Susan Sontag's journals show her intent, even at moments of doubt, on being a world-class intellectual.
John Cheever jokingly said that his journals were the record of one man's struggle to be illustrious. Even when that ambition had been achieved, he remained tortured, riven by doubt, profoundly conflicted. In this first of three planned instalments from diaries recording Susan Sontag's unswerving commitment to the lustrous, even the moments of doubt pulse with resolution.
A shared area of concern illustrates how differently the two writers sat in their respective skins. For most of his adult life, Cheever was unable to reconcile a censorious attitude towards homosexuals with an insatiable desire, as he eventually phrased it, to "suck cock". In 1948, aged 15, Sontag "reluctantly" admits to "lesbian tendencies". Within six months, she's involved in a passionate affair with a woman she meets at UC Berkeley and is so eager to be part of the San Francisco scene that she compiles lists of gay slang. In 1961, by which time she has married, had a son, separated from her husband, moved to France and settled into her vocational identity, she is sure that her "desire to write is connected with my homosexuality". There's a certain amount of agonising over whether she is any good at same-sex sex, but the hand wringing is incidental to the larger project of being homosexual.
The sudden leap into family life seems, on the evidence of these pages, scarcely less incidental. That's the problem. Journals are at their best when there is no such thing as the incidental or, to put it the opposite way, they are a form in which the incidental reigns supreme. They are the domain of the petty, a place where a private victory can be gained through the scrupulous enumeration of every humiliating defeat (the Goncourts raised this to the level of high art). The other, contradictory, possibility is that for Sontag marriage and parenthood were so all-consuming that keeping a diary became irrelevant. In which case... We'll come back to this.
If the young Sontag possessed an adventurous awareness of her sexual make-up, she was even more precocious in other respects. At 16, she dedicates herself to the life of the mind with near-religious fervour. Several times, she talks of making a given writer "mine". She reads Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (and visits its author in 1949, only to find that the works are betrayed by the "banality" of his comments on them) not as if her life depends on it, but as though the future well-being of the western literary tradition is at stake.
And who can say she is wrong? The status of authors is often gauged by the prominence afforded them by academic research papers (a bit like measuring the health of a particular species of bird by counting how many specimens pass through the hands of taxidermists), but there is an alternative circuitry that depends on exactly the lonely ardour experienced by Sontag (and replicated, in turn, by those who, on first looking into Styles of Radical Will, are carried away by the tangible lucidity of her thought, the hip classicism of her prose). At a very young age, in other words, she determined to become a custodian of value.
By way of context, Sontag can conveniently be situated between the generation of brainy Vassar...#65279; graduates (class of '33, the year of her birth) stranded between subjugation and sexual independence, between intellectual promise and premature domestication, whose lives were mapped by Mary McCarthy in The Group, and the emergence of the full-on, ideological feminism of the early 1970s.
Assuming she will follow a straightforward academic path, Sontag goes from Berkeley to Chicago where she marries her professor, Philip Rieff, and, in 1952, has a son by him (David, editor of these diaries, author of last year's account of his mother's final illness, Swimming in a Sea of Death
Husband and wife begin writing a book on Freud together, but she jumps ship, ostensibly to do postgrad at Oxford but, more profoundly, to renew the project of self-creation stalled by marriage and the "loss of personality" that accompanied it.
Oxford seems to have meant little to her - Stuart Hampshire, one of her tutors, was apparently exasperated by the way she was "so serious" - except as a staging post en route to Paris and the Sorbonne in 1957. This is the crucial move. It's in Paris that she abandons the idea of a conventional academic life and realises the necessity and viability, as she later phrased it, of being "interested in everything". It's there that she lays in the cultural capital that she will make her own in the essays - subsequently collected in Against Interpretation (1966) - that begin to be written as this selection from the diaries is drawing to a close.
