Six degrees of separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Stasiland’ to ‘The Other Side of You’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s been more than nine months since I participated in Six Degrees of Separation. That’s mainly because the months roll by so quickly that I forget to prepare anything! But now that I am working from home and am cooped up indoors all the time (thanks to the coronavirus lockdown) I need distractions – and this is a good one!

Six Degrees of Separation is a book-themed meme hosted by Kate from booksaremyfavouriteand best (read more about it on her blog here). Every month Kate chooses a particular book as a starting point. The idea is then to create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

Here’s this month’s #6Degrees. As ever, click the book titles to read my review of that book in full.

The starting point is:

‘Stasiland’ by Anna Funder (2003)
I haven’t read this non-fiction book about life under the Stasi, even though it has been sitting in my TBR for about a decade. I even brought it with me from London when I repatriated last year as I had planned to read it for #20booksofsummer. Alas, I never got around to it. Another book that is about life behind the Berlin Wall is…

The Wall Jumper’ by Peter Schneider (1982)
This classic German novel provides a fascinating glimpse of Berlin life before the wall came down. It follows the lives of a handful of East Berliners who move to the West and is narrated by someone who regularly crosses the border to visit family and friends. It’s fiction but feels very much like reportage. Another novel that feels like reportage is…

‘The Emperor of Lies’ by Steve Sem-Sandberg (2012)
A densely written and meticulously detailed novel, it is based on the factual story of Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, a 63-year-old Jewish businessman, who was the leader of the Jewish ghetto in Łódź during the Second World War. Rumkowski was a mysterious figure with murky morals: many believed he was a Nazi pawn content to do as the Germans wanted in order to save his own skin and fulfil his quest for power during the Holocaust. Another Holocaust novel is…

‘Sophie’s Choice’ by William Styron (1979)
Set in Brooklyn immediately after the Second World War, this 635-page novel follows a trio of characters living in a boarding house, one of whom is an Auschwitz survivor. This imminently readable but problematic (for me) novel follows what happens to Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish Catholic, after the war — and it isn’t always pretty. Another novel that looks at what happens to an Auschwitz survivor after the war is…

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held (2015)
This extraordinarily beautiful novel looks at the marriage between a German translator and a man 10 years her senior who survived Auschwitz where he had been sent in 1942 because he was a Communist. This is an unusual Holocaust novel because it explores what happens to the survivors afterward — how do they get on with their lives after such unfathomable horror and trauma? Another book about trauma is…

‘Trauma’ by Patrick McGrath (2009)
A Manhattan-based psychiatrist who is still coming to terms with the break-up of his marriage seven years earlier is the star of this short novel. Even though he treats patients who have gone through traumatic events, he seems largely unable to confront his own demons. Another book starring a psychiatrist is…

‘The Other Side of You’ by Salley Vicker (2007)
The relationship between a psychiatrist and his patient, a woman who has attempted suicide, is the focus of this compelling novel. It looks at how trust grows between them over time and shows that even those people who we think are stable and normal are often nursing hidden pain. The moral of the story is that we never really know the people we are closest to and shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from an award-winning non-fiction book about life behind the Iron Curtain to a story about the delicate relationship between a psychiatrist and his patient. They all explore dark subjects but are done with care and sensitivity. Have you read any of these books? 

Author, Book review, Fiction, holocaust, literary fiction, New York, Poland, Publisher, Setting, USA, Vintage, William Styron

‘Sophie’s Choice’ by William Styron

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 635 pages; 2004.

First published in 1979, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron is often regarded as a landmark of holocaust fiction, not least because of the controversy it stirred up at the time of publication: Styron was accused of revisionism, because he presents the view that the Holocaust was not solely or exclusively directed at the Jews and that the camps were merely an initiative to secure labour for the German war effort; and the book was banned in several countries because of its explicit sexual content.

I read it because I was looking for something meaty and compelling to get me through a long-haul flight to Australia, so I packed it in my hand luggage and then spent the next three weeks carting it around with me, reading it on planes, in quiet moments before lights out, in the sun on a succession of balconies and decks — always in places where my surroundings seemed vastly more pleasant than the contents of the book.

