps, one of the most harrowing stories one can manage to read. Styron evidently conducted a considerable amount of research on the Nazi occupation of Poland and the hideous dynamics of their concentration camps, and his synthesis through Sophie (whose name, etymologically, means knowledge) is convincing and compelling. But what makes 'Sophie's choice' go beyond a mere historical novel is the excellent way in which Styron weaves Sophie's story with those of Nathan and Stingo and the deep ruminations on the nature of evil and madness and their consequences. Although Styron sometimes gets long-winded, especially when he has Stingo ponder about sexual matters, the novel succeds in making us understand a sad historical event in more humane terms. Perhaps a creative university professor teaching World War II history would be wise enough to assign this novel to make students realize that history is not, as somebody once facetiously said, 'one damn fact after another'.
on November 29, 1999
The story of Sophie, a Polish girl who survived a Nazi concentration camp and is living in Brooklyn, her lover Nathan, a wild, weird, and sometimes wonderful guy, and their friend Stingo, who grows up to be the writer that describes it all. As the story moves through the lives of these three in Brooklyn, Sophie tells Stingo, in bits and pieces and with lots of flashbacks, the tale of her life in Poland and in Auschwitz. Her complex and contradictory feelings about her life, her father (who was actually a supporter of Hitler's so-called Jewish Solution), and her experience in Auschwitz are revealed bit by bit, complicated by her attempt to hide some of the things she feels most ashamed of. How Styron weaves these threads into such an engrossing and riveting story is an absolute wonder. His is a dazzling display of lyrical and powerful writing, combined with an equally dazzling display of a deep and compassionate understanding of the human heart. They made a movie of this book (Meryl Streep played Sophie and won the Oscar for best actress that year; Kevin Kline played Nathan), and I recently watched it again. At each scene I was disappointed, not because of what the movie showed, but because of all the things I knew had to be left out. This is a wonderful, wonderful book. It will make you cry, and make you laugh; it will make you depressed; it will make you stand up and cheer. You will cherish each and every page. It is truly one of the greatest books ever written.
on September 6, 2002
William Styron's "Sophie's Choice" has to stand as one of the 20th century's great American novels. Based very loosely on his own experiences in the late 1940s in New York, Styron makes himself into a writer called Stingo who moves into a boarding house in Brooklyn, where he meets a Polish emigré named Sophie and her dangerously unpredictable lover, Nathan. With great delicacy and restraint, Styron traces the evolution of the friendship and love that entangles these three and which has stunning consequences.
For those who have only seen the 1985 movie starring Meryl Streep (and for which she deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar), do yourself a favor and read the book. The movie was indeed wonderful, but the book is so much richer and more detailed and Styron's mastery of this compelling narrative is marvelous to behold. For those who have NOT seen the film, you will assume that "Sophie's Choice" has to do with Nathan and Stingo. Heartbreakingly, it both does and does not.
Styron has an incredible gift for injecting humor into dark situations. He makes Stingo an inordinately horny, frustrated, pained, wise-cracking man in his early 20s--Stingo leaps off the pages as fully formed and utterly human. Nathan too, in a much different way, is three-dimensional and fiery with life. Sophie is rendered in more delicate tones than the two men, which makes the final chapters of the book all the more powerful. We see what she has withstood and what she has given up and it is inescapably heartbreaking.
The book's ending is utterly right and the inexorable product of all that has gone before it. Styron has taken an enormously complex panoply of subjects--young manhood, post-WWII New York, mental illness, obsession, guilt, and more--and structured them into one of the most un-put-downable novels you will ever read.
