Sophie’s Choice (1979) William Styron

Sophie’s Choice is another must-do for any series about takeaways from serious writing. But is it ever daunting! The book is notable first but least for being a traditionally published doorstop of 240,000 words (roughly the same as The Magus) typographically crammed into 562 pages. Offhand I can think of only Earthly Powers (1980, Anthony Burgess) and The Prince of Tides (1991, semi-literary, Pat Conroy) thereafter traditionally published at that length or longer.

Alan Pakula made Sophie’s Choice into a 5-hour movie starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and Peter MacNicol—and subsequently edited it down to a mere 2-1/2 hours before releasing it.

It’s a beautiful tragedy of a story that illustrates what an esteemed author could still—or could newly, or both—get away with nigh on fifty years ago.

A writer nicknamed Stingo, from Tidewater Virginia, moves into a large, old pink house in Brooklyn one summer to write a novel. Upstairs boards a tattooed concentration-camp survivor named Sophie. (That far, the novel is based on real life, according to Styron’s wife, who lived there with him that summer.) But it’s not only Sophie living upstairs; it’s Sophie and Nathan, her mercurial lover. Unmarried Stingo, indeed virginal Stingo, is smitten with both, though most with Sophie.

As I’ve stated, my intent with Takeaways posts is neither to review nor to synopsize the books I discuss, merely to call out elements of craft in them. I can only say that any serious writer should at the very least see the film of Sophie’s Choice. The novel is a heavy but edifying read.

The novel is written in only 16 chapters. Necessarily, each is long—on average, 15,000 words. The shortest chapter is the first, at a mere 10,600. The longest is nearly 29,000. As if these numbers were not sufficient in themselves, the writing makes it clear very early that Styron decided, “By God, I’ve given this industry enough and jumped through enough stupid hoops [as indeed he had] that I’m going to write this one the way I want it and dare anyone to reject it.”

Frankly, Chapter 1 is tedious. It establishes a bit of character, time and setting, and clearly Styron wants us to know he is a Writer In the Southern Tradition who can spin out (as he later more than once tells us explicitly) a yarn about any inconsequential thing to any arbitrary and improbable length. Primarily, he uses Chapter 1 to settle a number of real-life scores with specific unnamed (as I recall) individuals at his onetime workplace of McGraw-Hill. He manages to be somewhat humorous but mostly vicariously embarrassing.

So I suppose that Takeaway One is to Give the reader an early sense of what kind of writer we are. “Prolix” was invented to describe Styron. It’s a shame that he loses as many readers in Chapter 1 as he must surely do, because later chapters and elements of the book are so beautiful, masterful, and wrenching. But if you can’t get through Chapter 1 on good will alone, you’ll never get through the rest even with ample reward for doing so.

Takeaway Two is that even a writer who writes well at uncommon length can overdo it. Styron appears at times throughout Sophie to be daring readers (or more likely editors like his former colleagues at McGraw-Hill) to tell him it’s too much. I believe I read every word the first time I read this book. Today, even as the dedicated enthusiast of it that I am, I find myself skipping parts of pages. Does he think he’s Proust? Wouk? Styron? Apparently he does.

Takeaway Three is that if you know you shouldn’t do it, don’t do it—his takedowns of real-life former colleagues aren’t worth the stain of unseemliness on his own reputation. The fact that he’s equally (or is it really equal?) ridiculing and at times scathing about himself later in the book doesn’t quite wash that away. Did he think he was being ruthlessly honest in some sort of virtuous sense? He wanted his vengeance to outlive him, to endure as long as the proverbial Ars longa? Well, it does.

Anyway, one doesn’t wish to dwell on that.

I’m not sure how well our culture understood abusive relationships when Styron wrote Sophie. Of course they’ve always existed, and people always knew they were there. Today we immediately recognize the dynamic of co-dependency. We even have a name for it. We tell the woman in an abusive relationship to leave. We understand why she doesn’t. We know she’ll end up dead if we don’t persuade her. I don’t think this understanding was so endemic when Styron wrote of Sophie and the bipolar, paranoid schizophrenic, meth-and-cocaine-addicted Nathan. Certainly the time he’s writing about (1940s) gave far less attention, sympathy, and support to women in such relationships, so Styron was probably breaking new literary ground, albeit as late as 1979. He even leads us gradually to understand why Sophie, in addition to idolizing Nathan at his best, believes she deserves no better than Nathan at his worst.

