A survivor, Elie Wiesel, has written: “Novelists made free use of the [the Holocaust] in their work…In so doing they cheapened [it], drained it of its substance. The Holocaust was now a hot topic, fashionable, guaranteed to gain attention and to achieve instant success…” I do not know how ultimately valid any of this is, but I am aware of the risk.
I do think that Wiesel’s point is valid and I don’t think Styron’s/Stingo’s recognition of the risk is enough to shield Sophie’s Choice from that particular criticism. In fact, I don’t think that novelization of Holocaust experiences automatically cheapens them, but I do think that Styron’s novelization of it does. I think part of Styron’s goal is to address the cosmic inequity of life as Stingo relates the cheerful banality of his own life to that of Sophie. On the day Sophie entered Auschwitz and “fell into the slow hands of the living damnation” Stingo was enjoying a beautiful day in Raleigh where he was gorging himself on bananas. The contrasts are effective, but that, and the thoughtful comparison of the Holocaust and the American South were not enough to keep the day-to-day musings of a horny 22-year old virgin from cheapening Sophie’s story.
Even setting aside the issue of the Holocaust I was somewhat put out by Styron’s focus on Stingo’s libido. I object not for reasons of prudery, but because it just came across as the musings of one of those late middle-age white male writers who seem to think that graphic sex is somehow edgy or shocking. A male writer’s pornographic fantasy trying to masquerade as something symbolic or profound.
Sophie’s Choice is number 96 on the Modern Library’s Top 100 list. I generally don’t make comments about whether or not a particular book should or shouldn’t be on that list. And I won’t do so now, but I was struck by one rather interesting reoccurring aspect of Styron’s novel. Stingo, struggling young writer that he is, mentions many books and authors throughout the narrative and I was struck by how many of them are on the Modern Library list. It got to the point where it seemed like the panel that chose the Top 100 might have used Styron’s novel to create the list. Styron mentions 17 by name and refers to an additional four by mentioning their Top 100 listed novel. Including Styron’s own place on the list, 22 authors—almost a third of the 77 authors on the list—are mentioned in Sophie’s Choice. The Top 100 list is a pretty conventional list of reputedly canonical books so it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that Styron’s hero’s world of venerated authors is equally conventional. What is kind of amusing is that in the last third of a century of great books that Styron managed to write something that earned him a spot in the pantheon of great writers he so admired. It was almost as if invoking the names of so many “greats” assured him his place on the list.
Despite my challenges with various aspects of this novel (only a few of which are mentioned here), I am glad that I read it and I hope my review doesn’t dissuade anyone from picking it up. It is definitely worth your time, no matter what you ultimately end up thinking of it.