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.
Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in November.
Saudade by Traci Brimhall
Gorgeous and searing, Brimhall’s poems are rooted in the marriage of myth, mysticism, and mystery. Collected with the breadth and power of a novel, but delivered in discrete scenes and dreams, Saudade is one of the best books I’ve read this year. In “The Unconfirmed Miracles at Puraquequara,” a litany of transformations come from the touch of a shrunken hand. A barren woman gives birth. Crops flourish. The narrator knows the hand’s secrets, and is silent at first: “The town / had waited so long for a miracle, and it was finally // here, enriching the poor, emboldening the meek, / carving acrostic mysteries into the trees.” Salvation soon turns sour, though, and death comes to the town, leading to a public ritual of cleansing that ends with “Startled pigeons roosting on the church / roof took flight when they heard the clapping.” In God-soaked Brazil, Brimhall’s characters can’t help but dance with darkness: “A sinner needs her sin, and mine is beloved.” There’s a causality, a profluence to these poems created by her lyricism, and her swift pivots. When we return to Puraquequara, a camera crew films a telenovela based on the miracles, and the narrator speaks: “An extra in my own story and envious of the ingenue’s unmuddied / shoes and air-conditioned hotel room, I say, Ajudar, ajudar, // and cry on cue.” Dreams bleach reality: “the mayor hangs himself and bequeaths / his second-best bed to his horse, I write romantic obituaries / and send his wife signed photographs of myself.” Disturbing, and masterfully done, Saudade will take you somewhere else, a place you know is true: “I hate to spoil it, / but the end of every biography is death.”
Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang
Speaking of her previous collection, The Boss, Chang said she wanted her poems “to propel themselves through language”—an equally accurate description of Barbie Chang, her latest book. Chang entrances with wordplay, but the dance never feels hollow: this is performance with poetic soul. There are two strands to her book that sustain each other: a woman both desiring and rejecting the urge to become part of a suburban community, and the woman’s life with her parents. Barbie sees “beautiful thin mothers at school / form a perfect circle // the Circle will school her if she lets / them they have // something to say doves come out of / their mouths that // explode splinters in the sky.” In Chang’s talented turns, mere phrases become fantasy. She’s mastered the art of recursive language, and Barbie Chang—woman, idea, performance—feels incantational as the book progresses. The Circle returns often: villainous, perfect in their plasticity. They are drunk at a school auction, “tossing coins in baskets.” The whole scene a mess, but Barbie “owed it to // her children to make friends to blend / into the dead end.” Background becomes foreground, as Barbie’s father is sick, and Chang’s eschewed punctuation begins to feel like halted breaths. Don’t miss the exquisitely crafted litany of linked poems in the middle of the book, evidence how quickly and precisely Chang can turn from comic to comforting to transcendent: “how in one / moment your hands collide as in clapping / how in some other moment they will rise / over my encased body touch in prayer.”
I Wore My Blackest Hair by Carlina Duan
Duan’s talents are many, but she’s an especially powerful poet of scene. The collection begins with her title poem, searing in action: “Father’s chopsticks crashed. He threw them.” Angered, “Father could not believe he had raised such a daughter.” He “coughed a mouthful of rice”; he was “extraordinary and old and Chinese.” Elsewhere, the narrator’s mother “does not own a / Laundromat or / a take-out restaurant.” She “is not / from your country, / and I am not / ashamed. // I slip my hands through her wise hair, // and keep.” Duan moves between affirmations of self and the inevitable struggle of difference; “my tongue // my hardest muscle // forced to swallow / a muddy alphabet.” Duan sketches these strained emotions with care and courage. This is a book of prejudice and expectations, and how they hurt in various ways. In “When All You Want,” the young narrator is at the piano. Above her, “Mrs. Liu with her / handsome mouth.” Mom watches “anxiously from the window.” A boy plays a violin in the next room. Duan turns back to Mrs. Liu, and the candies in her mouth: “clack, suck, clack, / again—here go all the noises you love.” I Wore Blackest Hair is a storm of senses, a chronicle of strained identity and a stance of power: “don’t mistake / me for a soft woman, / a shy mouth— / I can lash like the / hot, hot rain.”
