Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Sophie's Voice, Tolstoy, Film, Music: Interpreting a Leaf from the Manuscript of Sophie's Choice

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Sophie's Voice, Tolstoy, Film, Music: Interpreting a Leaf from the Manuscript of Sophie's Choice

Article excerpt

OF THE 895 MANUSCRIPT LEAVES OF SOPHIE'S CHOICE HOUSED IN THE Special Collections Library at Duke University, few seem as significant as the title leaf of Chapter Four, reproduced here in facsimile. (1) Leaves of this kind survive in each of William Styron's holograph manuscripts. Unlike many novelists, he did not make elaborate notes, keep a journal or generate volumes of reference material. Most of what he would use remained within him as he pondered and developed his characters and themes over the years it took for a novel to reach fruition. Such leaves are all we have of this process. Although there are two of three other leaves of the Sophie's Choice manuscript that lend themselves to interpretation, the handwriting there is comparatively uniform and organized, and at least some of the notes would seem to have been written prior to composition. In contrast, the leaf reproduced here, unnumbered except for the "FOUR" in its center, captures Styron's thoughts, feelings and moods in the white heat of creativity. Evidently, it is a leaf that he himself forgot about as time passed. Reminded of it in 1991, he recalled it with surprise. (2)

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More significantly, this leaf marks a pivotal moment both in the narrative that unfolds and in the way that Styron sets it down. It is the point at which Sophie imposes her personality on the narrative, and the novel, to borrow a phrase from Joyce Carol Oates, starts "to move of its own momentum" (Oates 550). (3) Following Flaubert in being slow and deliberate, Styron felt his way into his novels in his "determination to wrench out of every scene its absolute substance" (Styron, "Appendix" 223). Envisaged as a novella, Sophie's Choice grew chapter by chapter until it reached a shape and size far beyond his original conception. This leaf shows that process occurring even as its jumble of cryptic notes, whether scrawled or set down with contemplative precision, distills the novel itself. The boxed statements bear witness to the author's concentrated energies, while those scribbled across the yellow sheet preserve the sheer excitement of composition. Virtually every important theme and motif is present somewhere in this single space.

Chapter Four opens with a switch from the older narrator's description of his youthful days when he was known as "Stingo" to Sophie's first-person voice and her subtly rendered use of English as a newly learned language. During the chapter, the narrative shifts smoothly back but retains Sophie's point of view, a remarkable piece of legerdemain that may be uniquely Styron's. In the first three chapters, the older narrator has established the story of how he set out to be a writer. For Stingo, these New York days are times of heroic dreams but youthful unease, fraught with barely acknowledged loneliness and uncertainty about a future that seems "as misty and as obscure as those smog-bound horizons that stretched beyond the meadows of New Jersey" (24). Fired from McGraw-Hill, he arrives at Yetta Zimmerman's Pink Palace, befriends Sophie and Nathan, but sees "with a dreamer's fierce clarity" that Sophie is "doomed" (53) and that her prophesy that they three will become "the best of friends" is mere bravado (77). In chapter four, Sophie starts to tell a story that will put Stingo's youthful self-obsession in a new light. But Styron, as he embarks on this chapter, has only begun to see the complex way in which she will reveal her tragedy. He uses this title leaf to gather thoughts that occur as he writes the rest of the novel.

The most significant note on the manuscript leaf is in the top left comer. FATHER REALLY ANTI-SEMITE?" writes Styron in capitals, and next to it: "IMP." Indeed, the importance of this question for the novel's final shape is inestimable. In this chapter, Sophie tells Stingo about life in Cracow before the war, and of how her "religious," "liberal," "pacifist" father, Professor Bieganski, was a defender of the Jews (81-82). …

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