- The Bottom ShelfNovels I Keep Failing to Read
I love William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice, but I have never been able to finish reading it. Once, I got to page 312, a little more than halfway through the Vintage paperback edition. Usually I stop much sooner, unable to face yet another protracted scene of the paranoid schizophrenic Nathan Landau’s crazed behavior, vicious diatribes, escalating threats, devastating exits. I know these “mysterious vicissitudes of his mind and mood” are intended to be harrowingly dramatic, accumulating intensity and alarm as they foreshadow doom. They are meant to make readers feel what Nathan’s targets feel, to make us identify with Nathan’s self-loathing Polish lover, Sophie Zawistowska, and with the novel’s overwhelmed narrator, Stingo. But for me the scenes lose edge and interest as they recur two, three, four, five times, adding little about the characters, whose responses remain essentially unchanged. I had gotten the point earlier.
Not only Nathan’s eruptions, but everything vital in the novel is pitched [End Page 401] to extremes, a tonal and dramatic feverishness that becomes wearisome. Sophie’s past and present degradations, for example, are relentlessly extravagant. Presented in fragmentary flashbacks, the wartime loss of her parents, husband, and way of life in Krakow; her arrest and deportation by the Nazis; her terrible experiences at Auschwitz are all relived in prolonged close detail. I understand Styron aims to provide maximum clarity about such awful events, and to present the Holocaust from the unfamiliar angle of a non-Jewish victim. But the flashbacks are slowly woven among scenes from the novel’s present setting in which Sophie endures a hideous, public, faintinducing humiliation in the Brooklyn College library followed by a grotesque New York subway molestation followed by an utterly incapacitating illness and chiropractic mishandling, together with Nathan’s ongoing torments, Stingo’s soaring lust, and adoration from her English teacher. The “beautiful body” she lugs around like a burden, and which so many male characters make demands upon, possesses a “sickish plasticity” and “sallowness,” signs that it was “not wholly rescued from a terrible crisis.” Early in the novel, Stingo intrudes upon her privacy and sees her toothless face, further shattering Sophie’s façade of balance. Meanwhile, as Styron doles out the misery, Stingo is repeatedly subjected to shame in his most sensitive areas—his writing, sexual cravings, southern heritage, conflicting needs for fellowship and solitude—and even his father must be mugged when he visits New York.
Styron’s compounding of calamity strains credibility, exhausts my tolerance, numbs my responses, and diminishes what Sophie had endured under the Nazis by making it just one more item in the catalog of trials. While my resistance to these scenes and dynamics escalates, so does the urge to skip yet another digression providing background on the Nazis or on the history of the Old South. Stingo’s familiar erotic fantasies and scarcely credible sexual encounters grow unendurable. Sophie’s English farcically falters time and again, despite Styron’s declaration that after her “first few months” in America “her difficulty with the language” was “soon overcome.” Stingo stews and struggles and stews and struggles with his writing; fellow boarders step from the wings for needless cameos illustrating “the intense Jewishness of the little scene”; narrative repetitions mount, and I cannot go on.
I recognize that my reaction to Sophie’s Choice may be eccentric. After all, the novel is an enduring classic, ranked 96th in the Modern Library board’s list of 100 best novels of the 20th century, and 57th on the Radcliffe Publishing Course’s rival list. But the experience of reading at its best is passionate and quirky, informed by all sorts of needs, expectations, experiences, prejudices, and situations. I know that the way Sophie’s Choice seizes me, then loses me, says at least as much about me as about the novel. I am defeated by its excesses, though most readers are not, yet I return to Sophie’s Choice again and again. Because there is so much about the novel that appeals to me, especially when I am not reading it, I delude...