Riddles, Etc. by Geoffrey Hilsabeck
There’s a magic at work in these often tight, but never cinctured, poems. In “Remaking the Music Box,” the narrator has advice for us: “First unhurt the accidents. / Plant yourself in what remains.” After all, “No sadness just disaster / no meanness just thrift.” These poems often drift back to youth, when the narrator, “light and white as a candle,” still felt “my childhood pooling like wax at my feet.” Appropriate to the title, the collection contains 17 riddles, their answers revealed on the final page, but well-worth the poetic game of waiting. It’s a playful interlude that gives Hilsabeck’s collection an endearing bit of freedom: we can find the answers to our questions, or we might accept that in poetry, as says W.H. Auden, “you do not call a spade a spade.” Sometime it is enough pleasure to let our poets leave trails of language without firm destinations.
Thousands by Lightsey Darst
Imagine discovering someone’s notebook, the pages covered margin-to-margin with desire, anxiety, and fear, all wound together through association. Thousands is a raw collection, where each poem bleeds into the next, as if we are reading one long threnody. The effect, admittedly, is sometimes dizzying, and readers will want to devote time to this book, but the work is returned with gifts. Darst offers thanks to Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks here, but blazes her own trail with poem-stories that begin in Minneapolis, Minn., in 2011 and end in Durham, N.C., after 2014. The tension of a timeline opens so many themes: “How do I make this world yield what I need to get from it?” “How do you deal with the casual atrocity of the world?” Darst’s poems are running monologues of wonder and worry; in one way, they are a document of a poet’s struggle to give suffering context. “Do you keep a journal / why / why not // Keep one now / keep me in it”: Darst’s intimacy here is masterful: whether it is love, lust, pregnancy, or words: “The poem I can’t write persists.”
Helium by Rudy Francisco
“When you choose to be a poet // You become a place that people walk through / and then leave when they are ready.” The arrowed exhales of Francisco’s spoken word poems translate well to this debut. Lines flow with the rhythm of conversation, winding toward clever conclusions. True poems like “Mess” abound: “On the day you couldn’t hold yourself together anymore / You called for me.” Then, “I found you, looking like a damaged wine glass. / I hugged your shatter,” but “When it was over, you looked at the stains on the carpet / And blamed me for making a mess.” Maybe we can get people to chant the refrains from poems like “Chameleon”: “And we often forget that sexism is a family heirloom // that we’ve been passing down for generations / As men, it is important that we start asking ourselves // What will the boys learn from us?”
Inheriting the War edited by Laren McClung
“Whatever one witnessed in battle became a silence carried within.” This anthology begins with a haunting foreword by Yusef Komunyakaa, a consideration of race, Southern identity, and family tradition—one that destined him for military service. A Vietnam veteran himself, Komunyakaa explains that soldiers carry home “echoes of our war…we carry with us the pathos, and our loved ones often inherit the caustic baggage.” Subtitled Poetry & Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees, the anthology captures grief and guilt in turns, and its mixture of poetry and prose channels the range of emotions and expressions. In “The Lost Pilot,” a prefatory poem that sets the tone for the book, James Tate elegizes his father: “your face did not rot / like the others—it grew dark, / and hard like ebony.” This is a book about fathers, and rightly so, as Laren McClung notes: “the father is always a source of myth, but the father who has seen war, who has performed the complex work of violence, heroism, or survival, is in many ways inaccessible, a mystery to us.” Inheriting the War mines that mysterious space, how we pursue the soul of those we love who are torn by war, and how those wounds weather our own hands and hearts. We should consider the metaphors and myths, but there is more to encounter here: as poet Brian Ma considers, as a re-outfitted military plane carries him to his parents’ home of Vietnam: “as usual the boundaries are hard to discern. / The guilt is like a fog; in the fog there are people.”
