Friday, July 17, 2009

Athens, Brooklyn, Sophie's Choice

"The storm had washed Flatbush sparkling clean. Lightning had stuck somewhere nearby; there was a smell in the street of ozone, eclipsing even the fragrance of sauerkraut and bagels. My eyelids felt gritty. I blinked painfully in the blinding glare; after Sophie's dark memories and the Maple Court's crepuscular murk, the bourgeois blocks rimming Prospect Park seemed dazzling, ethereal, almost Mediterranean, like a flat leafy Athens." (Sophie's Choice, Modern Library edition, p. 351)

William Styron gets as close as anyone I know to aligning Greece with the American South in his classic work Sophie's Choice (1976). One of Styron's most interesting juxtapositions involves the extermination of Greece's Jews in the Holocaust and the rising conscience of the novel's hero. Generally, the novel explores a young southern writer's relationship with Sophie, a Polish concentration camp survivor. The two meet in Brooklyn in 1947. The novel develops through Sophie's confessions of her internment at Auschwitz, where, among other things, she witnessed the execution of Greek Jews.

As Slingo falls in love with Sophie, he considers the lack of parallels between their war experiences. Slingo gorged himself with bananas in order to satisfy the weight requirement for joining the Marine Corps in Raleigh, on the very day that Sophie entered the concentration camp, April Fool's Day, 1943 (p. 248). Working in the house of "her captor," Auschwitz director Rudolf Franz Hoss, Sophie witnessed 2,100 Jews from Athens and the Greek islands being gassed and creamted in October, 1943. Contemplating the "nexus of time," Stingo's realizes that his thoughts centered on a Duke-Tennessee football game, while the Greek Jews were exterminated (p. 252). The German officials were puzzled by the despicable physical state of the Jews arriving from Athens, with about 10% capable of work, rather than the usual 25-30% (p. 254).

In earlier postings (Brooklyn and Jewish Byzantium, Byzantium NOW) I considered the literary tradition of a "Byzantine" New York. In Sophie's Choice, Styron develops another etherial layer for Brooklyn, accumulated through the tragedy of Athens' exterminated Jews. The quote at the beginning makes the multivalency of geography clear. Auschwitz 1943 and Brooklyn 1947 come together through the experiences, memories, confessions and denials of the novel's characters.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States