Book review

Legendary essayist Susan Sontag’s short fiction unlocks a different, intimate self of the writer

All of the scholar and critic’s short stories have now been brought together in one volume.

In an obituary that is both explicitly wry and covertly moving, written three months after Susan Sontag’s death in December 2004, literary scholar Terry Castle recalls an amusing anecdote involving her final encounter with the writer. Castle, who developed a considerably close friendship with Sontag in her later years, visited the author’s New York apartment with her partner on an afternoon, armed with a prior appointment.

The arrival was followed by a long wait in the living room as instructed by Sontag’s personal assistant. When Sontag finally appeared with a slightly drowsy look and dishevelled appearance, Castle made the mistake of nervously apologising, anticipating that they might have disrupted her afternoon nap. Apparently this polite and completely innocuous suggestion was too offensive for Sontag who, in Castle’s rich description, was instantly outraged:

 “Her face instantly darkened and she snapped at me violently. Why on earth did I think she’d been having a nap? Didn’t I know she never had naps? Of course she wasn’t having a nap! She would never have a nap! Never in a million years! What a stupid remark to make! How had I gotten so stupid? A nap – for god’s sake!”  

The conversation never really recovered from this mini fiasco that fated afternoon. If this scathing chastisement is any indication (and Castle goes on to provide many other representative anecdotal evidence in her now famous essay) then one of the most celebrated American public intellectuals of the last century indeed had an enormous capacity for self-regard. Yet, it would perhaps be a misunderstanding to mistake this sense of self-importance for merely an ostentatious display of intellectual superiority.

Sontag’s prodigious talent ( overcoming a difficult childhood, she precociously graduated from University of Chicago at the age of eighteen, followed by periods of consistent academic excellence at Harvard, Oxford and University of Paris), astonishingly vast range of scholarly interests, and stylistic excellence scarcely called for validation. Rather, for someone like Sontag, with an incredibly powerful individual impulse, seriousness was always a moral virtue, not merely a circumstantial state of mind.

Towards the end of her public life Sontag’s presence itself was becoming institutionalised: a fusion of her craft and persona. Therefore, a misrepresentation of her self-image was almost like undermining Sontag’s moral intensity and political commitment that had taken her to Saigon in the 1960s and Bosnia in the 1990s. In photographic portraits of the author taken by Philippe Halsman or Annie Leibovitz the poise, gestures, wardrobe or even eyes are reflective of an authorial self command. Yet, she also never denied herself the seriousness of pleasure which too, just like the never ending reality of war, was always an immersive experience for Sontag.

Image credit: Juan Fernando Bastos / CC BY SA 3.0
Image credit: Juan Fernando Bastos / CC BY SA 3.0

In the mid 1960s, her essay on “camp” aesthetics had put her on the pedestal of American literary journalism. By 1963 Sontag had already published her first novel, The Benefactor, but since then her essayistic output by far eclipsed the attempts at writing long form fiction and experimental filmmaking. Sontag’s later novelistic output too was firmly rooted in a historical context. Both The Volcano Lover (perhaps her best novel) and In America (a lukewarm critical response to the work frustrated the writer no end) have a theatrical backdrop to a varying degree. A person’s individual capacity for self-transformation always redirects the arc of history in these two novels.

Just like her non-fiction, Sontag’s later novels too elicit an almost majestic sense of certainty and prophetic clarity. When two volumes of her journals and notebooks came out posthumously, the result was an important autobiographical document, but not nearly revelatory enough for a radical reappraisal. The author’s intellectual evolution and its ideological implications, meticulously recorded in the journals, try to compensate for the deliberative self-effacement in Sontag’s non-fictional output. However, there is always a consistent and consolidated vision of individuality which at times may seem too laboured.

Short stories needed to be written in the bedroom

This is why Sontag’s dispersed short fiction deserves great attention, for it reveals a completely different side of the author’s creative strength: untidy, vulnerable and almost rapturously indecisive. Starting from the 1960s and with considerable gaps, Sontag’s short stories appeared in Partisan Review, American Review, Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker and Playboy. When eight of these stories were anthologised in a now forgotten collection called I, Etcetera (1978) it projected a sense of emotional intimacy quite counterintuitive to the omniscience of her essays.

A great service has finally been done by novelist and biographer Benjamin Taylor, who has consolidated these stories and three other (the most famous of them being “The Way We Live Now”, which had the distinction of being published as a separate book in 1992 with Howard Hodgkin’s illustrations) in a new collection. It has been published by Hamish Hamilton in the UK and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (with the title Debriefing) in the US in November 2017.

