Most serious consumers of culture are, in one way or another, indebted to Susan Sontag. More than a decade after her untimely death in December 2004, it’s difficult to deny the resonance of her essays, whether it’s “Against Interpretation,” the 1964 ur-text that would solidify her reputation as a public intellectual; On Photography and Illness and Its Metaphors, with their trenchant takedowns of how we take photographs and live with cancer; or her last major work, 2003’s Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she lays bare our own culpability in viewing images of suffering. One cannot read a Susan Sontag essay and come away unscathed about the modern world: how we see it, how we capture it, how we live and die in it.
One marvels to imagine, were Sontag alive today, what she would think (and write!) about our hyper-connected, Instagram-and-Twitter, President-Trump, ISIS-threatened world. Then again, this is one of the defining characteristics of a great thinker, a great polemicist: You wish she or he were still around to illuminate our present moment, to help us make sense of the whole damn mess.
For me, Sontag is, first and foremost, a cultural gatekeeper. It was through her essays and think pieces that I learned not so much about her aesthetic arguments as about the works supporting them: the novels of W.G. Sebald and Victor Serge; Jean-Luc Godard’s tragic Vivre Sa Vie and Ingmar Bergman’s hallucinogenic Persona; Virginia Woolf’s “Three Guineas”; Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Andre Gide’s The Immoralist. I am forever indebted to her for introducing me to an entire canon of work I’d likely never have encountered without her guidance (or, admittedly, her name-dropping).
Then there’s another canon of work I’d never know of were it not for Sontag’s essays and her intellectual mystique (the furor of her cultural passions, the near-impenetrability of her writing, that skunk-white stripe in that black mane): her fiction.
When we say we love someone, what’s implicit in that statement (if we mean it genuinely) is that we love the person with all their faults. We love the best of them and the worst of them. So to say I love Susan Sontag’s writing means I must come to terms with the fact that much of her fiction just isn’t that good.
It’s a personal judgment I’ve struggled with ever since I first decided to plow my way, like an icebreaker, through novels I’d been warned were cold and impenetrable; fiction too frozen in ideas to allow characters to live and breathe. What saved me from giving up at the start, I imagine, was starting in reverse, with her 2000 National Book Award-winning novel, In America, and, after it, 1992’s The Volcano Lover. (Her earlier fiction being hard to find in bookstores, I had little choice to but to read backwards.)
I didn’t understand what the problem was. Where others saw limp narratives, I saw historical novels in which time and place were the reason to keep reading. Where others complained about Sontag inserting her own thoughts, wedge-like, into the prose, I relished a writer daring enough to poke her head out from behind the curtain of history. I’d never before read contemporary historical fiction where the author begins her book with a “Chapter Zero,” in which she eavesdrops on a 19th-century dinner party in Poland and, in essence, walks us through the process of how a novelist transforms history into fiction. Or an author who’d step out of time, breaking a dramatic moment in which an 18th-century diplomat stands on the lip of a volcano for an aside on public suicide in the streets of 20th-century Manhattan.
I still consider The Volcano Lover and In America two of my favorite novels. I’m in love with their strangeness, their mixture of romance and critical thought, their language and style, the beguiling ways they flirt with our expectations of how a historical novel should sound and read. I stumbled away, awestruck, from my first reading of these two books certain I’d encountered not just a good novelist but a great one.
Then I read the first 50-odd pages of Sontag’s first novel, The Benefactor. Then I read an excerpt from her second novel, Death Kit. Then, for fear of ruining the taste of Sontag’s last two novels, of my entire conception of her as a fiction writer, I decided to call it quits.
The recent release of Debriefing: Collected Stories by Sontag’s longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (which brings together the stories in Sontag’s 1977 collection, I, etcetera, as well as several standalone pieces), spurred me to rethink my stance on Susan Sontag’s fiction. Yes, there was a selfish opportunity to re-read The Volcano Lover and In America, but there was also a reason to finally make my way through the bland and baggy early works. It was a chance for me to figure out, as someone unashamedly in love with Sontag’s work, what exactly went wrong.
It starts, I found, with reading her fiction chronologically. To do so transforms the mission from a search for what went wrong into a search for what went right; a chance to witness a writer’s skill grow over the years instead of wane. Nearly 40 years passed between the original publication of The Benefactor in 1963 and the publication of In America in 2000; in that span of time, it’s clear just how much Sontag transformed as writer of fiction. If one places the stories collected in Debriefing at the center of this, what emerges is something of a triptych in which the stories, many written during this span, act as the central panel on either side of which is Sontag the apprentice and Sontag the master.
