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.