- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

REBORN: JOURNALS & NOTEBOOKS 1947-1963
By Susan Sontag
Edited by David Rieff
Farrar, Straus Giroux, $24, 318 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Susan Sontag is a problematic figure in literature and even more so in the wider culture. A self-conscious, self-proclaimed intellectual, she embraced existentialism and cloaked most of her fiction in the modalities of the avant-garde. Yet she was also capable of producing boilerplate historical novels like “The Volcano Lover”( about Lady Hamilton, Adm. Horatio Nelson’s celebrated inamorata) and “In America” (about the emigre Polish actress Helena Modjeska in California.) Stripped of her customary obfuscatory abstruseness, this duo demonstrated a banality and unoriginality so manifest that it is hard to believe that anyone would have published them had they not had a famous name attached.

But famous Sontag was and long before this paltry pair of novels appeared in the years preceding her death in December 2004. Almost 40 years earlier, that sharp-minded critic and acute chronicler of literary reputations Norman Podhoretz had in his memoir “Making It” dubbed her the Dark Lady of American literature, wittily adding that the title had recently been vacated by another intellectual novelist, Mary McCarthy, when she had been promoted to Grande Dame! How, then, did Sontag manage already to be so famous in 1967 when only midway through her 40s? It wasn’t so much those existentialist/avant-garde fictions that did the trick. Rather it was her splashy essays on subjects as diverse as photography and the cultural myths surrounding illness — and of course the defining “Notes on Camp” — which established her very public image as the ur-public intellectual. And, as the ever-perspicacious Mr. Podhoretz wickedly noted, by the swinging Sixties, it was no longer sufficient, as it had been earlier, for Mary McCarthy simply to reveal scandalously that she had actually slept with the man in her eponymous story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt.” “Madder meat and stronger wine” being called for, it was necessary for there to be dark hints of lesbianism to accede to the position of Dark Lady.

Yet nowhere is Sontag as problematic a figure as in her celebrated — but not too openly celebrated — lesbianism. Mr. Podhoretz got it exactly right in speaking of dark hints, for she seemed throughout her life to want to flirt with a public image of lesbianism without in any way coming out in any sense of the phrase — least of all as a “gay writer.” In a way, this is admirable: Not having any truck with a literary ghetto, a marginalization of herself or of her art; but there is also a certain sense of wanting it both ways, at least in terms of that all-important iconic image. “Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963,” however, reveals the private Susan Sontag, her innermost thoughts, put down, of course — Sontag being Sontag — with that ponderousness and self-consciousness that were her hallmark, but also with a frankness and — yes, even a certain ingenuousness — as revealing as they are refreshing. And here she makes no bones about her lesbianism, her identity with it and its practice, but also her ambivalence; and she is touching in her painful honesty. In his moving, fastidious introduction, her son, David Rieff, writes of her lifelong “sense of failure, of unsuitability for love and even for eros. She was as uncomfortable with her body as she was serene about her mind [and] that makes me sadder than I can possibly convey.”

Clearly, the decision to publish these intimate revelations was a difficult one for him, as he mentions “things contained in them that are a source of pain to me, and much that I would have preferred not to know and not to have others know” and admits that “my decision certainly violates her privacy. There is no other way of describing it fairly.” But his reasons for doing so as laid out here are convincing and do honor to Sontag — and also to himself, as when he concludes by writing that “perhaps Susan Sontag the writer would have approved of what I’ve done. I hope so at any rate.” That measure of tentativeness is an attractive touch — if his mother had had even the littlest bit of it, how much more beguiling she’d have been.

Mr. Rieff admits that much of these diaries concern “pain and ambition.” As one might expect of a devoted only child and dedicated acolyte, he is a huge admirer of Sontag. Sometimes even to the extent of telling a story to praise her when, to those less smitten, the tale taps into what seems less than wholly admirable:

“The more self-assuredly cultivated version of this was the remark of the philosopher Stuart Hampshire, her tutor at Oxford, whom she told me once had exclaimed in frustration during a tutorial, ‘Oh, you Americans! You’re so serious. … just like the Germans.’ He did not mean it as a compliment; but my mother wore it as a badge of honor.”

As Edmund White is reported to have remarked in irritation about Sontag: “She’s SO slow.” But that’s the mind and heart of the woman revealed in these journals: slow, deliberate, ponderous, with little to leaven these qualities, but yes, also devastatingly self-analytical and judgmental. As her son writes, “To say that these diaries are self-revelatory is a drastic understatement … She was a great ‘judger.’ But to expose that quality in her — and these diaries are replete with exposures — is inevitable to invite the reader to judge HER.” So here Sontag lies in the pages of “Reborn”: there to judge — perhaps to admire, perhaps to deplore — but certainly laid bare as never before.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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