Editorially, Rieff tidies things up - pointing out words that have been crossed out or changed - while neglecting to provide the scaffolding (a chronology would have been helpful) that might have provided much-needed support for the essential flimsiness of what is on display. His preface describes the low-key ethical uncertainties about publishing these diaries (nothing, obviously, compared to Max Brod and Kafka); his mother didn't say she wanted them published, but didn't say she didn't. This question of whether they should be published skirts the more difficult one of whether they are worth publishing.
Subsequent volumes will surely make for rewarding reading, as what Lionel Trilling called "the moral obligation to be intelligent" morphs into an irresistible compulsion to be famously unpleasant. Here, there is little to compel attention for its own sake. Even the later entries give no sense that, at pretty much the same time, she was writing with Olympian authority on Simone Weil or Nathalie Sarraute. All this means, I suppose, is that she's not in that weird minority of writers - Cheever, Christopher Isherwood - whose unpublished work is at least as compelling as the bulk of the stuff they did publish.
Much of the teenage angst - "I am almost on the verge of madness... tottering over an illimitable precipice" - is generic and so, too, are the lists of books to be read and films to be seen. It's like Tony Harrison's youthful zest for culture - "That summer, it was Ibsen, Marx and Gide" - minus the counterweight of his dad's withering dismissal: "I got one of his you-stuck-up-bugger looks."
This reading is crucial to the development of her "embryonic critical abilities" but whereas in her maturity, as Rieff noted in his memoir, Sontag "was her admirations", for much of Reborn she is merely at the mercy of her enthusiasms. Or enthusiasms plus ambition. Neither of which, in themselves, persuades us that she will become a great writer, though there are hints of the kind of writer she never quite became.
With a few gleaming exceptions ("The sky, as seen in the city, is negative - where the buildings are not"), the observations of the world beyond the text are entirely unremarkable. From the start, she lacked the novelist's instinctive eye for people, relationships, places and light. Her first novel, The Benefactor (1963) dodged this courtesy of some nouveau roman-ish vogueing. Much later, with The Volcano Lover and In America, she found a way - just - of turning her discursive tendencies into a mode of historicised fictional narration. But to the end, she remained primarily a great reader (or listener or viewer) of works created by others.
Inevitably, then, one is drawn back to the passages dealing with her gathering sense of sexual identity - not through salaciousness, simply by the way the book lists. What's not here - meeting and marrying Philip, pregnancy, arrival in England - is enough to fill a volume of comparable size. Earlier, I suggested that Rieff might have provided more concerted editorial assistance, but that is to understate the matter. Yes, the scraps of childhood memories - "Gramps sent me a real bow + arrows" - have to be bagged as evidence, but they are so scanty and scattered as to require extensive forensic analysis and reconstruction. The same goes for the book as a whole. Reborn is a glimpse of the raw material awaiting a biographer thorough and supple enough to fashion it into a narrative of Sontag's formation.
Reborn: Early Diaries 1947-1964
by Susan Sontag
Edited by David Rieff
Hamish Hamilton, London 2009
Geoff Dyer's new novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, will be published by Canongate in April.
Susan Sontag: A life in literature
Born 16 January 1933 in New York to Jack and Mildred Rosenblatt.
Died 28 December 2004, New York.
Educated University of Chicago; Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne.
Personal life Married Philip Rieff in 1950, divorced in 1958. One son, David Rieff. Long-term partnership with photographer Annie Leibovitz.
1963 First novel, The Benefactor.
1966 Against Interpretation.
1977 National Book Critics Circle award for On Photography.
1988 Aids and its Metaphors.
1999 Awarded Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
2000 National Book Award for In America.
2001 Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society.
2003 Regarding the Pain of Others
She said "If literature has engaged me as a project, first as a reader, then as a writer, it is an extension of my sympathies to other selves, other domains, other dreams, other worlds, other territories."
They said "The carefully cultivated moral seriousness - strenuousness might be a better word - co-existed with a fantastical absurdity. The high-mindedness, the high-handedness, commingled with a love of gossip, drollery and seductive acting out - and, when she was in a benign and unthreatened mood, a fair amount of ironic self-knowledge." - Terry Castle, London Review of Books.
The Observer, 4 January 2009