In the foreword Taylor, who himself has straddled the worlds of fiction and non–fiction in a prolific career, (his biography of Proust and editorial work on Saul Bellow’s non-fiction has garnered him considerable praise) quite straightforwardly differentiates these stories from her essayistic corpus in their “craving for uncertainty”. To Taylor, Sontag’s short stories are more like creatures of occasion rather than habit. More importantly, he separates an “outer and inner sancta” of Sontag’s creative being, referring to the author’s assumption that “while the living room was fine for essays, short stories needed to be written in the bedroom”.

Perhaps it is more complicated for an author of Sontag’s sensibility, whose writing room desk was adorned by the portraits of Wilde and Proust. Autobiographical murmurings in the first story of the collection, “Pilgrimage”, aphoristic allusions and references in “Project for a Trip to China” or the purposeful realism of “The Way We Live Now” suggest not a separation from the symbolic bearing of history and reality but more of their permeable nature. Yet, there is an underlying thematic unity in Sontag’s laconic prose, wherein a distorted and candid voice of individuality is trying to break free. There is an intimate reckoning with bisexuality in her journals too, but its cerebral reflection is quite unlike the raw and insurgent flux of emotions portrayed in the stories.

“Unguided Tour” is set in an unnamed European city existing in a fleeting state between decay and repression (when Sontag made the story into a film in 1983 she set it in Venice), where two unnamed loiterers mediate with one another with deflections and interjections. In the end of the story as the dialogues become increasingly fragmentary, their opposing emotions seem to celebrate the freedom of irresolution itself, marked by a suspended longing:

“She’s racing, he’s stalling.
If I go this fast, I won’t see anything. If I slow down –
Everything. – then I won’t have seen everything before it disappears.
Everywhere. I’ve been everywhere. I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.
Land’s end. But there’s water, O my heart. And salt on my tongue.
The end of the world. This is not the end of the world.”

Self-referential all the way

Similar impossibility of attainment is explored in “Project for a Trip to China” where a purposeful feeling of anticipation is thwarted by a weary weight of the past. Sontag was conceived in China and her biological father died there in 1939 of Tuberculosis. She dissects these personal emotions with precision (“Is going to China like being born again?”) but nonetheless revels in denouncing the perils of recurring self-analysis in a manner strongly resembling Virginia Woolf: “Confession is nothing, knowledge is everything”.

“Pilgrimage”, the most explicitly self-referential among all the stories, is a retrospective look at the teenage reveries of a prodigy. The story depicts a visit to the Pacific Palisades residence of the self-exiled German novelist Thomas Mann during the author’s high school years in Southern California. “Old Complaints Revisited” has strange allegorical undertones where the unnamed (and ungendered) protagonist is caught between the actions of self subjugation and revolt in response to collective coercion. “Baby” is a more satirical take on reproduction than “Dummy” but both end up underlining the hazards of self identification.

“The Way We Live Now” still manages to set itself apart in the collection due to a certain distilled maturity. The story, whose title is a tribute to Trollope’s Victorian satire, revolves around the hospitalisation of a New Yorker diagnosed with an unknown disease and the response that follows from his friends. The silent protagonist’s own narrative voice is completely marginalized as his friends continue to obsess over meaning making and mortality.

Image credit: By Jofriedrich / CC BY-SA 3.0
Image credit: By Jofriedrich / CC BY-SA 3.0

Susan Sontag took pride in her immense private library collection. We can speculate that its intimidating expanse symbolised a deep connection between knowledge and self-awareness for her. In her stories too knowledge presents itself in many forms: playfulness, purpose, solemnity and even agony. But in delinking knowledge’s purposefulness from achieved reality she encourages us to delve beyond conventional excavations of human complexity.

We see a new Sontag through these stories because we are placed in a different ecosystem of her existence altogether that cherishes vitality over diligence. Opening the gates of this hitherto unseen shelter is quite an achievement. Taylor deserves considerable credit for resituating these works from their marginal space in Sontag’s corpus. For us general readers too it presents a reinvigorating possibility. We can always finetune our solidarities and dissents with the late critic, but in a time of mounting suspicion and obsessive anxieties even carrying the moral weight of Sontag’s voice can do us some good.

Stories: Collected Stories, Susan Sontag, Hamish Hamilton.

Somak Mukherjee is a PhD Student in Department of English, University of California Santa Barbara.

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