William Styron: Sophie’s Choice, p/b, London, Vintage, 2000 (1979)

This is an epic, perhaps overlong novel in many parts.  In the first instance it is a novel about the unsuccessful and almost humorous search to lose his virginity by a 22 year old impecunious literature student and would be writer from Virginia, but living in New York. These sections throughout the book are tedious, dismal, voyeuristic,  unnecessarily specific and coarse as well as being exhausting to read. 

In the second instance it is a tale of an ultimately doomed love affair between the  beautiful and exotic Polish holocaust survivor Sophie Zawistowksa and highly intelligent but fundamentally flawed and paranoid schizophrenic New Yorker Nathan Landau. This account is frightening, instructive and attention gripping and provides the emotional centre of the novel.

Thirdly, through sometimes awkwardly introduced through flash backs from Sophie, the novel is a compelling reminder of the ferocious determination of pathologically minded Nazi leaders to completely exterminate the European Jewish community as well as their vast pogroms against Slavic peoples, Russians, the Polish nation and any one weak or ill or old and unfit for work in the nations conquered by soldiers fo the third reich.  Although this section has been criticised for treating the holocaust as a general statement of the evil deeply inherent in humanity and playing down antisemitism by Christians, as well as implying that Southern American slavery was relatively not such a bad thing at all.,   it nevertheless provides a horrific reminder of the horror and genocide of the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Sophie’s choice was to decide which of her children was to be murdered immediately on arrival at Auschwitz. Styron admits that this section is autobiographical of his time in Brooklyn when he met a holocaust survivor. This is a horrifying scene, magnified with exceptional emotional power by Meryl Streep in the film version.

Fourthly Styron provides us with a running commentary throughout the novel of the style and importance of a vast array of C19th and C20th American and European writers and poets and their characteristics and strengths. This preoccupation with styles of writing quickly begins to feel like a manual of how to write the great American novel. Many of the writers he mentions are little known today and it is difficult to avoid the impression that Styron is showing off his grasp of the last two centuries of American and European literature.

Putting all these components together results in an uneasy mix in my view. The reader needs a strong sense of determination to see this novel through. Having said this, once read, there are many shattering and frightening and powerful images which will remain in the reader’s consciousness for a long time indeed. 3 stars.

Lord Michele de Montaigne, Knight,  The Essayes or Moral, Politike and Militarie Dicourses: The Third Book, h/b, Folio, London,  2006 (1588).


The third and final book of  Lord Montaigne, C16th  French Knight, “one of the gentlemen In Ordinary of the French King Henry”, philosopher and arguably the world’s first essayist, was written eight years after his  first two books and written at a time when Montaigne seems very aware of his increasing age…it seemeth, custom alloweth old age more liberty to babbel,and indiscretion to talke of its selfe.  The essays in this book are much longer than those in Books 1 and 2 with the exception of An Apologie of Raymond Sebonde in Book 2 which is very long indeed. Nevertheless the contents of the thirteen essays still stray well beyond their the topics of their titles. It seems possible to detect a deeper sense of self-analysis in this last book and a degree of defensiveness about the way Montaigne conducted his public life prior to retiring to his private estate to read and write.

The topics are as varied and vibrant as the first two books with perhaps fewer military chapters and towards the end, fewer quotations from Greek and Latin ancient philosophers and writers. There are chapters on profit and honesty, repenting, commerces or societies which includes interesting comments on poetry and books and  diversions in conversation.  An amazing fifth chapter entitled Upon Some Verses in Virgil, begins with a lively interaction with early Greek and Roman philosophers but eventually leads to an outrageous and lengthy discussion of sexuality which is frequently R-rated and would certainly outrage C20th feminists although more likely to be  appreciated by the morality of the C21st.  This highlight is followed by discussions about coaches, greatness, conferring and conferences, vanity, the writing of wills, and of the lame or cripple, of human character, nature and appearance.

 The final chapter, entitled “Of Experience”  is the most personal and private one of all which includes  diatribes against several professions including lawyers, doctors, against having too many books! against judges, against having an oversupply of  laws, against ignorance and lack of curiosity, against self-conceit, and in favour of learning, goodwill and boldness. There are  excruciating details of Montaigne’s habits, health, diet, toilet habits, illnesses, and an analysis of positive and negative attitudes to death.  Bloom, who rates Montaigne at the highest level in his Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, (2002) writes about this chapter: I cannot think of another essay, in the tradition that reaches from Montaigne to Freud, that so profoundly searches out the metaphysics of self, and that so persuasively urges us to accept necessity. (0.45)

Throughout the whole of Book 3   Montaigne’s hero and mentor is Socrates with Plato a poor second who suffers by comparison with Socrates whom Montaigne calls “the wisest man that ever was”.

I found it a huge challenge to read the three quite large books which make up Montaigne’s Essays especially in the 1603 English translation of John Florio which is effectively Shakespearian English. On the other hand there is impressive wisdom and insight in Montaigne which I am glad I have been able to ponder. I think he deserves his place in the higher echelons of Bloom’s list of 100 geniuses although the extraordinary length and minute detail of Montaigne’s self-analysis of his own character I think we could have had less of. 

