Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Readers and Writers Have Much to Learn from Author William Styron in His Sophie’s Choice

Finding the right title for a book is often the bane of an author’s existence. One highly successful present-day author is so book-title challenged that she runs contests among beta readers to come up with the best titles for her tomes. Author William Styron (1925 - 2006) didn’t have that problem, and of all of the great titles among his published works, the absolute spot-on one is Sophie’s Choice, published in 1979. Apart from the fact that it has found a home in the lexicon as an idiom translated as “faced with a forced decision in which all options have equally negative outcomes,” amazingly, those two little words hold within themselves the entire description of this 626-page novel. This is because contained in every major theme of this masterwork, Sophie is confronted with unbearable choices—she just can’t win, a consequence infecting everyone else around her—and of course, that is the seminal factor of the story. She is doomed, as is her paramour Nathan. An adjunct to the story is Stingo’s unlucky fate, as well—Stingo, the narrator of this story about three people in three separate rooms in a boarding house in post Second World War Brooklyn and the third leg of the ménage a trios around which the novel is constructed—Stingo, the young and naive writer whose life can only be construed as a portrayal of Willian Styron himself; Nathan, the drug-riddled, brilliant and charismatic lover; and Sophie, the beautiful and embattled Polish survivor of the Nazi terror, around whom the plot centers in regard to a tragic decision she was forced to make upon imprisonment at Auschwitz Concentration Camp during the war.
            Stingo’s Sophie’s Choice, to make use of the idiom here, was whether or not to woo Sophie, for whom he suffered an agonizing passion, or to honor his friendship with Nathan. A choice between his unbearable life or release through self-inflicted death was Nathan’s Sophie’s Choice. And Sophie’s options, or lack thereof, were fixed a handful of years before, specifically on the day she came face to face with the fascists' hideous ignominy toward life—her chances ruined by the blight it continued to cast on her life, as on countless others, for incalculable years following the war to defeat Hitler's evil regime.
Despite his unrequited desire to bed Sophie, and his failed attempts at love with every surrogate female who crossed his path, Stingo/Styron did walk away with a good story that found voice in the bestselling Sophie’s Choice, a winner of the US National Book Award for Fiction and the book widely considered his greatest literary achievement. Five years in the writing, the book was, says Styron, “suggested by a mere germ of experience. I had been living in a boardinghouse in Brooklyn one summer just after the war and such a girl lived on the floor above me; she was beautiful, but ravaged. I never got to know her very well, but I was moved by her plight. Then, about five years ago, I awoke one morning with a remembrance of this girl; a vivid dream haunted my mind. I suddenly sensed that I had been given a mandate to abandon the novel I had been at work on and write her story.”
Although deemed a modern masterpiece and a profound meditation on the foremost evil of the Twentieth Century, it is not without controversy, especially among those who consider some topics so heinous as to be unspeakable. A number of his detractors found Styron opportunistic and exploitive in this choice of topic, this one especially judged the third rail of letters. Styron answered his critics thusly: “No event could be so hideous that it would defy a novelist to trespass upon it. It was an episode in history that cried out to be explored, the ultimately challenging subject for a novelist.”
Bringing history to life in fiction can be tricky business. The central dilemmas of the authors of historical fiction are how to avoid coming across as pedantic, as well as how to bypass stiff and dry parroting of statistical information gleaned through research. The best advice I can offer in that regard is to study Styron’s techniques in this book. He couched his deep exploration of the history of the Nazi’s horrendous pursuit of a "Final Solution" in his characters—the actions of his characters revealed the history. He made an untouchable and unutterable story, real and describable by having his characters sweep the floors and vomit all over themselves and pee their pants.      
An additional literary device Styron used successfully, and an effective one often employed by writers, is the suggestion of background music to set a mood or design an ambience, and in this case, to announce Sophie’s presence or absence in her room. Nathan’s phonograph and enviable collection of long-playing classical records, housed in Sophie’s room, were crucial to the story. I last saw this method used in an outstanding book I read in recent months which I will review here in the coming weeks—a novel titled Those Who Save Us, authored by Jenna Blum, another book centered on Second World War Europe. 
I would venture a guess that far more people are familiar with the Academy Award-winning film of the same name than with the book. Although an outstanding film, one of the best, do yourself a favor and read Sophie’s Choice. Savor Styron’s intricate weaving of Stingo’s story, which the film downplayed, but which is the driving force of the book, lending it a full compliment of emotions and diversity of experiences that divert to lighter places, here and there, the heavy stream this novel follows. In addition, Styron’s elaborate prose is not to be missed…but keep your dictionary handy. Styron loved his polysyllabic words. Ha Ha!



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