Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"Sophie's Choice" by William Styron. Review by Michal Karski. "Poles invented Anti-Semitism"



Thoughts on Sophie's Choice

By Michal Karski

In a blog which takes its title from a character in a book, I thought I might go back to the original who appears in the 1979 novel by William Styron and see him in the context of the story as a whole. Here, the character of Bieganski is a brute only in the sense that he is repellent, but he is hardly a simpleton. He is a right-wing professor and Nazi sympathiser and the father of Sophie of the book's title. Indeed, Sophie's Cracovian family are altogether unaccountably sympathetic to all things German. Bieganski may be a peripheral character in a way, and yet his malign influence on his daughter persists. I won't give away what happens to him; suffice it to say it is not what he expects.

Although the novel is largely well-written, this is a difficult book to like or even just to admire. Had it not been for its (indirect) association with this blog, I probably would not have persevered. At its best it is a harrowing evocation of the horror of Nazi atrocities and also a depiction of seriously damaged people. At its worst it degenerates into sweeping generalizations and there are even graphic and sexually explicit passages which some readers might consider objectionable and certainly seem totally incongruous, given the overall theme of the book. Although the main character is portrayed on the whole with some compassion, the fact that some of the most overtly anti-Semitic pronouncements are attributed to this same person, (see her drunken rant in Chapter 12), the overall tone is frequently negative about Poland and the Poles, even though, in fairness, Styron gives credit to the Polish Resistance for their efforts on behalf of Jews – (see also Chapter 12).

Whether readers think that, despite the depressing theme, the writing is stylistically impressive in parts, with many American literary allusions, or whether they are put off by the many gratuitously explicit passages, not to mention the offensive use of the word 'Polack', the novel does show the results of a certain degree of research into the subject of the Holocaust. However, it does raise the odd question: for instance, what is the basis of Styron's claim, towards the end of Chapter 9, that Hitler's friend, Governor General Hans Frank, was, in Styron's words "a Jew, mirabile dictu"?

"Nor was Professor Biegański a true quisling, a collaborator in the now accepted sense of the word, since when the country was invaded that September and Cracow, virtually unharmed, became the seat of government for all Poland, it was not with the intent to betray his fatherland that he sought to offer his services to the Governor General, Hitler's friend Hans Frank ( a Jew, mirabile dictu – though few at the time knew it, including the Professor – and a distinguished lawyer like himself), but only as an advisor and expert in a field where Poles and Germans had a mutual adversary and a profound common interest – die Judenfrage. There was doubtless even a certain idealism in his effort."

And during an intensely anti-Polish tirade in Chapter 15, which is delivered, ironically enough, by a character who is described as a patriotic Polish resistance fighter, there is a reference to atrocities committed by both right-wing (mistakenly called ONR, which had ceased to exist at this point) and left-wing extremists, but the character also claims that Poles "practically invented anti-Semitism" – there is no mention of persecution of Jews by any other European country in the Middle Ages – and that "we Poles originated" the concept of the ghetto – again no mention of the Venetian or other European Ghettos.

Final verdict: tragic, challenging, depressing, shocking and horrifying in places, but ultimately bleak and unedifying. I would not recommend it to anyone hoping to get a true picture of conditions in Poland during the war. The film version is in many ways sanitized but perhaps more powerful than the book because of the sharper focus and because of the nature of the medium itself.

- Michal Karski

***

Anyone interested in William Styron's Sophie's Choice and its distorted depiction of World War II in Poland and Polish history should read the Spring, 1983 issue of Polish American Studies devoted to Sophie's Choice.

It would be a service to Polonia and to combatting the Bieganski stereotype if the articles in that volume were placed in an easily accessible format on the web.

25 comments:

  1. Excellent review and useful Michal. Thanks.
    Otto

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  2. Yes, William Styron is a real "winner" when it comes to Polonophobia, and I repeatedly took him to task for it. Those readers interested in my reviews of him should click on my name in this specific posting, and then follow the links within the review to the other reviews.

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  3. Thanks Michal, and Danusha. I have not read the book or seen the movie - deliberately, as I assumed it would be much as described above. Its perhaps even worse than I expected though.

    I also don't want to read "graphic and explicit sexual passages". So thanks for the warning.

