In between other reading I'm still working my way through the Modern Library's list of Best 100 Novels. My review of number 96 is currently up at LitStack. If you have yet to discover LitStack, it's a great resource for readers, with daily reviews, staff picks and bookish news.
Modern Library Reading Challenge, Sophie's Choice, by William Styron
I first read Sophie’s Choice in a Bantam paperback 1979 edition. The cover montage featured a glamorous and pensive Sophie Zawistowska, before Meryl Streep’s role in Alan Pakula’s 1982 film became forever imprinted on the character. In those days, most of my reading was done in bed, which consisted of a mattress on the floor by the light of a drafting lamp clamped to the windowsill. I lived in San Francisco then, working part-time while I finished art school, and at the time the most pressing concern was — well, to be frank, there were no pressing concerns. It’s almost embarrassing now to admit how little weighed on my mind during the time I read that novel.
Back then, when I read fiction I tended to seek out the familiar, and knew nothing about Styron or his book, which I think my sister passed along saying it was “a good read," which Of course, Sophie’s Choice is number 96 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels.
In 1979, I knew as much about the Holocaust as any other 20th-century-born, third generation, college educated, half-Jewish Unitarian. Which is to say, not much. My mother’s parents had relatives in Europe during the war, some of whom fled the States, but neither their escape or lives before were rarely spoken of to grandchildren. Still, as John Gardner wrote in his review, “guilt is everywhere,” a statement that is as true for our family as any in which there is unspoken grief, loss and shame. Sophie’s Choice puts these front and center. But I was a naive reader, raised amid a protective shield of silence, and I read those aspects of the novel at a remove, and instead, was drawn in by the intricate plot, the love story (or stories, in fact), and the voice of the narrator, Stingo.
Gardner’s review of Sophie’s Choice is, to put it mildly, favorable. He called the book a “splendidly written, thrilling, philosophical novel on the most important subject of the 20th century.” The assertion, which appeared in his 1979 review in the New York Times, must have seemed radical at the time, for surely there were other events foremost in the collective memory — the Cold War? The Civil Rights marches? Vietnam? The assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King?
Here’s Gardner again:
[Styron] shows us how serious this novel is as not merely a story of other people’s troubles, but a piece of anguished Protestant soul-searching, an attempt to seize all the evil in the world — in his own heart first — crush it, and create a planet for God and man.
There’s a story that when Styron was writing The Confessions of Nat Turner, his friend James Baldwin caught a glimpse of the early drafts and said, "Bill’s going to catch it from both sides.”
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