Earthling by James Longenbach
“One of life’s greatest pleasures, / If I’m allowed the phrase, / Is packing a suitcase. // It’s not like building a fire, / When you want to leave space for air.” Longenbach’s poems occupy a strange yet perceptive place between the real and the unreal. I hesitate to call his verse surreal, because I associate that word with distortion; Longenbach gives his readers a route to follow, and its turns are precise. Poems like “The Dishwasher” drift on a wave of melancholy. A soft song on a Chevette’s radio becomes a hymn to search: “I wanted to hear it again. / I drove to the supermarket, then drove home.” We move to find where we’ve been, like when that character hears his mother’s voice, asking him a question that goes unanswered: “What kind of coffee do you like?” Poets will appreciate works like “Preface to an Unwritten Book,” in which the narrator knows he is supposed to be writing, “But you should realize I’d much rather spend my time / Reading or, since it’s the end / Of summer, sitting. / Our truest impulses are so immature.” There’s a quietude to Longenbach’s lines that is calming, and then there are long poems like “Climate of Reason” that shock me awake and breathless, inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony: “In the middle of the desert / You might be anyone, / Except you’re never in the middle, / You’re at the edge.”
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
May is blooming and fertile, spring in its full flower. Unlike the storms of March and the “uncertain glory” of April, Shakespeare’s May, with its “darling buds,” is always sweet, and ever the month for love. Traditionally — before the international labor movement claimed May 1st in honor of the Haymarket riot — May Days in England were holidays of love too, white-gowned fertility celebrations. It’s on a May Day that Thomas Hardy, always attuned to ancient rites, introduces Tess Durbeyfield, whose “bouncing handsome womanliness” among her fellow country girls still reveals flashes of the child she recently was.
May has long been the month for mothers as well as maidens, even before Anna Jarvis chose the second Sunday in May in 1908 for Mother’s Day to honor the death of her own mom. The mother of them all, the Virgin Mary, was celebrated for centuries as the Queen of May, and in “The May Magnificat” Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us that “May is Mary’s month,” and asks why. “All things rising,” he answers, “all things sizing / Mary sees, sympathizing / with that world of good, / Nature’s motherhood.”
The many meanings of a simple word like “May” can get to be too much, though. When the mother in The Furies, Janet Hobhouse’s fictional memoir of a life caught up in isolated family dependence, chooses Memorial Day to end her own life, her daughter mournfully riffs on May in an overdetermined frenzy: “month of mothers, month of Mary, month of heroes, the beginning of heat and abandonment, of the rich leaving the poor to the cities, May as in Maybe Maybe not, as in yes, finally you may, as in Mayday, the call for help and the sound of the bailout, and also, now that I think of it, as in her middle name, Maida.”
Here is a selection of recommended May reading, including love, friendship, underground adventure, and a very bad prom:
Memoirs by Lord Byron (unpublished)
You might wish to read Byron’s Memoirs (who wouldn’t?), but you can’t, thanks to a decision made by six men in the drawing room of the publisher John Murray in May 1824, a month after their dangerous friend had died of fever in Greece. Fearing the effect of its publication on “Lord Byron’s honor & fame” (and perhaps on their own reputations), they instead fed the pages of the manuscript, unread, into the fire.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
She may have met a March Hare that was mad as a hatter, but it was in the month of May — the birthday month of Alice Liddell, Charles Dodgson’s model for his heroine — that Alice followed a rabbit with a watch in his waistcoat pocket down a hole and began her adventures underground.
In January he had written to her, “I love your verses with all my heart, Miss Barrett,” but it wasn’t until May 20 (from 3:00 to 4:30 pm) that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett met in person for the first time, in her invalid’s bedroom in the house of her domineering father. They eloped the following year.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)
What better cure for end-of-term blues than the campus novel that launched the whole genre (along with Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, published the same year)? You may never want to go back to class at all, especially if you’re lecturing, miserably, on medieval history at a provincial English university.
