Thursday, September 21, 2017

Book 95: Sophie's Choice

"I was unable to make the anthropomorphic leap and thus failed to comprehend the resemblance between a swan and any specific human being, but Sophie swore that they were dead look-alikes, began to call him Tadeusz and murmured to him in little glottal clucks and clicks of Polish as she heaved at him the debris from her bag. I rarely ever saw Sophie lose her temper, but the conduct of the other swans, bossy and preemptive, so fatly greedy, infuriated her and she yelled Polish swear words at the big bastards and favored Tadeusz by making sure that he got more than his share of the garbage. Her vehemence startled me. I did not—because I could not at the time—connect this energetic protectorship of the underdog (the underswan?) with anything that had happened in her past, but her campaign for Tadeusz was funny and immensely appealing."

Dates read: September 30-October 8, 2016

Rating: 6/10

Lists/Awards: National Book Award

Growing up, we all read books and stories about the Holocaust in school. We all learn about Auschwitz and the ovens. But for me, personally, there were three movies that took it beyond words in a history book and made the horror of it visceral: Schindler's List, The Pianist, and Sophie's Choice. They are all beautifully and powerfully made films that I never want to watch again. There's something about actually seeing it depicted on film that takes what is objectively horrible on the page (all three are based on books) and makes it just a harrowing gut punch almost too much to be borne. It's still hard to read about, but not as hard as watching it.

William Styron's original novel of Sophie's Choice takes us to post-WWII Brooklyn. It's not the poverty-ridden borough of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, but neither is it modern-day wealthy hipster Brooklyn. It's in-between, an "ethnic" (read: mostly Jewish) working-class neighborhood. It's in a boarding house there that our narrator, aspiring writer and native Southerner Stingo, finds himself after he quits his dead-end publishing house job and can't afford Manhattan any longer. His first day in his new room, he's treated to the sound of noisy, athletic sex in the room right above his...and not too long after, he meets the lovers, Sophie and Nathan, in the midst of an awful, emotionally and physically violent public fight.

The pair are soon reconciled, though, and Stingo is quickly drawn into their orbit. Beautiful Sophie is a Polish survivor of Auschwitz who does secretarial work for a chiropractor, and the mercurial Nathan is an American Jewish medical researcher, and Stingo falls a little bit in love with both of them as he begins to write a novel based in his experiences of the South. But another messy fight and breakup between Sophie and Nathan ultimately reveals that neither of them is exactly who they seem to be and makes their tragic end seem inevitable.

This took me unusually long to get through: not because the subject matter is tough, even though it is, but because the book is just dense. Styron's prose tends towards the purple, and while usually I'm down with books that are on the overwritten side, it's a lot, you guys. It feels like the writing is struggling against the story, almost, trying to keep it from sweeping over the reader. There are plenty of remarkable passages, but the ratio of those to portions that drag isn't nearly high enough.

The story of Sophie and Nathan, when it manages to take off, is sweeping and powerful and dramatic (if a bit on the Freudian side...there's a lot of eros/thanatos stuff going on). But what grinds it to a halt is the character of Stingo. He's an obvious writer-insert character, and Styron badly overestimates how interesting the portion of the book that's devoted to his sexual frustration is. It's not only boring, it's cringe-worthy, especially the section where he jerks himself off while sharing a hotel room with his father and makes so much noise when he finishes that he wakes his dad up. I'm not going to say that no one wants to read about that because maybe someone does, but it's tonally discordant with a book that's mostly about the evils humans inflict on themselves and each other and the way we tell our own stories to try to shape the world into a way we can better cope with it. There's greatness here, but it desperately needed a better editor to cut it and make it shine like it should have. As is, it's worth reading but not something I'd honestly recommend.

Tell me, blog friends...can you rewatch those kinds of movies?

One year ago, I was reading: The Professor and the Madman

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