No one reads The Benefactor for pleasure. Instead, one reads it out of a sense of duty, out of the desire to be comprehensive. A complete reading of the novel—memorably slow, memorably arduous—reveals what I understood the first time I flipped through its pages: the book is just plain dull.
One can argue the pros and cons of novels that rely too heavily on a character’s dreams, but in The Benefactor, dreams are really all there is. The entire novel is structured around a series of highly detailed dreams that haunt the cultural libertine Hippolyte: the “dream of two rooms,” the “dream of the unconventional party,” “the dream of the mirror,” to name but a few. We spend the novel following Hippolyte as he mingles with fellow enlightened Europeans and labors over the philosophical implications of his dream life. At one moment, Hippolyte proclaims, “What a promise the dream is! How delightful! How private! And one needs no partner, one need not enlist the cooperation of anyone, female or male. Dreams are the onanism of the spirit.”
Indeed, a novel in which dream leads to dream leads to dream leads to dream soon become masturbatory, to our detriment. (Alas, Hippolyte, you require the cooperation of one person to tolerate your dreams: the reader!) In the context of Sontag’s essays, The Benefactor reads like a way for Sontag to play with concepts she writes about in pieces like “The Aesthetics of Silence” (one of Hippolyte’s lines: “I am looking for silence, I am exploring the various styles of silence, and I wish to be answered by silence.”) and “Against Interpretation” (Hippolyte again: “Let nothing be interpreted. No part of the modern sensibility is more tiresome than its eagerness to excuse and to have one thing always mean something else!”). This is less a novel of ideas and more an idea of a novel, something just as cold and sterile and obscure as one of the narrator’s nighttime fantasias.
Death Kit, published four years after The Benefactor, takes these dreams to such an extreme that the entire book reads like one long, uninterrupted dream. It, too, like a dream, fades away as soon as the reader awakes.
Our libertine is replaced by a humdrum advertising executive named Dalton “Diddy” Harron, a man Sontag describes as a mere “tenant” in his life (the ghost of an early suicide attempt hangs over his head). On a business trip to upstate New York, Diddy might or might not murder a railroad worker in a Raskolnikovian attempt at shattering societal norms. While some of the novel is dedicated to pursuing this mystery, the majority of it is spent following Diddy’s daily life (often in strange indented asides and bizarre shifts in tense). It’s slightly fantastical, deeply Kafkaesque, but undermined by the novel’s impossible length.
And here we see the chief problem with Sontag’s early novels: there’s not enough going on to warrant the real estate of a 300-page novel. While her intellectual ideas condense well into digestible essays (that, nevertheless, require fervent chewing beforehand), packed inside characters we’re expected to follow for hundreds of pages, they’re impossible.
And yet where Death Kit succeeds is at its close, where we get a glimpse of Sontag’s narrative style at its best. Walking through a train tunnel in an effort to prove to his blind wife, Helena, that he really did murder a railroad worker, Diddy finds himself, alone, in a surreal series of chambers, like the Catacombs of Paris, packed with corpses. Sontag’s frequent obsession with lists (see numerous entries in her two volumes of journals and notebooks, Reborn and As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh) here takes on the shape of a macabre inventory of American history.
The earliest specimen Diddy could find belonged to the seventeenth century: a Pilgrim with a broad-brimmed hat, round stiff collar, breeches, and buckled shoes. But nearby, many modern types. A banker in a top hat and striped pants and cutaway coat. A boy in his Cub Scout uniform. A registered nurse. A policeman, one of New York’s Finest…In another room, only firemen. Decked out in their uniforms, with rubber boots to the tops of their thighs. Many with the huge, red, oval-brimmed hat that’s their trademark. Cocked on their skull; not so much rakishly as awkwardly, since the head, with or without meat and hair on it, tends to slump forward…Over there, a catcher for the San Francisco Giants—if one can trust the evidence of the uniform and the mask whose metal bars cover the dead man’s lean, contorted, well-preserved face.
It goes on. And on. And on. Restraint is something Sontag won’t discover until her last two novels. Taken as a piece on its own, however, this conclusion to Death Kit illustrates the strengths of Sontag’s shorter fiction.
According to Benjamin Taylor in his woefully brief introduction to Debriefing, Sontag’s short stories are “where we go to know Sontag most intimately.” It’s an apt word, considering that much of her short fiction feels of a piece with Sontag’s journals and notebooks.