    This paragraph is interesting and chilling: "And during an intensely anti-Polish tirade in Chapter 15, which is delivered, ironically enough, by a character who is described as a patriotic Polish resistance fighter, there is a reference to atrocities committed by both right-wing (mistakenly called ONR, which had ceased to exist at this point) and left-wing extremists, but the character also claims that Poles "practically invented anti-Semitism" – there is no mention of persecution of Jews by any other European country in the Middle Ages – and that "we Poles originated" the concept of the ghetto – again no mention of the Venetian or other European Ghettos."

    Does that set out the Mission Statement for the book?

    I'm not sure that I would callit ironic though that this speech was delivered by "a patriotic Polish resistance fighter". I think I might define it as "de rigeur". Aren't such speeches usually to be delivered by someone who is Polish - so that what is contained in them can not be argued about?

    I see it in a way as part of the silencing chorus of "Four legs good, two legs bad" that George Orwell saw coming.

    I've been posting on the on-line Guardian in their thread on "Generation War" - a German TV series about the war that the Beeb has just shown. I haven't watched it, fearing the worst. And sure enough, it seems (from the reviews, as I said I didn't watch it) that the real anti-semites were Polish partisans.

    I don't know if a Polish partisan got up to denounce his people for the shooting of Bambi's mother, but I would not be surprised if so.

    Its not that i don't think that Germany should not be telling its story. It needs to be told. And I was very moved by "Das Boot" and felt ashamed of my younger self who cheered at those 1950s war films in which German submarines got depth charged.

    The world can make us so blind. I wonder now that I didn't stop and think of what it must be like to be in a submarine being depth charged. Das Boot put me right there!

    But, I suppose, if you want your series shown on the BBC, you do have to stick to the PC agenda. And it did give me the chance to make a comment about the double standards relating to Gallant Resistance Heroes and Evil Terrorists.

    When, say, the French and the Dutch resisted the Nazis it was A Very Good And Noble Thing. When Poles do it, It Just Goes to Show how Horrible We Are.

    On the plus side, it all confirms the wisdom of a neutral stance in these worldly affairs. And, sadly, what it does show is that the Bieganski agenda that the reviewer above has demonstrated in Sophie's Choice is alive and well. And may be about to win some awards at that.

    Anyone else want to join me in being "no part" of the world?

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  4. Here is a cut and paste of the Wikipedia entry on Sophie's Choice on the William Styron page. This wording demonstrates how ineffectual Polonia has been in fighting Bieganski. The indication is that the only "problem" with the book is its frank and accurate portrayal of Polish antisemitism

    Styron's next novel, Sophie's Choice (1979), also generated significant controversy, in part due to Styron's decision to portray a non-Jewish victim of the Holocaust and in part due to its explicit sexuality and profanity. It was banned in South Africa, censored in the Soviet Union, and banned in Poland for "its unflinching portrait of Polish anti-Semitism"[7] It has also been banned in some high schools in the United States.[8]
    The novel tells the story of Sophie (a Polish Roman Catholic who survived Auschwitz), Nathan (her brilliant Jewish lover who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia), and Stingo (a Southern transplant in post-World War II-Brooklyn who was in love with Sophie). It won the 1980 National Book Award[9][a] and was a nationwide bestseller. A 1982 film version was nominated for five Academy Awards, with Meryl Streep winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sophie. Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol played Nathan and Stingo, respectively.

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  5. Thanks, everyone, for the positive feedback and thanks, Danusha, for posting this in the first place.

    One thing I'd like to add to the above review is that even if the reader does not completely sympathize with the central character of Sophie, for the reasons stated, the fact remains that when she is put to the kind of test that no human being should be subjected to, then she is shown for the pitiable and helpless victim she has become and at that point Styron does succeed in eliciting the sympathy of one human being for another.

    I thought the film captured this more succinctly than the book, possibly because of the brilliant performance of Meryl Streep.

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  6. SOPHIE'S CHOICE is a work of fiction. If you don't like the way the Polish characters are portrayed, that is your opinion. William Styron portrayed them the way HE saw them, as is his total right as a writer of fiction. I personally thought the book was brilliant and well-written, and the movie was actually quite well done. That is my OPINION. I have a problem with using opinions as facts, which is something that the writer of this blog/book review is doing. Thank you. I trust I have permission to not agree with the original poster as long as I do so in a respectful way without profanity, which is what I am doing.( Vivian Shnaidman M.D.)