“The Whitsun Weddings” by Philip Larkin (1964)
Amis based Lucky Jim on, and dedicated it to, his good friend Larkin, who made his own mark on postwar British culture with this ambivalent ode to the hopeful mass pairing-up of springtime, three years before the Kinks captured the same lonely-in-the-city melancholy in “Waterloo Sunset.”
“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” by Hunter S. Thompson (1970)
A son of Louisville returned home for the ninety-sixth running of the local horse race in the company of the bearded British illustrator Ralph Steadman and emerged with his first piece of journalism that earned the adjective “gonzo.”
Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel (1970)
The lesson of “Spring,” the opening tale in Lobel’s thrillingly calm series for early readers, is, apparently, that there is honor in deception, as Frog fools hibernating Toad into joining him on a fine April day by tearing an extra page off the calendar to prove it is, in fact, May.
Carrie by Stephen King (1974)
“Remember, it’s YOUR prom; make it one to remember always!” With over 400 dead in the town and the school gymnasium a charred and blood-soaked ruin, it’s not likely that anyone — assuming they survived it — will forget the climactic late May event of King’s debut.
Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks (1982)
An early May visit to the Eastman film archives in Rochester and then to the nearby apartment of the forgotten elderly woman who had starred so thrillingly in the silent films he screened there led first to Kenneth Tynan’s classic New Yorker profile of Louise Brooks, “The Girl in the Black Helmet” and then, following her rediscovery, to the publication of this collection of Brooks’s own sharp-witted memoirs and film criticism.
Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
All within the month of May 1948, Hortense Roberts and Gilbert Joseph meet, become engaged, and are wed, and Gilbert sets off from Jamaica for the larger island of Great Britain, to be followed six months later by Hortense, who had funded both their journeys in an immigrants’ alliance that’s as much a business partnership as a marriage in Levy’s subtle, sympathetic novel.
Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag (2008)
“I AM REBORN IN THE TIME RETOLD IN THIS NOTEBOOK,” sixteen-year-old Sontag scribbled on the inside cover of her journal for May 1949, marking a moment when she was colossally precocious — rereading Mann, Hopkins, and Dante — and falling in love for the first time, with a young woman in San Francisco.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)
In late May 1943, just a few days after Memorial Day, Second Lieutenant Louis Zamperini, former Olympian runner and holder of the NCAA mile record, crashed in the Pacific with two fellow airmen, beginning a record forty-seven days drifting on a raft, which proved to be just the beginning of his ordeal.
Image via Leland Francisco/Flickr
Mad Men is about to disappear from our lives once again, leaving us to grapple alone with our complicated nostalgia for an era when men were men, women were secretaries, and alcoholism was glamorous. These books give a closer look at the era, offering a vision of Midcentury Manhattan that goes beyond Cheever and Yates. (Although Cheever and Yates are a great place to start, if you haven’t already.) Read them to tide you over until the next season or to fine-tune your predictions for this week’s series finale:
1. Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, by David Rieff and Susan Sontag
If Sontag were alive today, it’s unlikely she would find much to admire about Mad Men, and yet she and Don Draper have a lot in common. Ambitious and seductive, both came to Manhattan to make themselves anew, rejecting their provincial roots. Among the many revelatory moments in Sontag’s diaries, the nakedness of her self-creation is the most startling; there are Gatsby-like resolutions for self-improvement, reading lists, and meticulous records of films, plays, and parties attended. Like Don Draper, she loved to use high-flown language to talk about popular culture, and was happiest when pulling nicotine-fueled all-nighters. She and Don also share a dread of monogamy, while at the same time rushing into ill-advised romances. Here’s Sontag on her early marriage to Philip Rieff: “I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness.”
