WILLIAM STYRON, who will be 54 years old on the day Sophie's Choice is published, has lived in the same house in Roxbury, Connecticut for a quarter of a century. As I arrive at the appointed interview time (four p.m. on a sunny Sunday afternoon) the Styrons and their guests are still finishing lunch and sit amid the profusion of talk, laughter, tennis rackets, melting ice-cream, large lazing dogs, barely touched Bloody Marys, and the general abundance of cheers and victuals that typifies a Styronian Sunday. There is a gracious fecundity, a largesse about the Styron household which is both Tolstovan and deeply Southern. A Famous Photographer is on hand, determined to squeeze the last drop of atmosphere from the author's message. By 4:30 the author chafes at the proliferation of poses being asked of him. By 4:45 he announces, in those growling tones which few who know him dare disregard, that he has had enough society for the day. A few minutes later, as the last terrified weekend guest exits with her bags, Styron firmly guides her dog out of the house with his foot and a loud, emphatic "Good-bye, Pumpkin." Due to this amiably agitated delay (characteristically caused by a magnitude of hospitality) we start the interview an hour later than scheduled. Bill Styron has changed little in the 25 years I've known him, save for the increased compassionateness of his light brown eyes, which have always revealed an anxiety and searchingness seldom expressed in his plainspoken conversation. Sophie's Themes
FG: Is this a book about slavery?
WS: Yes it is, to some extent. In the sense that it's about relationships in which slave and master are essential components, and also in the historic sense of Auschwitz being a slave encampment. Auschwitz instituted a very specifically malignant form of slavery, the first slavery ever dedicated to the systematic extermination of people through overwork rather than to merely gleaning the profits of their labor. It was also, of course, an extermination center for Jews.
FG: And there's a further link to slavery in Sophie's Choice in terms of your own work. Stingo, your narrator-hero, is a young Southerner who's reflecting on the bondage instituted in the concentration camps at the same time as he's preparing eventually to write a book about Nat Turner. So can Sophie's Choice be seen as a sequel to The Confessions of Nat Turner in the sense that they deal with two levels of slavery?
WS: Yes, I guess it can.
FG: I know you don't like to be considered a Southern novelist, Bill; but it strikes me that this is the most Southern of your novels. Set This House on Fire had nothing to do with Southern locale, and Lie Down in Darkness could just as well have been set in Cincinnati as in Port Warwick, Virginia. Whereas Sophie's Choice clearly posits a kind of paradise in the American South which is a place of redemption. The Southern hero tries to take Sophie, a survivor of Auschwitz, to live on his farm in Virginia because he sees it as the only place in which she can be cleansed of the massive accretion of sinfulness which the Holocaust steeped her in.
WS: I'd go even further than that. There's a constant sense throughout the book of Stingo's Southernness, a perpetual awareness of his Southern origins and his need to understand his Southernness, his need to understand the racial tragedy of the South. The South is evoked as a place of contentment, peace, serenity where manners are decent, where people are humane towards each other . . .I'm leaving aside the racial thing at the moment . . . a place where courtesy is part of life. All this in contrast to the jostling, noisy, abrasive, urban North.
FG: So Sophie's Choice is much more Southern even than Nat Turner, where the South was posited as a place of oppression.
WS: Yes, absolutely.
FG: Isn't the central theme of your new book, as in Nat Turner, that of victims turning into oppressors?
WS: Oh absolutely. Essences of Evil
FG: The preface quote you chose for Sophie's Choice comes from Andre Mairaux: "I seek that essential region of the soul, where absolute evil confronts brotherhood." In what way is this central to your theme?
WS: I think Auschwitz certainly had to be the most ultimate revelation of absolute evil in the history of the human race, or at least in the history of the so-called civilized Western world. This is precisely what I wanted to confront in my own soul as a writer: This place of absolute evil - Auschwitz - confronts a representation of brotherhood and innocence in the character of Sophie.
FG: Let's turn to the third central protagonist, Nathan Landau. He is a Jew, the microcosmic symbol of the Jewish people in this novel. He's the one whose whose voice is heard resounding through the boarding house screaming to Sophie "How come you lived through Auschwitz?" This is his cri de coeur, his anger, as a Jew, at the fact that a Gentile survived Auschwitz, his way of placing the burden of responsibility on her.