If there’s a takeaway from that, perhaps it’s about having the patience to write the Long Story rather than the Facile Trope. Sophie is the farthest thing from a stereotype. Styron makes her a genuinely tragic figure.

Sophie’s Choice is also a story about (mostly) unrequited desire. It’s astonishing today to see how frankly Styron writes about sex. In fact, Sophie ended up banned in many American high schools and would have been banned in far more if their principals had had the patience to read that far into the book. He sort of eases the reader into it. Now remember, Sophie appeared six years after Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973), which tore down the literary barriers against the c-word (several c-words, actually), the f-word, and many, many others. Still, Styron was in an elite class of WASP writers, indeed not merely WASP but Presbyterian WASP. It’s as if a writer like Faulkner had begun using the language of Erica Jong. Styron could do that then.

What’s the takeaway? I’m not sure. We’ve experienced so much regression around sexuality in the arts since the 1970s. It’s not only popular and political culture that are more repressed today (a fact that may surprise people who weren’t around during the 1970s), it’s literary culture as well. Styron is forthright without being lascivious. Surely he took some delight in treading with flair on once-forbidden ground, but he wasn’t really the first and he wasn’t being deliberately lascivious. (Well, not exactly.)

For me the personal takeaway is to be honest with the reader and oneself. Somewhere triangulated among Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, and Erica Jong there must be a happy intersection that is still relevant to literary writing today. Don’t seek to arouse or to shock, but don’t fear to be realistic to the deeper human dimensions of erotic thought, feelings, and behavior. The thing that shocks me about sex in writing is how avoidant serious American writers seem to be about it today, compared to Nordic or North European writers. I’m not infrequently advised to be more cirumlocutious (see, I can if I wish!) about my characters’ eroticism. I believe we should not cede an inch to neopuritanism, after all it has done to ruin generations of girls and drive them into later marital therapy still in their 30s and 40s, just to achieve meager measures of the normal sexual fluency, fulfillment and self-acceptance their Boomer forebears, even those from religious backgrounds, took abundantly for granted.

So what are we up to now? Takeway Four? Five? Six? In truth there are so many, but one needs to read the book to recognize them.

There is, however, one other specific takeaway that I must not omit. That is Styron’s mastery of
»free indirect style / speech / discourse.

To give a quick example for those not familiar with the term:

Direct speech:
“I’m sick of all this,” she said.

Indirect speech:
She told him she was sick of it all.

Free indirect style:
Bob tried to reason with her, but she was having none of it. She was sick of him, of everything. He was a bully, a tyrant. He always said he would change, but it never happened. He was the worst thing that had ever happened in her life.

Free indirect style is an extension of indirect speech to such a degree that the point of view shifts from the narrator to some other party. As in the example just above, it can frequently be viewed as a form of irony. In this case, not only Janet’s words but also her perceptions and thoughts temporarily become the narrative point of view. Here it becomes a matter of opinion whether the writer is inviting us readers to roll our eyes at them.

Sophie’s Choice is written in first-person limited point of view—ostensibly. While maintaining a flimsy pretense of that, Styron writes vast swaths of Sophie’s past in her own point of view, particularly in Chapters 12 and 13. He uses the occasional “she went on” or “she said” or “she continued,” or recounts details of her crying or exhaustion in the moment she’s telling Stingo, to remind us of the latter’s presence in the narrative. In fact, he blends in modern perspectives that can only be those of a 1970’s-or-later older Stingo. So we have the perspective of Stingo as an early-twenty-something; we have as well the perspective of Stingo looking back from many years later; we have the perspective of Sophie speaking in moments with only Stingo and her; and then—by virtue of free indirect style—we have the perspective of Sophie’s accounts of other people in her past. Styron blends these points of view for the most part masterfully, at times even bending Sophie’s point of view to channel that of her coevals in Poland.

I suppose the final takeaway is that most any peer-critique group of his time might have told him, “This is not how we write novels!” about nearly all of these things he demonstrated that one could in fact do—if one did them well enough.