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Aug142009

1980

Sophie’s Choice

By William Styron

Original Publisher: Random House
Current Publisher: Modern Library (Random House); Open Road Integrated Media (ebook)

Robert Weil writes:

Sophie's Choice was the first major novel that I read after I came into book publishing in the fall of 1978. Published in February of 1979, it was -- and remains -- a hugely inspiring and haunting novel, which is often overlooked as one of the great American novels, especially among those written in the last half of the twentieth century. As a young editorial assistant at the time of its appearance, I identified especially with its narrator Stingo, himself a young editorial assistant in the trade department of McGraw-Hill & Company. While Stingo grew so jaded by the mediocrity of the manuscripts he was forced to read that he left publishing with the intention of becoming a writer, I was so impressed by the lyrical power of Styron's language that I decided I had to stay the course and become a book editor, one day hoping to find books that had the epic power of this deeply tragic work. Perhaps it was also the sheer genius of Styron’s narrative -- his power to freeze consciousness, to invade someone's thought process and to render cognition on the page in a way that recalled Joyce -- that so intimidated me that I knew I could never be a writer myself, and that editing was indeed my calling.

As it turned out, Sophie's Choice would be Styron's last major novel, and to my mind his finest. The complexity of his prose and the intricate nature of his stories were such that he could not produce novels at a very fast clip, and he lacked the productivity of, say, Hemingway or Steinbeck. Well-known are Styron’s battles with mental illness, and I’ve always felt that his personal insights into depression are revealed in his searing portraits of Sophie and Nathan; we come to the understanding, particularly through Nathan, that there is barely a fine line that separates deep depression and madness. It is as if the intensity of the language in Sophie's Choice would come to anticipate the emotional hell that Styron would later write about in his own poignant memoir, Darkness Visible. 

In re-reading Sophie’s Choice, I was reminded that it is set largely in Brooklyn, but chronicles a post-World War II Brooklyn far different from the Brooklyn that has become fashionable again among so many of today’s major writers. Evoking a period just after the end of that War, the novel deals with themes so plangent and painful, particularly Sophie’s experiences in the Holocaust, that the book becomes an important meditation on the effects of war on the individual consciousness.

My sense is that both Styron and Sophie’s Choice are not frequently taught in high school and college courses, which seems a great loss. His personal influence on my own editorial career is profound, and I rank him among the great American novelists of the last century.

Robert Weil, Executive Editor and Vice President at W. W. Norton & Company, edited Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, winner of the National Book Award in Nonfiction in 2008.

 

ISBN: 9780679602897

Fiction (Hardcover) Finalists that Year:

  • James Baldwin for Just Above My Head
  • Norman Mailer for The Executioner's Song
  • Philip Roth for The Ghost Writer
  • Scott Spencer for Endless Love

Fiction Judges that Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:  

  • The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • In 1982 Sophie’s Choice was made into a film of the same name, which was nominated for Academy Awards for its screenplay, musical score, cinematography, and costume design, as well as Meryl Streep’s performance in the title role. Only Streep won the award.

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