2. Manhattan, When I Was Young, by Mary Cantwell
This sweet, searching memoir about a young woman’s coming of age in Manhattan in the 1950s and early 60s is full of Mad Men-esque images, and narrated with the same rueful, if-we-only-knew-then-what-we-know-now tone. A former magazine writer for Mademoiselle and Vogue, Cantwell’s memory is pleasingly specific as she recalls fashions of the day and the best place to get a sundae in Midtown. The book is also a record of her first marriage to a young, aspiring novelist whose bohemian tastes infected her own. Disdainful of suburban living, Cantwell and her husband chose the West Village instead, where they moved from charming apartment to charming apartment with an ease that seems like utter fantasy today.
3. The New York Times Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne
Page through this and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the meals that Pete Campbell’s wife, Trudy, has waiting for him when he comes home from work. First published in 1961, it was the book that a generation of young housewives learned to cook from before they graduated to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
4. The Early Stories, 1953-1975, by John Updike
Although only a handful of the stories in this collection take place in Manhattan, Updike was born within just a few years of Don Draper, and his stories reflect the peculiar pathologies of their generation, “the Silent Generation.” Raised during the Great Depression, both men grew up in a time of scarcity only to come of age in an era of prosperity. Such extremes of experience were bewildering, creating feelings of both wonder and discontent. As Updike writes in his 2003 foreword to the collection, “We were simple and hopeful enough to launch into idealistic careers and early marriages, and pragmatic enough to adjust, with an American shrug, to the ebb of old certainties. Yet, though spared many of the material deprivations and religious terrors that had dogged our parents, and awash in a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, we continued prey to what Freud called ‘normal human unhappiness.’”
5. The Grand Surprise, The Journals of Leo Lerman, by Leo Lerman
Leo Lerman, a social butterfly whose name is likely included in any number of books of the period, is briefly mentioned in Manhattan, When I Was Young, in a passage describing the offices at Mademoiselle:
Leo Lerman, the entertainment editor, sat in a sort of railed-off den behind an enormous mahogany desk, taking phone calls from Marlene Dietrich and Truman Capote. A plump, bearded man, he lived in a house so excessively Victorian it defied the century, which was the point, and had a collection of friends so dazzling I am still dazzled by it.
Published posthumously in 2007, Lerman’s diary reveals the full extent of his “dazzling” collection of friends, which included Carson McCullers, Maria Callas, Jackie Onassis, and George Balanchine, among others. In the 1960s, he was installed as features editor of Vogue, and became one of the decade’s tastemakers, introducing readers to writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., August Wilson, and Iris Murdoch. Although Lerman’s version of Manhattan, with its focus on the literary, fashion, and theater worlds, is quite different from the one portrayed on Mad Men, his diaries share the same interest in gesture and language, especially the indirect ways people communicate with another. Attempting to find meaning in his diaries, Lerman wrote: “Personality, that is what I want to pin down, no matter how fleetingly, for the personality of a man is component to personality of his era.”
6. Within The Context of No Context, by George W. S. Trow
Series creator Matthew Weiner has said that at its heart, Mad Men is about the massive cultural shifts that began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the way someone like Don Draper, an archetype of an earlier era, learns to adapt. George Trow’s classic essay, Within the Context of No Context, first published in The New Yorker in 1980, is a retrospective analysis of those cultural shifts, as well as his own anguished response to them. The son of a newspaperman, Trow writes that he grew up expecting to “have a fedora hat of my own by the time I was twelve years old.” Instead, he came of age only to find that his father’s version adulthood could no longer be inherited: “Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned…” Like our nostalgia for the world of Mad Men, Trow’s is undercut by his understanding that it was never very sustainable to begin with.
