Archive for April 12th, 2012
When the novelist William Styron died in 2006, I was startled to realize that he was eighty-one years old. For some reason, I’d always thought of him as a young man, perhaps because he first became famous at the age of twenty-six, with the publication of Lie Down in Darkness, or because Norman Mailer left us an indelible (and somewhat acerbic) picture of the young Styron in his essay “Some Children of the Goddess.” And one of the most fascinating elements of Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, which I read for the first time this month, is its barely disguised portrait of Styron himself, here named Stingo, struggling to become a writer in postwar Brooklyn. Rarely has a novelist put himself so transparently into his own work, not just in the narrator’s Southern background and hilarious stint McGraw Hill, but even in his future ambitions as a writer, in which Styron’s own career is clearly prefigured. And his decision to place a version of himself at the center of his book is only one of many striking risks he takes in this powerful, technically virtuoistic, but ultimately not quite satisfying novel.
In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the tendency of certain authors to write themselves into the story, which I’ve gone on the record as saying is generally a bad idea. Sophie’s Choice is a particularly interesting case, in which a writer of prodigious talent has put himself so blatantly in the middle of the action that we can’t help but notice. At first glance, it’s an extreme case of an author making himself the subject when the true source of interest lies elsewhere: when we place Stingo’s horniness and self-discovery as a writer on one side and the Holocaust on the other, it’s hard not to sense the imbalance. Yet this is clearly Styron’s intention. Sophie’s Choice is a book of contrasts, of the good humor of everyday life set against unspeakable horror. Auschwitz and Coney Island, he repeatedly reminds us, exist, somehow, in the same universe, and his emphasis on the everyday, often very funny memories of life in Brooklyn, contrasted to what happened to Sophie during the war, is an essential part of the novel’s design.
The trouble, I think, is that when the book offers up such an autobiographical portrait of the author in his twenties—or at least gives us information that makes it impossible to read Stingo in any other way—it only underlines the fact that Sophie and her mad lover Nathan are, by contrast, imaginary. Styron lavishes enormous care on these two characters, and at its best, the novel is a triumph of language, research, and sympathetic imagination. Yet we’re always aware of the author willing Sophie and Nathan into existence, and as impressive as this is, it’s much less persuasive, in the end, than the seemingly unmediated, confessional, personal elements with which Sophie’s account is interspersed. This is an illusion in itself, of course: the impression that Stingo’s story gives of being candid and autobiographical is its own literary stunt. But throughout the book, the sense persists that we’re being shown characters from two different levels of reality—the author interacting with two figures from a dream—and I’m afraid that it ultimately hurts the novel.
This isn’t to take away from the book’s other remarkable qualities. It’s brilliantly structured, shifting back and forth between the Brooklyn of the forties, Stingo’s memories of his Southern childhood, Sophie’s ordeal, and the older Stingo’s reflections some thirty years later. This movement is beautifully orchestrated, and Styron expertly builds toward his final revelation, which, alas, most of us already know. Yet in the end, although Styron, or Stingo, speaks expertly in Sophie’s voice, we remain at arm’s length from her experience. Perhaps the only way for a novelist to responsibly touch on these subjects is to keep us one step away—but the author’s conflation of the narrator with himself only makes us all the more aware of how expertly the story has been constructed, until it seems less like testimony than flawless ventriloquism. Styron was right, in short, to tell this story through another pair of eyes. But was a mistake, I think, to make those eyes so clearly his own.