the Modern Library dust jacket for William Styron's National Book Award Winner - Sophie's Choice

Sophie’s Choice

  • Rank:  #40
  • Author:  William Styron  (1925  –  2006)
  • Published:  1979
  • Publisher:  Random House
  • Pages:  626
  • First Line:  “In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn.”
  • Last Lines:  “This was not judgment day – only morning.  Morning: excellent and fair.”
  • ML Edition:  1998 gold hardcover
  • Film:  1982  (****  –  dir. Alan J. Pakula, #1 film of 1982)
  • Acclaim:  National Book Award; Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the Twentieth Century #96
  • First Read:  Fall, 1998

The Novel:  “The query: ‘At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?’  And the answer: ‘Where was man?’ ”

In some ways I could leave it there, with a quote from late in the book.  Stingo has come out the other end of his experiences: “Someday I will understand Auschwitz.  This was a brave statement but innocently absurd.  No one will ever understand Auschwitz.”  In a lot of ways I would like to leave it there, not to drag myself through the depths of horror in this novel to find the brilliance of narration, the poetry of language, the beauty in the words that encapsulate evil.  I am not Jewish, not Catholic, not Polish, not gay, not a gypsy, not a Communist, none of the things that the Nazis attempted to eradicate.  I know no one who survived the camps.  Yet the camps, their existence, the death that came for a brave young girl 30 years before I was born long ago shook my faith to its core and it blinked out of existence.  It didn’t fade away – it was there, then it was gone.  But I have already written about that once, an experience I don’t care to repeat.

Yet, at the heart of it all is Auschwitz.  There were other camps, of course.  But it is Auschwitz, the camp of Mengele, of Wiesel, of Schindler’s List.  It has transcended its original description to be a language for unrighteous death, for genocide, for evil itself.  So it becomes the perfect place with which to view the Holocaust from outside the eyes of the Jewish.  Instead, we get a look at Sophie, a Polish Catholic who finds herself at Auschwitz and faced with a terrible inhuman choice.  Because there was no god and there was no man.

This might be the strangest place in the world to see a Superman reference but a quote keeps coming back to me, from the first Christopher Reeve film and used so well in the Superman Returns trailer: “They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.”  Because of course, man can be a great people and they do have that capacity for good.  And Auschwitz seems to be the opposite of that.  For a time that light blinked out of existence.

But the novel is drawing to a close before we ever learn what horrible choice Sophie was faced with.  Before that, we have a beautiful tale of a boy, slowly growing into a young man and of the woman he so desperately loved and the man that, in a sense, haunted them both.  He is a writer (“At twenty-two, struggling to become some kind of writer, I found that the creative heat which at eighteen had nearly consumed me with its gorgeous, relentless flame had flickered out to a dim pilot light registering little more than a token glow in my breast, or wherever my hungriest aspirations once resided.”) out in the world.  And that world comes to him in a way he could never have imagined.  It comes to him in the love of Sophie (“I was able to discern only her disheveled mane of straw-colored hair . . . and a broad, lovely swerve of Slavic cheekbone across which a single tear rolled like a drop of quicksilver.”), in admiration of Nathan (“He was brilliant on Dreiser as he was on Whitehead’s philosophy of organization.”) and about in the world (“There was a huge and troubling vacuum created by this question which I could not possibly fill with an immediate answer, so freighted with ponderous meaning did I realize that the answer now had to be.”).

But we are left with Sophie’s tragic story, and, after her “frantic and orgiastic attempt to beat back death,” we have own words, the haunting words of someone who has survived pure evil and come out the other side: “FUCK God and all his Hände Werk.  And Life too.  And even what remain of Love.”  But even as, sadly, evil endures, so too does life endure.  And Love too.  And we all wake, not to Judgment Day, but to morning.

Sophie's Choice - the masterful 1982 film from Styron's novel

The Film:  Once you have given a performance like this, everything else really is just cruising.  Of course, when you are Meryl Streep, cruising means a career filled with more Oscar nominations than any other actor in history, female or male.  But nothing compares to this.  She is so beautiful and sexy, vulnerable and tragic, pain and love mixed in one performance.

So what makes it better?  Are you better off having read the book, or at least knowing what her choice is before you ever see the film?  But can even that prepare you for that brutal moment, near the end of the film, when it takes place?  Can anything in life prepare you for such a moment?

Is perhaps the Streep performance too good?  That’s my explanation.  Because she won the Oscar, the Globe, all the critics, everything, except, for some reason, the BAFTA.  But the film didn’t get much attention in Best Picture awards.  And, sadly overlooked, was one of the most startling debut performances in film – the brilliant Kevin Kline as Nathan.

Streep wins the Nighthawk Award, of course.  And Kline wins as well for Best Supporting Actor.  And the film is my #1 film of 1982.  Because to see this film is to understand the pain of growing up and falling in love with someone so ethereal and mystifying, but also the pain of falling in love with life – the idea that life can triumph over all, that love can triumph over all.

Of course, sometimes love isn’t enough and life isn’t enough and that’s what poor Peter MacNicol, so perfectly cast as Ringo, will discover.  He will find love and he will find life and in the end neither is strong enough to push away the memory and the shadow of evil and darkness.