Thursday, February 14, 2008

Modern Library Top 100: #96 - Sophie's Choice by William Styron (1979)

It’s probably not possible to write a bad Holocaust book, even if the book in question is totally innocent of literary quality. Tapping into the reservoir of shock and shame that still guides our collective memory of that madness is the ultimate storytelling crutch. The Manichean reality of the camps and ghettos is so unbelievable that first-person accounts of it would read almost like a simple morality fable about the apotheosis of evil, if not for the 12,000,000 bodies that make the fable very, very real.

Against that backdrop, it’s easy to see how even unskilled hands can craft from such duality something overwhelmingly affecting. Witness Elie Wiesel’s Night. Certainly not one of the great novels I’ve read, Night is seared into memory because despite its literary faults, it describes, simply, those acts of unequivocal selflessness transpiring contemporaneously with similarly pure evil (there is no other word).

But if Holocaust literature is always an affecting experience, for a long time it suffered from being told from a single, unwavering paradigm—that of the survivor memoir. Then, in 1979, a middle-aged Virginian gentile by the name of William Styron had the audacity to publish Sophie’s Choice, one of the first (and certainly the most commercially viable) efforts of fiction to bring the Holocaust home, so to speak. Styron’s protagonist Stingo is a wide-eyed twentysomething boy, a southern gentleman-in-training living large in the Big Apple. And he experiences the Holocaust only indirectly, through the recounted memories of his fictional neighbor Sophie, memories that ultimately destroy her.

Almost immediately after its publication, Styron was attacked from more or less every corner. How dare this American, this interloper, shoehorn his way into the tragedy of tragedies that, ultimately, isn’t even his story to tell? And do so by inventing a horror amid an epoch rife with horrors already beyond imagination?

That question of “ownership” of the Holocaust is essential, I think, not only to Sophie’s Choice but to a whole bunch of other political shit that Neon Hustle strives to avoid, something I'll honor here. Suffice it to say, the cacophony of Styron’s detractors ultimately couldn’t smother what was undeniably a great novel. Partly as a consequence of Sophie's Choice, then, the Holocaust has come to be seen equally as a Jewish (and Gypsy, and Polack and Slav and homosexual and Soviet POW) experience and one that speaks to every global citizen. Speaking delicately, while you can’t really fault the survivors for defining their Holocaust experience as theirs and theirs alone, that impulse to exclude the rest of us 60 years later makes it more difficult for to appreciate, even sympathize with, what they endured.

So what makes Sophie’s Choice such a great book? Probably it’s Sophie herself. She is beautifully, brilliantly drawn, and if Styron didn’t actually know anyone like her in his too-short life, he certainly did his homework to create such a convincing character. Garrulous and withdrawn, exuberant and abject: Sophie embodies the withered dreams of her generation. This is a book I read twice through (I had erroneously assumed, being the lummox I am, that Sophie’s choice was a choice between sparing her child and herself, not a choice between saving one of her two children, a prism which undermined the experience for me the first time round. Plainly, the lesson here is to approach all things with an open mind, or at least a bare minimum of foreknowledge) and each time Sophie jumped off the page, someone you desperately want to talk to even while knowing that you’ll despair at what she has to say.

There are some faults here, of course, particularly Styron’s attempts at tying together the Holocaust and U.S. slavery. But rarely is a sweeping 600 page novel absolutely perfect. Credit Styron for aiming for the stars and getting at least as far as the moon, an accomplishment that’s still impressive 30 years on.


Darryl said...

Is it really not possible to write a bad Holocaust book, or is it that we're prevented from a critical analysis by the gravity of the subject matter? I've generally been reluctant to engage texts about the Holocaust in any form (from Maus to Schindler's List to Everything is Illuminated) for a few reasons. Some of them are personal, but even as I've addressed those I still find myself hesitant to enter something where my experience is pre-determined and somewhat beyond a critical lens.

Do you think we have enough distance now as a culture to critically evaluate Holocaust texts? I think I might, but I'm still reluctant to watch Schnidler's List because there's no acceptable way to finish watching the film other than the rote recitation of platitudes on the horrors of the Shoah.

Steven Simunic said...

You're assuming that critical analysis can be done in a vacuum; I'm not sure that it can. The paradigms which shape our analyses are governed not by rational objectivity but by our own experiences and memories, shared or otherwise. And the Holocaust, more than anything else I can think of (probably even more than the Abrahamic religions) will be with us for as long as there are people able to pass down humanity's collective memory.

Which is why I say it's (probably) not possible to write a bad Holocaust book. Even if it fails on its merits as literature, it'll always succeed in a much more normative way in bringing us closer to that experience. So sure, I can critically evaluate Holocaust texts (like when I say "Night" doesn't work for me as a novel) but I understand that the deeper pull of "Night" isn't about its storytelling acumen, and that's the reason schoolchildren will be reading it for centuries. It's the same thing with Schindler's List, I suppose, which I didn't think was a great movie, even though I'll remember it till the day I die. We may have enough distance as a culture to critically evaluate Holocaust texts, but we'll never have enough distance to dismiss them from the canon.

The interesting thing about Sophie's Choice is that it's about the Holocaust, but it's a fictional account of what could have happened to one person in the Holocaust, told from the aged memory of a boy who crossed that person's path many years ago. That distance allows you to judge the book more on its literary merits, which I absolutely loved, but it also explains why it was never taught in my Holocaust lit class in High School.

Is that a bad thing? I'm honestly not sure.