7. Talk Stories, by Jamaica Kincaid
After being told that Mademoiselle “would not hire black girls”, Jamaica Kincaid started her writing career at Ingenue magazine, whose offices were in the same building as National Lampoon’s. Recognizing Kincaid’s wit, a writer at National Lampoon introduced her to The New Yorker’s George Trow, who became her mentor. Kincaid’s first assignment for The New Yorker was to accompany Trow to Brooklyn’s West Indian Day parade. Trow transcribed Kincaid’s comments for a “Talk of the Town” column, introducing the world to her joyful, youthful, and subtly ironic point of view. After that, Kincaid wrote her own “Talk” pieces. Talk Stories collects Kincaid’s essays into one volume, covering nearly a decade of New York City life, from 1974-1983. Although the columns don’t — at least not yet — overlap with the time period portrayed in Mad Men, it’s fascinating to see how a young black woman from Antigua managed to subvert the staid “Talk” format, which was at the time an unsigned column written in the first person plural, and free of curse words, sex, gossip, and any subject that might be considered trendy. Despite these strictures — or maybe because of them — the spirit of the era shines through. Kincaid’s spirit also shines, and taken together, these essays form a portrait of a young woman striving to find her place in the world. A must read for anyone with a soft spot for Peggy Olsen.
8. Just Kids, by Patti Smith
Where Mad Men depicts life on Madison Avenue, with occasional glimpses into the life of New York’s bohemian culture, Smith’s memoir is a portrait of downtown New York with occasional glimpses of Fifth Avenue, where she worked for years as a bookseller at Scribner’s. Smith’s point of view is decidedly romantic as she recalls the years when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were broke nobodies, trying to decide whether to spend her paycheck on art supplies or diner meals. “We hadn’t any money but we were happy…I tacked pictures of Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Lotte Lenya, Piaf, Genet, and John Lennon over a makeshift desk where I arranged my quills, my inkwell, and my notebooks — my monastic mess.” Reading Smith’s girlish memories, you’ll understand why Don sometimes gets a wistful look when talking to Megan.
9. Jack Holmes & His Friend, by Edmund White
Edmund White’s most recent novel, about the decades-long friendship between a gay man and a straight one, illustrates the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s from a new angle. Like Mad Men, Jack Holmes & His Friend begins in a world that is still dominated by the manners and mores of the 1950s. Jack, who is gay, must hide his sexuality from his straight friend, Will. But as the counter-culture takes hold, the tables turn and it’s Will who struggles with this sexuality, feeling trapped in his marriage while Jack blossoms, embracing a new identity as a “sexual libertine.” Covering a period of over thirty years, this novel includes many evocative descriptions of a Manhattan gone by, as well as a number of blow-out party scenes, resulting in debaucheries worthy of Don Draper.
10. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson
This work of narrative non-fiction is an investigation of the migration of African-Americans from the south to northern and western cities, a profound demographic shift that began after World War I and continued through the 1970s. Wilkerson ties her narrative to the lives of three individuals, who each leave the south to settle in three different cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The pathos of Wilkerson’s narrative comes as her subjects realize that escape from Jim Crow laws does not mean an escape from racism. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the roots of the civil rights movement — something that seems, to the characters of Mad Men, to come out of nowhere, but was actually a decades-long process, rooted in the day-to-day struggles of hundreds of thousands of migrant families. As Wilkerson writes of one of her subjects, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, “Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn’t end up on welfare, stayed married because that’s what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed not to get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men.”
“When I was discussing my new book with two married writers, they kept asking how I could work without an advance. I didn’t see how they could work with one. They said they needed a certain amount of money and that they had children. They made their children sound like a tremendous burden, and I felt they were using the word need when they should have said want… One day, when [the husband] was telling me how easy I have it and about the kind of advance he needed, I snapped. I said his book wasn’t worth more than my book just because he has kids.” -Stephen Elliott
There is much naked self-revelation in Stephen Elliott’s sharp and yet consoling short memoir, “Why I Write,” recently published in Canteen Magazine and at The Rumpus (of which he is the founder). He writes about suicide attempts, working as a stripper, his dark relationship with his father, his drug habits, involvement in the S&M scene. And yet weirdly, the most shocking and provocative moment in the essay for me is the above passage, when Elliott tells off a writer who has hinted that having children somehow ennobles and/or entitles him as an artist.