I didn’t actually finish it until I was back in the UK. And even though it’s a rather brilliant novel, intimate in tone, languid in its storytelling and with a breadth and scope to far outweigh many contemporary novels, I was rather relieved to get to the end. I have very mixed feelings about the book as a whole.

The plot

Before I explain what I did and didn’t like about Sophie’s Choice, let me give you a brief recap of the plot. If you have seen the 1982 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep (for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress) this might already be familiar, but I haven’t seen the movie and am unsure how faithful it remained to the book. Forgive me, then, if I repeat stuff you know already.

The story is told from the point of view of a writer named Stingo looking back on a seminal year in his life some 30 years earlier. In 1947, fired from his job working for a big book publisher in Manhattan, he moves into a cheap boarding house in Brooklyn to begin working on a novel. Here he befriends two boarders living in the rooms above his — Nathan Landau, a Jewish American, who is a biochemist, and Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish Catholic, an Auschwitz survivor. Both Nathan and Sophie are in a rather tempestuous relationship, which becomes increasingly more violent as the novel progresses.

Stingo becomes a close friend of the couple, especially Sophie with whom he is secretly in love. She trusts him enough to tell him about her troubled life in Poland and confesses a series of shameful secrets that continue to plague her. One of these secrets — and this is where I’d advise you skip ahead to the next paragraph if you haven’t yet read the book — is the fact that upon arrival at Auschwitz, a cruel camp doctor forced her to decide which of her two children should be sent to the gas chamber immediately and which should be allowed to live on in the camp. It is this horrendous decision upon which the entire plot of the novel hinges, because after this confession Sophie plunges into a deep alcoholic depression from which there is no return.

Here’s what I liked about the story:

1. The prose style is intimate and feels confessional. The sentences are long and often overly verbose, but there’s a lot of heart in the story-telling. It’s almost as if Stingo has pulled up a chair by the fire to tell you — and only you — how a single year of his life left a marked impression on everything that followed. This style helps avoid the story plunging into a pit of despair. While the bits about Auschwitz and Sophie’s life in Poland — which are told flashback style — are heavy going and morbid, on the whole the book has a light, floaty feel because the prose doesn’t take itself too seriously. And there are some quite funny moments too — especially the early chapters about Stingo’s job.

2. The structure is non-linear, so the morbid bits (Auschwitz) are interleaved with more exciting elements (Brooklyn). A succession of major revelations being dropped in when the reader last expects it also helps maintain interest and intrigue over the course of more than 600 (long) pages.

3. The characterisation is superb. The main trio of characters are incredibly well drawn — you expect them to walk off the page — and even the subsidiary characters, such as Stingo’s father and his landlady, feel vibrant and real.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the story:

1. It’s too long. There’s quite a lot of repetition — about slavery, about Sophie’s beauty, about Nathan’s increasingly chaotic and unpredictable behaviour — so could easily have lost a couple of hundred pages in a ruthless edit and the book would not be the poorer for it.

2. There’s too much explicit sex in it. I get that it’s written from the point of view of a sex-craved 22-year-old male virgin, but do we need to read about it on every second page? And, yes, it’s the late 1940s before the ready availability of contraception, but it seems unfair to portray every woman as being frigid or — excuse the language — cockteasers because they won’t put out. This point of view is so overtly male (and sexist) I could barely contain my rage reading it!

3. There’s too much emphasis on Sophie’s beauty. As per point 2, I understand that Stingo is obsessed by Sophie, but constant reference to her bust, her backside, her pouty lips and her sexual exploits with Nathan wears thin very quickly. This sexual objectification shifts the emphasis from Sophie’s psychological trauma towards her physical attributes so that we never get a real handle on how her experience affected her mentally. The idea that she was far too beautiful to deserve the Nazi’s cruel treatment begs the question, did only ugly people deserve to be exterminated?

And don’t get me started on the way her sexual appetite is depicted.

Those negative points aside, there’s no doubt that Sophie’s Choice is a 20th century classic. It’s ambitious — in scope, in structure, in storytelling — and tells a horrific story in a compassionate, compelling way. It’s slightly unweildly and not without its faults, but as an examination of human failings, of racism, of religion, of politics and American life in aftermath of World War Two it feels authentic, important — and powerful.