WS: Yes, he's the victim who turns oppressor by creating his own holocaust, by drawing Sophie and himself into death.
FG: Are you aware of the fact that you give the same first name to the two central victim-oppressor figures in your last two books - Nathaniel of Nat Turner and Nathan Landau of Sophie's Choice?
WS: I hadn't even thought of it until you said it. And no one's mentioned it. These choices of names often have curious subconscious significance.
FG: In writing about Auschwitz, Bill, how do you feel you've elaborated on Hannah Arendt's conception of "the banality of evil?"
WS: I think that I've pursued her ideas with some fidelity throughout the book. I've tried to show that the promulgators of absolute evil at Auschwitz were pretty ordinary people, that Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of the camp, could have been a perfectly decent American official somewhere, an American . . . highly intelligent. A perfect husband and father who even had, as I put it somewhere, "a serviceable decency." As Simone Weil has pointed out along with Hannah Arendt, we tend to hold a cliche notion of evil which stresses its melodramatic sadistic aspect, whereas real evil has a kind of monotonous regularity, an ordered sort of bureaucratic normality.
FG: When you put it that way today, you're sticking to the classical Christian theology of evil which was first formulated by St. Augustine as privatio boni, an absence of good. Whereas in Sophie's Choice you're much more Manichean, you say, "I want to make it clear that the forces of evil are always alive in the world." Is this just Stingo talking or is it Styron? Do you Styron, reject the Christian notion of evil?
WS: I suspect I see evil as something in between. I find it hard to define Auschwitz as embodying the absence of good. Actually I respond greatly to that marvelous statement of George Steiner's which I discuss in Sophie's Choice. Steiner sees two different species of time in the world, as he puts it, "'good' time and enveloping folds of inhuman time in which men fall into the slow hands of the living damnation."
FG: Would you compare this periodic density of evil to the new concept of black holes in physics, in which all laws break down . . .?
WS: I think that's a very good analogy. The kind of behaviour exemplified at Auschwitz was so bizarre and unpredictably strange in its evil that it does correspond to something as inexplicable as the black hole, in which even the Einsteinian laws of physics break down. Love and Death
FG: I'm struck by the linkage of sexuality and death in your new book. Nathan and Sophie, to whom you assign some of the most harrowing sex scenes in contemporary fiction, are highly sexual beings and they're the ones who're damned, dying in each other's arms. Whereas the only one of the three protagonists who is saved remains a virgin until almost the end of the book. Also, you're constantly juxtaposing the life-giving, joyous nature of the triadic friendship shared by Stingo, Sophie and Nathan to the damnation of Nathan and Sophie's sexuality.
WS: I was plainly trying to work on several levels in terms of sex.I mean Sophie and Nathan would have had it beautifully made on the sexual level had there not been a madness in their relationship which has to do with her guilt as a survivor of Auschwitz and his psychosis. I don't think I was trying to downgrade sexual fulfillment per se. The subsidiary point I was making, an interesting side point, is that there was a lot of sexual frustration existing on the cultural scene in the late '40s, and Stingo was its victim. I mean girls just weren't putting out yet in those years, right?
FG: Let's get to the genesis of Sophie's Choice. The first person protagonist is so clearly autobiographical, so clearly 22-year-old Bill Styron. Are Sophie and Nathan also drawn from life?
WS: Hardly at all. I lived in a rooming-house for a few weeks in Brooklyn in 1947. I did meet a girl there with a tattoo on her arm who was having an affair with the guy upstairs and I did hear them making love all the time. I got to know them slightly, and a few beers with them, and then I left the rooming-house. And that was about it. She was a beautiful girl, as I've described her, a gorgeous girl.
FG: And when did you decide to build a novel aroundher?
WS: Much much later, only four or five years ago. I'd been writing another book about the Marine Corps whcih I'm going to back to. I'd done all these other books and one morning about five years ago I woke up with this absolute brainstrom, part of a dream I think. It seemed to be so imperative, so much of a mandate to deal with the theme of Auschwitz that I decided to start right then. And there was no turning back once I started. Novelist at Work
FG: You're written four novels in 32 years, which is more or less the same pace as some of the best 19th-century writers, Flaubert and others. But it's considerably slower than most of your contemporaries in the United States. What advantages and disadvantages do you find to this slow pace?