Reading through the comments at The Rumpus, I was surprised to see that there was no reaction or response to this. It made me think that readers of The Rumpus must by and large be childless.
I’ve lived that scene, more or less, countless times. In Elliot’s position, that is. The implication slips out in different ways, but it’s unmistakable. I’ve never “snapped.” Part of it is that I’m chicken. Part of it is that my conversations are usually woman to woman, and (yes, I am essentially reinforcing a horrific stereotype here) women my age tend to be a bit, um, irrational, when it comes to outside perspectives on anything related to their children.
But part of it is that “need” vs “want” is not quite the right dichotomy. Or not the whole of it anyway. There are times when I, too, am tempted to snap; to say, “You wanted to have children, so stop complaining.” But it’s easy to forget how seismic a shift we’ve undergone over the last generation when it comes to family-making; we are really the first generation to be quite so conscious of it – whether, when, how many, alone or partnered, naturally or “artificially,” can I afford it, etc. If you ask a woman of a previous generation—your mother, for example, if you are in your 30s or older—how she decided to have children, she might smile a half-smile and cock her head and blink her eyes at you as if you’d just spoken to her in the extinct language of Arwi (and she’s no ditz, she may in fact have a doctorate in Arwi). In a single generation, instinct and nature have morphed into analysis and decision. This is bizarre in so many ways. And confusing. And stressful. For everyone, I think – parents and unparents alike.
A blogger in Austin who linked to “Why I Write” posted this on his blog: “Makes me even more eager to explore the question, ‘Can you have a wife, children, and a house, and still be an artist?’” I wonder, have wondered, the same thing, though I’d flip the question and alter it slightly: “Can I be an artist and a woman, and still have a family?” (I have a house; but currently it’s a debt more than an asset.)
In my own “Why I Write” memoir essay, which I entitled, “How to Become a Writer,” I wrote:
…to be a writer, there are many other things you cannot be, or do, or have. To read a book, for instance, means, decidedly, to not do something else. Those are many many something else’s you won’t be doing, including spending time with other human beings…
Of all the people I’ve known who tried to become writers, many have not become writers…most people don’t fail to become writers because they can’t become writers; rather, at some point, it becomes clear all the things you cannot be (or have or do) if you become a writer. And so a choice is made, or a series of choices, whether or not the person thinks it was a matter of choice (it was).
A commentor on the essay wrote this:
I am a mum of a toddler, and my biggest niggle is the thought that the hours I spend writing are hours of his life I will have missed forever…is missing out on even an hour of it worth some story that may or may not be any good?… I started my story when my child was 18 months and became more manageable; but it’s taken me 8 months to write 5 chapters. My second child is due in 5 months. When will my story ever be finished?
I read many opinions by people who would see my approach as not being dedicated to my writing. That I’m not taking it seriously, that I’m not writing fast enough. In their opinion, I might as well not bother at all.
…I defy anyone who hasn’t seen my 14 versions of Chapter 1 to say I don’t take my writing as seriously as someone who is writing to be published. It is an insult to the time I steal away from my precious child to do it.
The painter Agnes Martin said to Susan York, a sculptor who’d sought out Martin as a mentor: “Never have children. Do not live the middle-class life. Never do anything that will take away from your work.” York wrote about it in 2005 (the conversation happened in 1983). I was 32 in 2005, I still “had time.” And yet the words burned on my brain even then.
So I pay attention to these things. I mine for family status in the biographies of women artists and writers. If a prolific, successful woman has children, I (uncharitably, self-pityingly) think to myself, “She must have a husband who makes money.”
Joyce Carol Oates, arguably the most prolific female novelist of her generation, does not have children.