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    1. Vivian - thanks for your comments. Before I respond to the point you raise, I hope you'll forgive me if I take the opportunity to apologize for a grammatical blooper which appears in the last sentence of the second paragraph of the above review and should read: "Although the main character is portrayed on the whole with some compassion, the fact that some of the most overtly anti-Semitic pronouncements are attributed to this same person, (see her drunken rant in Chapter 12), makes the overall tone frequently negative..." etc

      Dealing with the issue you mention, about opinion vs fact, I think it's a generally accepted convention that book reviews are people's opinions of given books and therefore I'd respectfully disagree with you that I'm presenting anything as fact. I absolutely agree with you that Styron is entitled to paint a portrait of people in whichever manner he chooses and therefore it's true that the entire book could be described as Styron's own opinion of certain people (except, as I pointed out, he does present the occasional questionable statement as fact - for example, the nugget of so-called information about Hans Frank, which undermines his credibility somewhat).

      In general, I'd say that Styron, the Southerner, as represented by his alter-ego Stingo, has a love-hate relationship with northern 'Yankee' intellectuals, as represented by Nathan (memorably portrayed by the superb Kevin Kline). His picture of the Polish resistance and the Poles in general is purely subjective - I have no quibble with you on that score. But, from my point of view, it's a little bit like looking at a picture of a girl painted by Picasso and then the same girl in a photograph. One is purely subjective, an expression or opinion if you like - indeed some would say distortion - whereas the other is much closer to objective reality.

      And this is the point of my review, I think. Speaking purely personally, my Polish (Catholic) parents fought alongside Polish-Jewish soldiers in the last war, worked with Polish-Jewish colleagues for years afterwards and had lifelong Polish-Jewish friends. They were by no means unique. Yes, of course I accept that there were anti-Semites in Polish society (and, unfortunately, still are, judging by various internet comments at various sites), and I don't think any reasonable person would deny that, but the problem with what Styron has done - in my opinion - is that he has presented a distorted view of Polish society. The character of Sophie, with all her faults, may be believably drawn, but I just don't recognize the picture of the other Polish people, particularly the resistance fighter mentioned before. They all seem to be anti-Semitic. I can't think of a single character who isn't, although I'd be happy to be corrected on that point.

      I'm not dismissing the book entirely. I'm just pointing out what I believe are its main faults.


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    2. "SOPHIE'S CHOICE is a work of fiction. If you don't like the way the Polish characters are portrayed, that is your opinion. William Styron portrayed them the way HE saw them"

      You are of course right. I am sure you have the same view of Jud Suss, another display of creative license.

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  7. Michel, thank you for contributing to the truth about Sophie’s Choice. It perpetuates the belief in the Polish as Anti-Semites. It appears more and more today, we seldom understand we cannot take clichés for granted. In the general U.S. population there seems to be less of a desire for truth and a willingness to change one’s mind when presented with new information.
    Anti-Semitic stereotypes of the Polish are generated out of convenient self-interests. Thankfully, Danusha’s account in her book, “Bieganski: The Brute Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Culture” (I posted a review on Amazon) reveals Polish heroes of the Holocaust and her dialectical methodology of those that benefited and how, from diverting attention to their own shameful actions, was one of the biggest revelations. This concerted effort included American Jews, Israelis and Germans. Yet she reveals those insights without being anti-Semitic. “The truth is a stubborn thing”- John Adams.

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  8. Hello Rusty, Vivian and all - yes, Rusty, the truth is a stubborn thing, and certainly will prevail. Even now, when "the whole world" is in the power of "the father of the lie". And the truth about Poles of course is that we are the fatally flawed children of Adam, the same as anybody else. And that Poland, as a country, has acted at times as ruthlessly and selfishly as any other. They all lie in the power of "the wicked one".

    However, Poland is not responsible for the crimes of the Axis. Nor was it, effectively, "the inventor of anti-semitism". Nor did we shoot Bambi's mother. It does of course have to bear its share of blame for the crimes of the Allies.

    Vivian, I do have a problem commenting on this as I have neither read the book nor seen the movie (nor am I intending to). I am going by the reviews. You at least have read and seen the thing before commeting. But, yes, its fiction. Therefore the author can say what he wants, if he can make his world and characters convincing.

