It all started with Sophie’s Choice—William Styron’s masterpiece about a young southern writer who goes to New York to write the Great American Novel, and instead is drawn into the center of a stormy love affair between his brilliant Jewish housemate, Nathan, and Sophie, a young Polish woman who has arrived in the States after surviving the Auschwitz death camp.
I was twenty-two years old, living in Los Angeles and just starting out as a writer, when I picked up the paperback. The book struck me like a thunderbolt. I fell in love with it. And of course, I fell in love with Sophie too. How could I not? How could I—another potential Stingo—possibly resist falling for that striking, fragile, needy, irreparably damaged, and ultimately unattainable character of Sophie Z.? Later, I would be very gratified to hear a friend of mine tell me that he had fallen for my character, Sigrid Schröder, in much the same way.
In Styron’s book, Sophie drew back the curtain on a much darker place than a postwar rooming house in Brooklyn. She took me into Auschwitz. While I knew about the Holocaust and had an interest in World War II, it is Sophie’s journey through Auschwitz-Birkenau that made a lasting impression on my writing. Survival in such a place was a morally ambiguous business, and often governed by the capriciousness of the rules of chance. This is what I write about, and read about.
The Good German, by Joseph Kanon, is another of my fiction favorites set in a morally ambiguous world. A Princess in Berlin by Arthur R. G. Solmssen (you may have to search in the used-book section, but it’s worth the effort). It is a novel I wish I’d written.
If you’re interested in learning more about Berlin from a historical perspective, I can recommend several terrific nonfiction books that offer a penetrating appraisal of life in the city in the first half of the twentieth century; among them are Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse, The Last Jews in Berlin by Leonard Gross, and Otto Friedrich’s quintessential homage to Berlin between the wars, Before the Deluge.
While it’s not about Berlin, if you’ve never read it, for a timeless piece of writing pick up Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Or if you have read it, read it again.
Sometimes I like to imagine that I am about to take a long train ride, and must choose from my bookshelf only one of my favorites, which has nothing to do with Berlin or World War II, but is simply a great book, beautifully written with vivid, lived-in characters. My current choice would be any one of these: Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, each of which is a poignant, intensely human story about a woman facing a devastating family tragedy; Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, a deeply captivating coming-of-age novel; Robert Stone’s, A Flag for Sunrise, a political thriller set in Central America, populated by vivid characters; Don DeLillo’s hilariously dark White Noise; Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, an intimate portrait of a woman on the edge; Charles Dickens’s intricately plotted and exciting yarn of revolution and sacrifice, A Tale of Two Cities; Isabelle Allende’s epic tale of love and family, The House of the Spirits; and Jodi Picoult’s emotional novel of a broken family, Lone Wolf.
All of these books have left their imprint on me, sometimes for different reasons, but in every case because of their beautiful writing, unforgettable characters, and powerful stories.
David’s novel, CITY OF WOMEN, was published yesterday by Amy Einhorn Books. We’re giving away two copies today. Leave a comment on this post to enter!
It is 1943—the height of the Second World War—and Berlin has essentially become a city of women. The men are fighting and dying at the front. Those who return alive are injured, ghosts of their former selves. But on the home front the women solider on.
While her husband is entrenched outside of Moscow, Sigrid Schröder is, for all intents and purposes, the model German soldier’s wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ignoring the horrific immoralities of the regime. But behind this façade is an entirely different Sigrid, a woman who dreams of her former lover who is now lost in the chaos of the war. Her lover is Jewish.
Before long, Sigrid finds herself embroiled in an underground world she knew nothing about. When she becomes responsible for hiding a mother and her two young daughters, who might be her lover’s family – Sigrid is forced to make an agonizing decision that could cost her everything.