Regarding the wisdom and clear thinking of Montaigne I attach some examples below:

p13: When an urgent circumstance, or any violent and unexpected accident, induceth a Prince for the necessitie of his estate, or as they say for state matters, to breake his worde and faith, or otherwise to forceth him out of his ordinary duty, he is to ascribe that necessity unto a lash of God’s rod: It is no vice, for hee hath quit his reason, unto a reason more publike, and more powerfull,but surely ’tis ill fortune….We cannot doe every thing, nor bee in every place. When all is done, thus and thus, must wee often, as unto our lat Anker and sole refuge, resigne the protection of our vessell unto the onely conduct of heaven.  [i.e.  in the end God rules!]

p.19:  To write books without learning, is it not to make a wall without stone or such like thing

p.22:   That is an exquisite life, which even in his owne private keepeth it selfe in awe and order. 

p.27:  On repentance: Surely there can be no perfect health; where the disease is not perfectly removed. Were repentance put in the scale of ballance, it would weigh downe sinne.  I finde no humour so easie to counterfeited as Devotion: If one conforme not his life and conditions to it, her essence is abstruse and concealed, her appearance gentle and stately…repentance doth not properly concern what is not in our power; sorrow doth. 

p.37:  Montaigne is no great  fan of poetry but prefers it to those medling with Rhetoricke, with Law, and with Logicke, and such like trash, so vaine and unprofitable for their use….Poesie is a study fit for their purpose: being a wanton, ammusing, subtill, disguised, and pratling Arte; all in delight, all in shew, like to themselves.

p39:  The company of faire, and society of honest women is likewise a sweet commerce for me. 

p.42: On books: I enjoy them, as a miser does his gold; to know, that I may enjoy them when I list; my minde is settled and satisfied with the right of possession.  I never travel without bookes, nor in peace nor in warre.. and p. 44: Bookes have and containe divers pleasing qualities to those that can duly choose them. But no good without paines; no Roses without prickles.

p44.  On wealth:  A great fortune is a great bondage (Seneca)….

p. 48. On death: It belongeth to one only, Socrates, to accost and entertaine death with an undaunted ordinary visage, to become familiar and play with it. He seekers for no comfort out of the thing itselfe. To die seemeth unto him a naturall and indifferent accident…and p. 50, quoting Zeno: No evil is honourable; death is; therefore death is no evil. 

p.60:  On old age: Seeing it is the mindes priviledge to renew and recover itself in old age, I earnestly advise it to do it.

p.62.   On confession: Every one is wary in the confession; we should be as heedy in action….Why doth no man confesse his faults? Because hee is yet in them.  [Seneca]

p.65 On sex:   Goddesse, thou rule’s the nature of all things,

Without thee nothing into this light springs

Nothing is lovely, nothing pleasure brings.       [Lucretius}

p139:  Montaigne writes at length in chapter 6 against the damage done by Western hegemony to the colonised world…amazingly C21st imagery and foresight writing in the C15th.

p. 233:   We are so farre enough from being honest according to God: For, wee cannot be such according to our selves. Humane wisedome could never reach the duties, or attaine the devoires it had prescribed unto it selfe….I am so distasted and out of liking with the world, wherein I live and frequent: but well I know, I should have small reason to complaine, the world were distasting and out of liking with me, since I am so with it.

p.234:  Plato saith, that “who escapes untainted and cleaner-handed from managing of the world; escapeth by some wonder.

p250:  He that lives not somewhat to others, liveth little to himselfe.. He that is friend to himself, know, he is friend to all.  [Seneca]

p255:  The more we amplifie our neede and possession, the more we engage our selves to the crosses of fortune and adversities. 

p.258:  We must not run headlong after our affections and private interests.

p.278  a man were better bend towards doubt, than encline towards certaintie, in matter of difficult triall and dangerous belief.  [Augustine]

p. 284: On learning: We neede not much learning to live at ease. And Socrates teacheth us, that we have both it, and the way to finde and make use of it, within us….We have neede of little learning to have a good minde [Seneca]

p. 290:  There can be no worse estate of things  be imagined, than where wickednesse commeth to be lawfull…there is nothing more deceiptfull to shew, than corrupt religion, when the power of Heaven is made a pretence and cloake for wickednesse. 

p293  Hee is of most power, that himself in his owne power. [Seneca]

p. 299: Philosophy teacheth us, ever to have death before our eyes, to fore-see and consider it before it come.  If we have not known how to live, it is injustice to teach us how to die.

p304  on himself:  …here I have but gathered a nosegay of strange floures, and have put nothing of mine unto it, but the thred to bind them…p323: ..I study myself more than any other subject..

p367:  The glorious masterpiece of man, is, to live to the purpose.

p.371: on life: A fooles life is all pleasant, all fearfull, all fond of future [Seneca] …according as the the possession of life is more short, I must endevour to make it more profound and full. 

p. 376  Montaigne’s final word: The best and most commendable lives, and pleasing men are (in my conceit) those which with order are fitted, and with decorum are ranged to the common mould and humane model: but without wonder or extravagancy. Now hath old age need to be handled more tenderly. Let us recommend it unto that God, who is the protector of health, and fountaine of all wisedome: but blithe and social. Montaigne closes with a quote from Horace, Ode. 31:17

Apollo graunt, enjoy health I may

That I have got, and with sound minde, I pray:

Nor that I may with shame spend my old yeares,

Nor wanting musicke to delight mine eares.