WS: Well, the disadvantages are that you don't make as much money and you drop out of slight a litte, you feel out of the mainstream. There's a perpetual demand to be in the public eye in this country, but if you don't care about that - which i don't - the advantages to my slow pace are enormous. Namely, you can sit down and painstakingly do your thing and make your vision come true even if you're only writing one paragraph a day. And it's the imperative, it's almost like Martin Luther's "I can do no other." It's the only way I can work.
FG: You've told me earlier that one of the reasons why you use the first person in Sophie's Choice is to gain the reader's confidence. This is radically different-and your forms are, too-from the attitude of the American avant-gardist who wants to suck the reader into his own state of alienation, confuse him, often insult him. Yours is a profoundly traditional way of story-telling whose continuance was being much questioned 10, 15 years ago.
WS: Well, I don't think there's any necessary conflict between my attitudes and techniques and those of the avant-garde. I'm absolutely confident the two will coexist. Somewhere recently I read Donald Barthelme to the effect that the writing of our time is "the fragment." That's fine if you write fragments like Brathelme. I hav eno arguments with the fragment, but I wouldn't ever be so arrogant as to say it was the only writing of our time. There's too much evidence to support the fact that people look with a great deal of attention and love on the larger, more traditional narrative forms.
FG: What was the most difficult problem you faced in writing Sophie's Choice?
WS: What I found difficult was to make Sophie's story convincing when I switched into the omniscient third person narrator's voice. In other words, switching from Sophie's first person narration to the super filter of the third person without any gross interruption of tonality . . .oh it was very difficult.
FG: Even though Sophie's Choice is the most complex of your books, it seems to have come more easily to you than some of the other.
WS: The subject matter was so laid out for me, the historic framework of Auschwitz. In that sense it was like Nat Turner - that we know what happened to a man in history called Nat Turner - we have a place called Auschwitz which really existed, which wasn't invented. At times it was like having a coloring book and filling it in. However, however . . . writing about Auschwitz, and all the Polish scenes in general, presented great difficulty too. They were more painful to write. They were more knotty and difficult to put together. Morality of Fiction
FG: Without any kind of foreknowledge on your part, Sophie's Choice is coming out at a time when there's a widespread interest throughout society in deepening our understanding of the Holocaust. We've had the Holocaust series on television, President Carter led a Holocaust service at the White House this year for the first time, theological journals seem to be coming out with a rash of articles about Christianty after Auschwitz. Why 34 years later?
WS: It might take a whole generation . . . I think the important thing about the Holocaust is our realization (and this is the sensitive part of it) that although Jews were the chief recipients of the agony, it affects all human beings. It's immaterial whether it was only Jews who died, or whether they shared the agony with many non-Jews, the point we must understand is that this event has cosmic implications for all of us because it forces us totally to rederfine the interaction of evil and of history.That's why I had to make Sophie a Gentile. If she had been Jewish, the possibility of dramatizing her free will would have been much more problematical in the context of Auschwitz. She would have had considerably less volitional movement.
FG: And by making her a Gentile you were able to make a more universal statement about sin in the human condition?
FG: Do you see the writing of Sophie's Choice as a moral act in that it can lead us to a deeper understanding of the Holocaust? Can you look on art as an educational act in that way?
WS: Oh yes, I'm very involved with the didactic aspect of literature, which is why I write the kinds of books I write, which is why I can't be concerned with solipsistic fragments. I do think that one of the glories of the traditional novel from is its teaching ability, the way it can tell a fine story and at the same time tell you something you may not have clearly realized before about the human condition.
FG: There are also moments of extraordinary humor in your new book. Its spectrum of tragedy and comedy may be vasted than anyone's attempted in some years. Great comic talents are often surly people, as you find occasion to be, or are you simply abiding by Oscar Wilde's dictum that a gentleman is one who is never un intentionally rude?
WS: Never un intentionally rude? That's terrific. Oh, when I'm rude, it's always intentional. I would hate to be knwon as kind of a cheery fellow. I mean . . .I think one of the things that always appealed to me about Faulkner was that he didn't give a damn what people thought about him and kept strictly to himself. You know, if you're going to be any kind of a good writer you have to keep the faith with your own bad moods in order to get your writing done. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, Illustration of William Styron by Allen Carroll for The Washington Post; Picture, no caption, Photo of William Stryon by Nancy Crampton