Sunday, August 18, 2019

Sophie's Choice (1979)

It's possible I might have liked Sophie's Choice more in another mood but I wasn't in that mood and so I have these complaints. First, it's an egregious example (or is that a very good example?) of a narrative style I call "peekaboo." In a peekaboo story the storyteller lets you know there's something to know but keeps declining to disclose it even though he (meaning William Styron in this case) has to know it's the reason you're there. So, in a novel that runs to nearly 600 pages, with this title, we do not learn until about the last 50 what Sophie's choice specifically was. We know it is likely horrible, because the setting is Auschwitz during World War II. How could it possibly be good when it involves Nazis? But the first 550 or so pages are spent on weird things: the preoccupations of a budding Southern novelist in postwar New York, a horribly abusive relationship, and other things that seem beside the point. In fairness, Sophie Zawistowska is probably a good portrait of a Holocaust survivor. But I'm not done complaining yet. This peekaboo story is told loop-the-loop fashion—the primary action takes place over five months in 1947 but there are flashbacks all over the place and the main thread is often lost. Which is OK because it's mostly unpleasant. But there you are, still hoping to find out, and soon, what this Sophie's choice thing is. I'm often enchanted with loop-the-loop storytelling (e.g., The Great Gatsby, Frederick Exley's memoir A Fan's Pages, most Philip Roth), but the voice really has to be compelling and the transitions artful and intuitively right. I didn't like this narrator with his Southern literary pretensions. Good grief, his name is "Stingo," and oh, what do you know, he went on to write a novel about Nat Turner (yes, this novel has flash-forwards too, what loop-the-loop story does not?). Frankly, Sophie's boyfriend Nathan should have been abandoned by every one of these characters before page 50. He's an awful person who makes you awful too if you accept his redemption even a little. Maybe it's because he reminded me of someone. Last, on my list of major complaints, is Styron's vocabulary: perdurable, coralline, secreted (can't he see it's one of those distracting self-antonym words, like cleave or oversight?), heliotrope, neurasthenia, viscid, renascence, matutinal, chatelaine, bediademed, unguentary, prothalamic. I really got tired of looking up words that turned out to have perfectly useful, lovely, and well-known synonyms (for example, "matutinal" means "occurring in the morning"). Nor was the level of poetic flight noticeably elevated. I didn't even remember until I'd finished Sophie's Choice that Styron also wrote Lie Down in Darkness, which I read and remember liking very much a long time ago. Somehow I missed even the movie that came of Sophie's Choice, but it's probably just as well. I seriously doubt it's better than this novel and I'm not even sure this novel is that good. Between Nazis and the South, it's a bit much. Thus, finally, my very last little complaint is once again with the weirdly scattershot Modern Library list of the best novels of the 20th century. If Styron belongs on it at all, an arguable point, it should be for Lie Down in Darkness. Or maybe The Confessions of Nat Turner, though my enthusiasm for getting to that one might be on the wane after this.

In case it's not at the library.

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