    But when politics come into it, then I think that makes a difference. .What I mean is that if there is not a political agenda here, why, in a movie about the Holocaust, being carried out by Nazi Germany, does the writer take time out to make a very on-message denunciation of Poles - and is so careful to put that denunciation in the mouth of a Polish spokesman?

    I can see that Meryl Streep playing Sophie might have diluted the poison a little, as she is a very likeable actress. But that was the movie, not the book.

    If I remember the original reviews rightly, Sophie's choice is that she has to decide which of her children will live, and which will be killed. If so, I don't know what choice she makes, or if she chooses at all..

    But what choice would you make, under those circumstances? I know now how to deal with such a terrible thing, but had this happened to me before I studied the Inspired Scriptures, I think I might have simply gone mad, and got the three of us killed.

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  9. Vivian, I have to disagree.

    Writers all have their own perspectives, but that does not make them intrinsically valuable. HP Lovecraft (just one example) was a despicable racist, and we don't defend him for writing about immigrants "the way HE saw them", do we?

    What do you not consider a fact? The facts are that the book contains hateful stereotypes about Poles and pushes an ahistorical rewritten history in which Poland is collectively guilty for the Holocaust.

    It is the responsibility of the writer to realize the power he or she wields. This book served to confuse, conflate, and condemn an entire nation of millions of individuals and push collective guilt over understanding, perspective, or empathy.


    -Brett Celinski

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  10. I should have said, the single Polish character who is not anti-Semitic is the resistance fighter mentioned above, but it is she who accuses virtually the whole of Poland of being incorrigibly and historically anti-Jewish in the tirade I referred to in the review.

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    1. Yes Michal. And the point is that this is an ongoing agenda. The BBC have just put on a German TV programme about WW2 - "Generation War" - and there is a discussion about it in the on-line Guardian. Which I have joined in.

      This is from a comment:

      "I did enjoy Generation War - it was very good drama. However, it was terribly flawed in some respects.
      1. The plot device of numerous, highly unlikely coincidences (though I appreciate this was done in the interests of the drama).
      2. The notion that in 1941 the five central characters would not have realised Hitler's agenda in respect of the Jews, and other ethnic groups and minorities. Indeed, there is no open discussion of Hitler's "final solution" in any of the three episodes. What about the Hitler Youth? What about Goebbels' Jew-baiting propaganda? Kristallnacht? Mein Kampf?
      3. The incredible notion that in 1941, Greta would have gone out openly in Berlin with her Jewish boyfriend, Victor (who made no attempt to hide his Jewishness).
      4. The idea that Greta would be a supporter of Hitler in 1941, as she was clearly portrayed to be, despite having a Jewish boyfriend, and that she would then go to the opposite extreme and get a Gestapo lover. She clearly knew Victor was in danger, as she attempted to persuade the Gestapo guy to get Victor papers to enable him to escape to New York.
      5. The demonisation of the Polish partisans as anti-semites prepared to kill Jews, in contrast with the sympathetic portrayal of the central characters, none of whom express anti-semitic sentiments."

      The 5th point - about the "demonisation" of Polish partisans contrasted with the sympathetic way the German characters are treated is interesting.

      Isn't it also very Stalinist?

      By the way, I am happy for Germany to tell its story. They had an awful time too, and I'm not wanting them demonised. Its just that I wish politics could be left out of it.

      I do wonder if William Styron was nervous about making his heroine Polish and felt that the only way to get it past the PC-Police was to include the routine denunciation?

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    2. Sue, is this the discussion to which you refer? If not can you please post a link? Thank you.

      http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2014/may/12/generation-war-bbc-nazi-germany

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    3. Yes, that looks like it. There are some good comments - its not just us who have noticed the vilfication. I am Daisy Dill - if I remember right, my name was taken when I tried to join in something last year. Daisy Dill is a character from a favourite childhood nursery rhyme.

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    4. The real title of "Generation War" is "Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter" (Our mothers, Our Fathers). I wrote several posts about that series on this blog. I must agree with all points that Sue made, but there is one thing that she missed: Victor joins the Home Army.
      A German Jew in Polish Resistance? Ridiculous. What kind of partisan unit would accept a guy from Germany? A liability, if not a spy? There were Jews in Home Army, but they were polish to the bone. It was a matter of security.

