clare burson

silver and ash

sophie’s choice

i spent the summer before my senior year in high school at the sewanee summer music center in sewanee, tennessee. orchestra camp. instead of band geeks, we were classical music geeks. of course, we didn’t think of ourselves as geeks . . . classical music is cool!

anyway, the summer of ’92 was actually a pretty important one for me on at least two levels. first, it was then and there that i met my first germans who were not part of my grandparents’ demographic. and on one of these germans – a beautiful cellist from the southwestern corner of germany- i developed a long-lasting infatuation. in part because of this crush and how it directed me towards my own connection to the vaterland, i decided to spend my time in college learning german, studying german cultural/ intellectual history, and spending a year+ in germany digging through my family history there.

(for those of you clamoring to know how things turned out between me and the beautiful german cellist, well . . . we sent letters back and forth over the atlantic for a few years and then finally met up again a few months after i arrived in germany in the fall of ‘95. we had a lovely time, but i handled myself poorly, to say the least, and i have seen/ heard neither hide nor hair of him since.)

but the point here is not to dwell on my thwarted romance with the german cellist. rather, in thinking about my last post, jew-y/ jew-ier/ jew-iest, i remembered another important experience from my time in sewanee. each summer, while 200 or so aspiring classical musicians are practicing under the magnolias, the sewanee writer’s conference gathers ‘a distinguished faculty to provide instruction and criticism through workshops and craft lectures in fiction, poetry, and playwriting.’ every once in a while, one of these faculty members gives a talk that is open to the public.

william styron was a member of the faculty during the summer of ’92. and one day, by some strange lapse in my usual lack of attention to such things, i noticed that styron was giving a lecture – open to the public. i hadn’t read or seen sophie’s choice at that point, but i knew all about it. okay. that’s a stretch. i knew that it was a book about the holocaust. or at least, that’s how i identified it. i had to go. i was particularly curious to listen to a non-jew talk about his motivation for writing a book about something that i then considered quintessentially jewish – despite the fact that so many victims of the holocaust were not jewish, including the heroine (if we can call her that) of sophie’s choice.

to paraphrase what i heard (and i’ve had enough therapy to know that what i heard was not necessarily what was actually said): william styron had not set out specifically to write a book about a polish victim of the holocaust. first came a theme, a question of the human experience: the moment of a choiceless choice and that moment’s deep and far-reaching implications and repercussions – both on the players and those around them. only then came the setting, the historical and social structure within which to ensconce this set of human experiences.

and suddenly, writing made sense to me in a way that it never had before. i understood what moves me when i read a book or listen to a song. beyond the essentials of plot and language which draw me in, lies the emotional and psychological experience, the internal struggle that resonates on a deep and fundamentally human level.

and so i began to write. and so i do still.

perhaps it is a given that this still untitled collection of songs chronicles more than the historical upheaval experienced by my jewish grandparents and great grandparents. i don’t mean to say that the ‘jewishness’ or the historical background of this project are simply foils. they are no more foils than the setting and circumstances of sophie’s choice. theme, setting, language, and narrative are inextricably linked and intertwined. and, here it seems relevant to add, so is the identity of the artist/ creator. but it seems to me that what these extreme moments both in history and in art do is expose the rawness of what it is to be human, force us to feel and act in ways that test both our limitation and our boundlessness.


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