on February 27, 2003
It's not surprising that Sophie's Choice is considered by many to be one of the great novels of the twentieth century. Styron imbues his characters and story with a life of their own. Like many great books (such as Nabokov's masterpiece, Lolita), Sophie's Choice combines elements of Comedy, Drama, Tragedy, and Horror into a compelling whole which draws the reader in. The three main characters are beautifully fleshed out, as are many of the minor characters. Much has been said about the major characters by other reviewers, I'll mention two minor ones. I found the whole Leslie Lapidus episode to be hilarious. She is a perfectly believable character, and Stingo's experiences with her added some levity to what is often a very somber story. The other minor character I found interesting (for different reasons) was Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau. His character was disturbing precisely because he was such an ordinary man. In a different time and place, he would have been a petty government bureaucrat, perhaps working for the IRS. He studies septic system diagrams for the camp, and gets migraines worrying about production delays in building the new crematorium at Birkenau. In one scene, he sits with Sophie (his secretary) in his attic office at Auschwitz, gazing out the window at his Arabian stallion in its paddock, and marveling at its beauty. From the other side of the house, Sophie hears the constant rumble of the boxcars shunting off the main line with their human cargo. The juxtaposition of the two is quite creepy, and illustrates the complete moral disconnect of the man. What he does for a living would be much easier to explain if he were some kind of sadistic psychopath, but he doesn't even seem particularly anti-semitic. It is his ordinariness which is so disturbing, and it is Styron's power as a writer which brings such characters to life.
on October 25, 2002
I made the decision to read Sophie's Choice after revisiting the Modern Library's 100 best books of the 20th century. I've found that sometimes "classics" can be technically perfect and admirable masterpieces yet not always engaging. This certainly does not pertain to William Styron's novel.
Few books have had me so riveted or emotionally drained after reading them. The saga of Sophie's story is a monumental piece of writing by Styron. Slowly but surely, he builds the story. He expertly weaves real life characters from Auschwitz into the narrative, chillingly recreating that awful scenario.
The main character, Stingo, begins to peel back layers of the truth with flashbacks to pre-war and then occupied Poland. Stark recollections from an emotionally drained Sophie bring descriptions of the terror of life in the concentration camps. From her bourgeous life to these camps and the (as one review aptly put it)unspeakable evil of the decision she was forced to make. It is a stunning moment and one that makes the awful conclusion understood.
One of the best novels I have read in years.
I recently finished this book after years of putting off reading it. I knew the story, and I thought the book may be too depressing or Mr. Styron's writing too daunting for me. But I was looking for a long, engrossing book so after reading the other reviews, I thought I would try it.
I am so glad I did. What a beautiful, sad and haunting book. And what a wonderful writer Mr. Styron was. Since I was looking for something engrossing, I chose the right story. I was so involved with these characters, I would think about them when I was away from the book, and yes, it was depressing, but well worth the read. I can't say enough about this book, but to read it is to experience it, to feel it. I know this will be a book I will read again one day.
on March 2, 1999
Sophie's choice: By William Styron.
Outstanding piece of literature. Somehow It makes me believe that a great portion of this accomplishment is not fiction at all, but a real life story with characters that get so much into the deepest inner self of the reader inciting him to not want to stop reading.
There are three aspects of this production extraordinarily remarkable:
Firstly, the use of great prose and vocabulary. Styron plays with words to conceive the greatest work of description I have read.
Secondly, all the details of the horrendous, not forgivable, indescribable, examples of crimes executed during the Holocaust. Specifically in Auschwitz, Birkenau concentration camps, with its crematory installations, and of the way some polish people acted, and so many of them also died, leads me to believe that 100% of the facts did occur as utterly wrong as Styron relates them. This seems no fiction but reality
And last but not least, Sophie, the beautiful, fair, polish woman that relates her story during those years. She relates her life intermittently positioning lies between true events all throughout this piece of literature.
And almost at the end relates how she is imminently condemned to take the most hideous choice of her life. The one that leads her to the most shaking end .
To closure my summary, I shouldn't fail to convey that the idiosyncrasies of the personalities are anything but conventional, and the narration, done by the young and naive writer Stingo, whose life seems to be a self-portrayal of Willian Styron himself.
No wonder it has earned a National Price Award.
Please anyone send me suggestions about other Titles as good as this.