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September 07, 1979 - Image 12

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1979-09-07

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

12 Friday, September 1, -1919

Styron's 'Sophie's Choice'

By ALBERT ROSEN

(Editor's note: Albert
Rosen is the head of the
English department at
Chadsey High School in

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Detroit and the past
commander of the De-
partment of Michigan,
Jewish War Veterans.)
If William Styron never
writes another word, he can
rest assured that in
"Sophie's Choice" (Random
House) he has written a
great American novel if not
the great American novel.
Contained within its 515

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KEREN KAYEMETH LEISRAEL

JEWISH NATIONAL FUND
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A Great Novel Generally, for Jews

two interweaving
themes: the narrator's story
which is really Styron's un-
abashedly revealed, though
not absolutely delineated,
autobiography, and of
greater interest to a Jewish
reader, an unusual tale of
the Holocaust. It is in the
latter that Styron reveals
the firm grip he has on his
craft. He holds a mirror up
to life and makes life seem
bigger than it is.
Styron's aspiration to be-
come a great novelist in the
Southern literary tradition
a la Faulkner is a recurrent
theme throughout the book
and attests to his belief in
himself even as a young
man that he possessed the
potential to become a great
writer.
Time has proven him
correct. Yet, not once
does his literary com-
mentary seem to intrude
upon the novel's main
thrust; rather it helps to
further tighten and com-
press the impact of the
"Final Solution" though
through the suffering of a
Christian, a group whom
Elie- Wiesel forever re-
minds the world did
share in the horror as did
his own coreligionists,
though not to the same
degree.
Styron admits that
Sophie, the heroine of the
novel, never really existed,
but is an elaboration of a
girl who lived in the apart-
ment above him one sum-
mer in Brooklyn in 1947.
Her ravaging beauty made
such a profound impression
upon him that she became
the model for Sophie as we
come to know her. Styron
did, however, augment his
view of her as a concentra-
tion camp victim by visiting
Poland and reading assidu-
ously about Auschwitz
through documents and ac-
counts by survivors and vic-
tims.
In fact, his char-
acterizations of Sophie and
Rudolph Hoss, the com-
mandant at Auschwitz, who
is also a creation of Styron's
imagination, but based on
the real commandant's
autobiography, take on a
chilling realism which
leaves the reader numb
about a bestiality that be-
comes almost documentary

pages are

.

*womii ■ Immir

Discussion About .

UNITED STATES and the 'PALESTINIANS'

by

PROF. MICHAEL DIRSSMAN, LEWIS S. GROSSMAN,

faculty, Macomb Community
College, Political Science Dept.

PAST President, Detroit Jewish
Community Council and past National
Vice President American Jewish Committee

URI SEGAL,

PROF. LEON H. WARSHAY ,

past President, Detroit
Israeli Student Association

SIDNEY SILVERMAN,

'

faculty Wayne State University,
Sociology Dept.

Moderator, President ZOD

CoMe and Join the Discussion of America's Mideast Policy

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.

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in its litany.
The difference here is
that Styron succeeds in re-
vealing Sophie's experi-
ences in the camp, and the
aftermath, as a personal re-
velation of Nazi evil and
thus comprehendible as an
inhuman act. One poignant
example occurs when the
box cars discharge their
wretched cargo upon the
platform. Sophie tightly
holds her two children so as
to somehow ensure their
safety as the inevitable
selection process begins. SS
Doctor Hauptsturmfuhrer
Fritz Jemand von
'Niemand's demeanor (a-
gain, no such person actu-
ally existed) prompts
Sophie to blurt out in hope-
ful despair that neither she
nor her children are Jewish;
that the latter are racially
pure; in fact, speak German
fluently. She is Christian, a
devout Catholic.
Despite his lack of total
sobriety, the doctor turns
his full gaze upon Sophie
and thickly murmurs,
"So you believe in Christ
the Redeemer? ... (el-
lipses ours) Did He not
say, 'Suffer the little chil-
dren to come unto Me'?"
Then with a finality of
tone that drives her to the
edge of madness, in-
structs her to choose
which child will remain
and which will die. Else
both children will join the
Jews in the gas cham-
bers.
In recounting the inci-
dent to Stingo, the nar-
rator's nickname at 22,
Sophie admits that in all the
years since the incident, she
had never been able to ar-
ticulate the heart-breaking
words she cried out in reply,
"Take my little girl." Osten-
sibly, the boy is saved by
being sent to Lebensborn;
however, she never sees him
again.
Sophie's lover is Nathan
Landau, a Jew. It is through
their turbulent, tumultuous
and tormented relationship
that the full meaning of the
title comes through. Her
choice, final as it becomes, is
tied inexorably to Nathan, a
literary creation of such
complexity as to defy ordi-
nary understanding.
He is mad, absolutely, to-
tally mad. Yet, his insanity
is intermittent and when he
is rational his charm, bril-
liance, and wit sweep away
any apprehensions Sophie
or Stingo may occasionally
harbor.
Nathan's Jewishness is
not limited to his ethnic-
ity. This in itself would be
a cheap ploy. What Sty-
ron does is to have
Nathan exemplify Jewish
concern about camp sur-
vivors, particularly
non-Jews. What were the
circumstances of their
survival? So when he
succumbs to one of his at-
tacks, he voices his sus-
picion about her sexual
relationships with Nazi
personnel or possible
bkrayal of other pris-
oners. Styron places vile
accusations in Nathan's
mouth. Sophie's response