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    5. Sue, I've posted all over the place about 'Generation War': the BBC messageboard, Krakow Post, the Spectator, the Radio Times site, etc. etc. sometimes under my own name, sometimes under an alias, but I have a feeling this film hasn't been shown in the States yet other than in a few select houses. Like you, I'm not interested in demonising all Germans (someone posted a hilarious clip on the Guardian site from 'Where Eagles Dare' with a staggering Nazi body count, which is the kind of film I imagine I'd be fed up with if I were German), but neither should ZDF try to demonise the Poles, which is something they more or less tried to do. You say you didn't watch the series, but in the discussion programme which followed, the German producer did go to some pains to say that it was the Polish resistance leader who in the end saves Viktor's (the German-Jewish character's) life, so the Poles had some saving graces - but they were still drawn as essentially even more anti-Semitic than the average German (as represented by the likeable young heroes) and stereotyped as simple thugs with little else on their minds except for bigos.

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    6. Thanks Michal, and thanks for your work in this area. And, yes, I too would be fed up with the Eagles Dare type of movie if I were German.

      I am fed up with them, and I'm not German.

      The movie makers have gone with Political Correctness here it seems and made Poles the villains. And if the German producer would think seriously about his comment "Poles had some saving graces"(!!) then he might realise just how much they have done so.

      Are we really to be grateful because a programme about WW2 allows us "some saving graces"?

      Thanks for the info though Michal - as I am contemplating my own letter to the BBC. And that will be a very useful bit of information if I do write it.

      I will be polite, of course.

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    7. Sue - even if you're not keen of watching the series, I'd have a look at the discussion programme before writing to the Beeb, if I were you, to see exactly what was said. It's available on iPlayer for another couple of days:

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b042m80x/generation-war-fact-and-fiction

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    8. Thanks Michal, I might venture a look at that - after a strong dose of Psalm 37! As Hebrews tells us: "For the word of God is alive and exerts power and is sharper than any two-edged sword and pierces even to the dividing of soul and spirit, and of joints from the marrow, and is able to discern thoughts and intentions of the heart."

      It can keep me from getting so angry I starting acting badly myself, IF I study and apply it.

      Only that is a very telling comment isn't it? It kind of says, yes, you are the villains of the piece, but we did give you a bit of saving grace.

      Well, thank you very much sir.

      And Vivian, if you are still with us, I am wondering what you think about that comment. Our problems with Sophie's Choice come from this context. It was not written in a vacuum. And its ongoing. This series has only just been shown on the Beeb, and I am still DaisyDilling away in the Guardian comments.

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    9. Obviously, I meant "start", not "starting"!

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    10. And I'm not doing too well, either. That should read "keen on" and not "keen of". The phrase 'saving graces' was my own and not the ZDF producer's. That's why it would be useful for you to have a look. There are actually quite a few pro-Polish comments from the historians.

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    11. Sue, I invited Vivian to comment but I've not heard from her.

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  11. I just came across a really critical review of Sophie's Choice at Bookslut. It includes this amazingly badly written passage:

    So even now with the cloud of fear around her, while he taunts her and abuses her - even now her pleasure is not mere mild enjoyment but the perennially re-created bliss, and chill waves shiver down her back as she sucks and sucks and sucks. She is not even surprised that the more he torments her scalp, the more he goads her with the detested "Irma," the more gluttonous becomes her lust to swallow up his price, and when she ceases, just for an instant, and panting raises her head and gasps "Oh God, I love sucking you," the words are uttered with the same uncomplicated and spontaneous ardor as before. She opens her eyes, glimpses his tortured face, resumes blindly, realizing now that his voice has become a shout which begins to echo from the flanks of the rock strewn hill… The delicious marble palmtree, the slippery trunk swelling and expanding, tells her that he is on the edge of coming, tells her to relax so as to accept the pulsing flood, the seawater gush of palmtree milk, and in that instant of hovering expectancy, as always, she feels her eyes brim over with stinging inexplicable tears.

    Here's the link:

    http://www.bookslut.com/hundred_books/2003_07_000151.php

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  12. PS I love Vivian dearly but do not understand her testiness in response to Michal's piece, which strikes me as unobjectionable.

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