Several stories, in fact, look and feel as if they were assembled from Sontag’s private scribblings, using diary entries, daily logs, and notes as methods for organizing narrative information. “Project for a Trip to China” tries to create a story from sparse notes and phrases and jottings (“Consider other possible permutations.”, “Chinese patience: Who assimilates whom?”, “Why not want to be good?”). So, too, does “Unguided Tour,” in which we find the source of that most iconic (and overused) of Sontag quotes: “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” “Old Complaints Revisited” takes the form of secret messages by an unnamed narrator intent on defecting from a cult-like organization. “Baby” is divided into one-sided conversations during therapy sessions between two parents and a psychologist in which they vent their frustrations with a son who appears to be both old and young at the same time. While these and other stories are as obscure as Sontag’s first two novels, it’s their brevity that gives them power, that allows the reader to more willingly engage with Sontag’s intellectual preoccupations.
Debriefing opens and closes with what, either deliberately or coincidentally, are two of Sontag’s most memorable, accessible, and human stories. The first, “Pilgrimage,” recounts a moment in Sontag’s youth when she and a friend paid a personal call to the German giant of letters Thomas Mann, then living in exile in southern California. There’s a humor in which Sontag retells the story of being in “the very throne room of the world in which I aspired to live.”
And Thomas Mann continued to talk, slowly, about literature. I remember my dismay better than what he said. I was trying to keep myself from eating too many cookies, but in a moment of absent-mindedness I did reach over and take one more than I had meant to. He nodded. Have another, he said. It was horrible. How I wished I could just be left alone in his study to look at his books.
Then there is “The Way We Live Now,” Sontag’s most well-known story (and rightly so). Built around a series of conversations between a group of friends in which the gaping hole, given no voice of his own, is the one friend ill with AIDS, “The Way We Live Now” strikes the perfect balance between formal inventiveness and emotional force. It’s appropriate this story comes at the end of a collection in which form and feeling appear at odds (with form usually winning the day). Here, feeling triumphs. Life triumphs. The story’s last line: “He’s still alive.”
Both The Volcano Lover and In America are the only two Sontag novels where characters feel like human beings instead of automatons. They’re also, curiously, the only two Sontag novels to fully entrench themselves in the female voice, to engage with women who feel alive with lust and rage and agency.
While the body of The Volcano Lover belongs to “the Cavaliere” (Sontag’s stand-in for the famed British diplomat and collector Sir William Hamilton), its spirit belongs to women, specifically his second wife, Emma (the future lover of Horatio Nelson, here simply “the Hero”). The Volcano Lover leaves no question that it’s concerns are about more than just Enlightenment masculinity, Enlightenment ideology. The magisterial final section of the novel, after the death of Hamilton, belongs to the voices of four women who were previously background characters: the Cavaliere’s first wife, Catherine; Emma’s mother (posing as her maid), and Emma herself. But it’s the last monologue, written in the voice of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, the revolutionary Italian poet executed by the restored Bourbon monarchy, that reads like an act of rebellion. It’s a scathing indictment of the story’s anti-republican heroes that leads up to the novel’s haunting final lines.
Sometimes I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book. But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their own glory or wellbeing. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.
In America’s Maryna Zalenska, a stand-in for the Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska, emigrates with her husband and son and several other compatriots to Anaheim, Calif., where they aim to start a commune. Typical of most commune-set novels, the utopian adventure doesn’t turn out as planned, and Helena leaves to rediscover herself as an actress in defiance of the trappings of her gender’s expectations. “Will American audiences accept the idea of a woman who leaves her husband and children not because she is wicked but because she is serious?” Maryna’s husband, Bogdan, asks himself late in the novel. (Even as he, in this new world, unearths his suppressed love of the male body.)
The obvious connection between these two late, mature novels is their reliance on history. Speaking to Charlie Rose in 2000 about In America, Sontag noted her use of history as “a trampoline” to “tell a great story that’s very resonant.” One gets the sense that, with the structure of the narrative already provided, Sontag was finally free to invent and reinvent at will while still satisfying the demands of a traditional story. The reader, too, feels this palpable freedom, this spirit of adventure, when reading The Volcano Lover and In America.
Sontag, with her typical self-awareness (or, critics would argue, her typical self-absorption), knew she was on to something with what would turn out to be her last novels. In that same Charlie Rose interview, she notes that most writers tend to do their best work in the first third or half of their writing careers. “I think my best work is now,” Sontag says. “I think these books are better. I think I’m freer. I think my writing is more expressive. I don’t think I’ve changed, but I think my access to myself has changed. I think I was going through a kind of narrow door, and now I’m going through a big wide gate.” She goes on to describe her younger self not as a storyteller so much as a ruminator; someone more interested in the process of consciousness than in making that consciousness accessible to those of us who live outside her mind.
We are grateful that Sontag changed and that we have for posterity these two powerful examples of her storytelling potential. Our only sadness about these novels (and this, too, is the measure of a lasting writer) is we won’t get any more.