is one of total love, even
unto death.
Complimenting this
barest of plot is the clarity
and precision of Styron's
language. Words, phrases
and sentences meld into one
another in perfect harmony.
Some examples: tattoos:
"I will always remember
Sophie's tattoo. That nasty
little excrescence, attached
like a ridge of minute
bruised toothbites to her
forearm was the single de-
tail of her appearance which
— on the night I first saw
her at the Pink Palace —
instantly conveyed to my
mind the mistaken idea
that she was a Jew. But if I
had known then of the
metamorphosis which the
camp underwent during the
terrible fortnight I have
dwelt upon, I would have
understood that the tattoo
had an important and direct
connection with Sophie's
being branded like. a Jew
though she herself was not
Jewish."
Parents: "Loathing her
father now, loathing his
lackey — her husband —
almost as much, Sophie
would slip by their murmur-
ing shapes in the house
hallway as the Professor,
suavely tailored in his frock
coat, his glamorous graying
locks beautifully barbered
and fragrant of Kol-
nichwasser, prepared to
sally forth on morning
supplicatory rounds. But he
must not have washed his
scalp. She recalled the dan-
druff on his splendid shoul-
ders. His murmurings com-
bined fretfulness and hope.
His voice had an odd hiss."
Snoring: "The wind rush-
ing through my father's de-
viated septum had become a
wild jungle rhapsody —
monkey cries, parrot yawps,
pachydermous trumpet-
ings."
Styron seems to prefer
the first person tech-
nique. As a result, his
characters reflect a di-
rectness of manner that
makes them seem au-
thentic and, therefore,
believable. Also, this
mode makes for more
enjoyable reading be-
cause one does have to
contend with diversions
or digressions which in-
trospective or heavily de-
scriptive writing is prone
to do.
The setting is Brooklyn.

For readers why may have
emigrated from there,
familiar names and places
will evoke a wave of nostal-
gia bringing the novel's im-
pact even closer to the
heart: Church Avenue,
Prospect Park, Flatbush
Avenue, BMT, Coney Island
— forever Brooklyn.
The novel ends with a line
of Styron's poetry reminis-
cent of John Donne. Stingo
is lying on the beach at
Coney Island in the late
evening after having
attended the funeral of his
two friends. Crying himself
into exhaustion, he falls
into a deeply-troubled sleep.
He concludes, "When I
awoke it was early morn-
ing. I lay looking straight
up at the blue-green sky
with its translucent
shawl of mist; like a tiny
orb of crystal, solitary
and serene, Venus shone
through the haze above
the quiet ocean. I heard
children chattering
nearby. I stirred. `Izzy,
he's awake!"G'wan, yah
mutha's mustache!'
Blessing my resur-
rection, I realized that the
two children had covered
me with sand, protec-
tively, and that I lay as
safe as a mummy beneath
this fine, enveloping
overcoat. It was then that
in my mind I inscribed
the words: `Neath cold
sand I dreamed of
death/but woke at dawn
to see/in glory, the bright,
the morning star.' "
This was not judgment
day — only morning. Morn-
ing: excellent and fair.

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