Many World War II based novels, that came into prominence in the later part of 20th Century are mainly from Europe, especially that are on the the theme around holocaust. Most of the stories are similar with various degree of suffering and survival. You find many of them are repetitive and predictable to an extend. When I picked up Sophie's choice (after gathering dust for good 10 years) , I was prepared to read yet another holocaust story. But this was surprisingly different in its approach The protagonist is an American, young wanna be writer in his early twenties and the victim or sufferer is not a Jew as is in most of the cases. Hugely successful upon publication, this was later adapted into an Oscar winning movie, with Merryl Streep winning the best actress portraying Sophie, the holocaust victim.
Year 1947, America is recovering from the great depression and the aftermath of a long war. Stingo, upcoming writer employed with McGraw Hill ( similar to William Styron's own early years),loses his job and moved in to a Brooklyn new house run by old lady. The Pink house,as he call it, also has other inhabitants of various cultural and economic background. Stingo was in particular attracted to a a pair and it took no time to befriend them. Mercurial , short tempered Nathan, who works at Pfizer doing some major research according to him and his possible girlfriend Sophie, who a polish born holocaust survivor. As the tale progresses, Stingo get to know them better and the infatuation or lust towards gorgeous Polish beauty and his instinct as a writer, get his to know the past of Sophie through various drinking sessions and other meetings,
Sophie, already married twice and given birth to two children, before being retained by the German's for allegedly taking meat to her ailing mother. Her father, Professor at the Warsaw University, strong anti-Semite, whose rhetorical and writings causes enough disharmony in the society was also not spared by the Germans. All the academics of the university, that include her father and husband, was shot during occupation. Her knowledge of short-hand ( learned to support her father and her knowledge of German, helped her to get a job at the commanding officers quarters, her son being send to the Children's camp. Her attempt to reunite with her son ( we are yet to understand the plight of her daughter) , she tries to seduce the German Officer. Despite the promises, she was denied the meeting and was taken back to the camps.
However, the relationship with Nathan goes through major swings, due to his sudden shift of moods. Its either the all night noisy sex, or the abuse and insult and him packing off to his brother's. However, for Sophie, its only Nathan left in this world. An anemic, frail Sophie was rescued, treated and fed by him on her arrival to the country. Nathan, as is revealed later, is addicted to drugs and and a suicidal maniac , and the mood swings are a result of these extreme reactions. On an eventful night, Nathan quarrels with Sophie and Stingo, and leaves the place threatening to kill both of them. Fearing danger, Stingo and Sophie escapes travelling to his country farm in the South. Concluding the her story after giving Stingo a night to remember, Sophie return back to New York to be with Nathan and to the possible death.
On completion of reading this mammoth book, what stuck me first was the flawless execution of the book. Its constructed brilliantly and narrated fabulously. The use of flashbacks, the bits and pieces of information that arranged as perfect makes this a good read. The three parallel threads - the tale of Nathan and Sophie , Sophie's reluctant reminiscence of her life in Poland and the concentration camp , Stingo's own personal battle with manhood after two miserable encounter with women, and his lust on Sophie - were aptly paced and placed.
One of the drawback of this was that the story is as told by Stingo and his understanding of Sophie's life. At times, this seems to hamper the power of her life. Even the crucial moment of her life, where she was made to decide between her two kids (You may keep one of your children. The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?) upon arrival at the concentration camp, wasn't very moving. Only when she tells later " Suppose I had chosen Jan to go . . . to go to the left instead of Eva. Would that have changed anything?", you see the impact of the earlier part.
Sophie is ashamed ot her own past, her fathers writings and being part of it in someway ( noting and later typing) she carry the guilt in her. She is also trying to get rid of those suppressed guilt of unable to save her children and about the choice she had to make between her children. She later tries reason it out and console herself saying - "Suppose I had chosen Jan to go . . . to go to the left instead of Eva. Would that have changed anything?". Nathan, is the most interesting character. A Jew, continue to be tormented over the events across the ocean, like most of the youths, succumbs to depression and drugs. Living a life hidden from the outside world ( he even lies to Sophie about his job), Nathan confronts his own demon and always under psychotic tension. Stingo is the alter ego of Styron. A young apprentice in the McGraw Hill in New York, writing his first novel ( which comes in the book which Nathan does the initial reading and praise him for their quality) living in a rented place.
Its these vulnerability of these individuals and their peripheral characteristics make this a strong case for a book. To what extend William Styron manages to capture these subtle changes can be debated. But to me its a well crafted and well executed book.------------------------------------------------------
Sophie's Choice (1979)
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