Sophie’s Choice is a great choice for readers

William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice has all-text front cover.
No picture could suggest the subtlety of this novel.

William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is a novel in the guise of personal remembrances told by a writer. Styron draws heavily on contemporary documents to ground his characters’ stories and on details to make readers feel they are hearing a true, first-person account.

Fired after five months at McGraw-Hill, Stingo, a 22-year-old, Duke-educated, Virginia boy settles into a cheap Brooklyn rooming house to devote himself to writing a novel that will out-do Thomas Wolfe.

Stingo’s upstairs neighbors are an unwed couple maintaining separate rooms to comply with 1947 standards of decency.

Sophie is a sexy, blonde, Polish Catholic marked with a number from Auschwitz; Nathan is a brilliant and charismatic Jewish biologist working for Pfizer.

Although Stingo lusts after Sophie, both she and Nathan accept him simply as a friend.

It’s not long before Stingo realizes there’s sinister about Sophie’s obsequious devotion to Nathan despite his verbal and physical abuse of her.

Stingo becomes Sophie’s confidant, hearing about her childhood, prewar life, and what happened to Poles in Auschwitz.

Stingo is far more perceptive about the characters in novels he reads than he is about people in real life. He has to be told what’s wrong with Nathan.

Stryon seems incapable of drawing a flat character or of leaving a detail hanging lose.

Sophie’s Choice is a gem.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
Random House, © 1979. 515 p.
1979 bestseller #2 My grade: A

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My picks of 1967’s bestselling novels

From the 1967 bestsellers, I can recommend two very good novels and one good collection of quotations.

The very good novels are The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron and The Chosen by Chaim Potok.

The good collection of quotations is The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

Quote overlaid on photo of Black Lives Matter rally says white people can't help taunting and tormenting blacks.

Confessions is a novel, but one that’s based solidly in fact, with just Styron’s finessing to make it coherent and powerful for a twentieth century audience.

Nat Turner, a Negro slave who was raised as a “house nigger,” was educated by his owners at a time when allowing a black to have any schooling was a crime.

The family also had Nat trained as a carpenter, gave him his own Bible, and promised him his freedom at age 25.

Before that date rolled around, the family fell on hard times and had to sell their most valuable assets.

One of those assets was Nat.

Because of his carpentry skills, Nat manages to survive under the plantation system, but because of his education, in the white South he finds himself without companionship.

Loneliness warps Nat’s mind.

He begins to believe God wants him to lead a slave insurrection.

In August, 1831, a few dozen slaves in Southampton, Virginia — far fewer than Nat expected to join him — rose up against their white overlords, slaughtering mercilessly.

Styron presents Nat’s story from two perspectives. One is the story he tells his lawyer,  who is more interested in making a name for himself from the trial than in defending Nat.

The other is the story he doesn’t tell his lawyer: the story of what Nat saw, felt, and believed about the people and incidents that shaped his life.

Nat’s inner story is gripping.

He can’t ever be friends with white people:

Even when [white people] care, even when they are somehow on your side they cannot help but taunt and torment you. ~

And he can’t even hope to better himself by talent and hard work:

A Negro’s most cherished possession is the drab, neutral cloak of anonymity he can manage to gather around himself, allowing him to merge faceless and nameless with the common swarm: impudence and misbehavior are, for obvious reasons, unwise, but equally so is the display of an uncommon distinction, for the former attributes can get you starved, whipped, chained, the latter may subject you to such curiosity and hostile suspicion as to ruinously impair the minute amount of freedom you possess.

An historical note in the novel’s afterward reveals that Nat was right to be wary of whites:

All of the insurrectionists executed were given a decent burial except Nat. His body was handed over to doctors who skinned it. A purse was made of the hide, the flesh cooked for grease.

The Chosen

Chaim Potok’s novel about Hasidic Jews in New York City, revolves around a teenager with a different sort of relationship issues.

Two Jewish rabbis talk. Both love their sons.