The visionary Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva had three children and an unstable husband who was eventually arrested and shot for espionage. She was primary parent, primary breadwinner, and always poor (this was Russia after the Revolution, after all) despite her rising prominence as a literary figure. One of her daughters starved to death in an orphanage. Her relationship with the two other children, Ariadna and Georgy, was fraught and intense, as Ariadna, whose memoirs have been published, describes in detail. Tsvetaeva committed suicide at the age of 49.
Flannery O’Connor did not have children.
Anne Lamott was a single mother and poor; her son Sam became the subject of one of her most well-known and best-selling books, Operating Instructions. He appears often in her nonfiction.
Notable in the first volume of Susan Sontag’s published journals, Reborn, are scant mentions of her son David (Rieff). When she does write about him, she admits that when he is out of sight, he is out of mind, or wonders if she should give him up. She left her marriage for intellectual ambition, for self-realization, for freedom. She did not seem to want to be a mother, even as she was clear that “Of all the people I have loved, [David] is least of all a mental object of love, most intensely real.”
Meg Wolitzer, like Anne Lamott, channeled motherhood into art. The Ten-Year Nap is a novel both satirical and empathetic, about affluent women who stay at home with their children and never go back to work. The book is not “a somber meditation on motherhood versus work,” Wolitzer said. “I really want the novel to be about motherhood and work, and also about female ambition and what happens to it over time.”
Marilynne Robinson has two sons. But she keeps her distance from media and interviews and doesn’t typically talk about her personal life. In an interview with The Times Online (UK), she rejects the notion of being a writer as a full-time job: “I think ‘writer’ is a toxic word. I’m a writer when I’m writing something. The rest of the time I like to put that word aside.” Most acclaimed for her novels, she’s written three of them in 28 years, with 23 years between the first and the second. Was she focused on her children? Her teaching? Slow-simmering Gilead for all those years? All of the above? She is someone I wish would speak or write publicly about motherhood and art.
Jane Kenyon did not have children. If she were alive, I would want to ask her about this.
Sylvia Plath… well, no need to dredge up Sylvia Plath. But let’s just say that, between Plath and Tsvetaeva, the argument that children anchor the artist, ground her in some way, does not always hold.
The truth is that empathy is difficult when it comes to the modern parent/non-parent divide, and perhaps the chasm deepens when it comes to artists and writers. In a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly about Helen Gurley Brown and Elizabeth Edwards, Caitlin Flanagan wrote, “…until you’ve [had a child of your own], you’re just guessing about love, gesturing toward it, assuming that it’s the right name for a feeling you’ve had.” At first I was bludgeoned; I thought, Oh shit. But then, realizing what she was saying, I thought, Fuck you. To imply that a person without children has not loved, does not know the meaning of love… that goes too far. Way too far.
It’s true that making art is selfish; I make art, I write, ultimately, for myself. In a recent interview, Lorrie Moore said something that resonated with me:
The detachment of the artist is kind of creepy. It’s kind of rude, and yet really it’s where art comes from. It’s not the same as courage. It’s closer to bad manners than to courage. […] There’s a certain indefensibility about it. It’s not about loving your community and taking care of it; you’re not attached to the chamber of commerce.
But 1) “selfish” gets a bad rap; what we mean, what I mean, is that writing is my nourishment, my food for life; and 2) parenting strikes me as selfish, sometimes narcissistic, in its own particular way. Both endeavors require great sacrifices.
I have no grand conclusions here. I hope writers will talk and write about this more. I enjoyed Emily St. John Mandel’s recent essay about day jobs, and the children question seems to me a kind of inextricable addendum to that conversation: are you having to pay your bills alone or with a partner? Is your time committed to family, in addition to day-work and writing-work? Are you responsible for anyone other than yourself? By choice? By not-choice? Whatever the case, it’s bizarre, and confusing, and stressful. I wish you the best.
[Image credit: Chris “Mojo” Denbow]