Danny Saunders, a brilliant boy with a photographic memory, is being raised in an Hasidic home. His father, Rabbi Saunders, refuses to speak to Danny on any topic other than the Talmud.

Danny loves his father, but he’s boiling with anger and resentment about his father’s silent treatment.

At a Jewish inter-mural high school baseball game, Danny vents his hostility on the opposing team’s pitcher: Danny’s powerful, carefully directed swing smashes Reuven Malter in the face with the baseball, sending shards of his glasses into his eye.

Later Danny comes to the hospital to apologize to Reuven.

The two boys, finding they are both without intellectual peers among their classmates, become friends.

Reuven’s father becomes a mentor to Danny.

Reuven becomes a conduit by which Rabbi Saunders tells Danny that his father is sincerely, lovingly doing what he believes is best for him.

The Chosen is a shortish novel, and there’s nothing self-consciously literary in Potok’s writing style. Nevertheless, The Chosen isn’t a novel that can be skimmed: It requires thoughtful attention or readers will miss the love underlying the seemingly fractured father-son relationship.

The Eighth Day

Unlike The Chosen and Confessions, which are short novels with emotionally dense stories, The Eighth Day is a long novel with hardly enough story to fill a novella.

Wilder fills space with ramblings. They don’t make a good novel, but they make clever quotes.

These three quotes could be a comments on The Confessions of Nat Turner:

Man is cruel to man and even those who are kind to those nearest them are inhuman to others. It’s not kindness that’s important but justice. Kindness is the stammering apology of the unjust.

♠ ♠ ♠

Suffering is like money… It circulates from hand to hand. We pass on what we take in.

♠ ♠ ♠

There are no Golden Ages and no Dark Ages. There is the oceanlike monotony of the generations of men under the alternations of fair and foul weather.

These two comments might be stimulated by reading The Chosen:

No man can be a good father until he has understood his own.

♠ ♠ ♠

Men and faith and men of genius have this in common: they know (observe and remember) many things they are not conscious of knowing. They are attentive to relationships, recurrences patterns, and “laws.”

Here are three other quotes from The Eighth Day, to show to range of Wilder’s wanderings.

Boredom is energy frustrated of outlet.

♠ ♠ ♠

There is no creation without faith and hope.

♠ ♠ ♠

All mothers love their children. We know that. But maternal love is like the weather. It is always there and we are most aware of it when it is undergoing change.

♠ ♠ ♠

That wraps up my reviews and ramblings about the 1967 bestselling novels. The next time we meet, it will be to look at the bestseller list of 1968.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni


The Confessions of Nat Turner a wrenching reminder

In August, 1831, a few dozen slaves in Southampton, Virginia, revolted, slaughtering whites mercilessly.

The confession of the revolt’s leader, Nathaniel Turner, presented at his trial and subsequently published as a pamphlet, is the factual basis of William Styron’s novel.

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
Random House, 1966, 1967; 428 p. 1967 bestseller #2. My grade: A.

sketch shows Nat being captured by white man

Nat Turner’s capture.

Nat’s mother was a cook, so Nat became a “house nigger.” The Turner family taught him to read and figure, gave him carpentry training, bought a Bible, and promised he’d be given his freedom at age 25.

By the time Nat was 25, faced with dwindling income from over-worked land, Turner family had sold all their possessions—including Nat—and left Virginia for good.

Nat’s freedom disappeared with Marse Samuel.

Nat’s Bible reading and his ache for companionship with like-minded people, gradually twist into the conviction that God wants him to lead a slave rebellion.

Styron avoids the familiar clichés of slave novels. Characters, both black and white, are victims of conditions they can’t control. The worst physical and mental suffering among blacks and whites occur among those least affluent even at the best of times.

Styron’s tale could easily be moved to Baltimore or St. Louis in 2015.

His novel is a wrenching reminder that how we treat individuals matters more than our opinions about race.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni