REBORN by Susan Sontag
(Hamish Hamilton 318 pp. £16.99)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
Some books are doubly the raw materials of which other books are made. These fragments of notebook and diaries are a record of Susan Sontag's slow building of her mind and her soul and as such they are fascinating foreshadowings of her own later work, as well as invaluable material for a future biographer. Her son David Rieff expresses, in his introduction, his considerable, though overcome, misgivings about making public in this and two successive volumes material of the literary disposition of which his mother had made no clear decision. His argument against silence - a sensible one in the circumstances - is that these papers had been bequeathed to the University of California without any requirement that they not be published, or that they not be published for some years. Given this, he argues that the choice is not between publishing and not publishing, so much as between publishing them now, or later.
Since the present volume is so intricately bound up with his own birth and upbringing, it was to a significant extent, his decision to make. The child David, and his mother's relationship with his father, are dominant themes here; the book is an invaluable record of how complex human emotions could be in the 1950s. Sontag had not discovered her sexuality later in life - the journals record lesbian experiences that are only adolescent chronologically. Yet it was the 1950s; the journals also record the wiseacre arguments of her well-intentioned friends that she needs must give up women altogether for the sake of emotional health, as if it was a face which might get stuck if the wind changed. Accordingly, she chose marriage, and came to regret it, while continuing to value her thorny relationship with Philip Rieff for its production of their only child.
This sort of weighed calculation that both marriage and eventual divorce involved are a part of what makes Susan Sontag such an abrasive writer - even when carried away by passion, as she is some of the time in the on-and-off relationship with the woman referred to as H. here, she watches herself feeling emotion, and takes notes on her own sensations. This is a record of someone setting herself to read vast numbers of books, watch a number of films and listen to most of the western classical tradition's important works of music; her emotional life is nonetheless real for also being part of the same programme of self-education. There is a cold- hearted honesty to all of this which deserves at the very least respect, and for many will compel affection.
The reader of these fragments knows what the girl and young woman could not - that the plan in large measure paid off and that the process of preparation resulted in considerable accomplishment. An early interest in Emma Hamilton and in the process whereby a woman noted mostly for her beauty became the muse of artists, scholars and warriors bore fruit decades later in Sontag's novel 'The Volcano Lovers', for example - very little of the prodigious reading and study recorded here failed to bear fruit one way or another.
These notes, fragments and inconsistently kept journals are also a record of vulnerability and occasional mis-steps. Sontag was not always the almost monstrously self-assured woman that she became in later life; this book is a touching account of someone coping with playin the cards that temperament and historical moment had dealt them. The adolescent Sontag is something of a prig and something of a flirt and fascinating in the way that she slowly assembles her adult self from both aspects of her character.
The fearlessness and ruthlessness with which she experiments, and discards those bits of experimentation, that do not work, such as her marriage, is exemplary, if at times chilling. What David Rieff has produced here, largely by a refusal to interpret or interpolate, is similarly not a conventional work of filial piety so much as a work of transcendent honesty and love; he lets his mother speak for herself as she was and trusts the clarity of her thoughts and words to win her audience round and see the deep sincerity and integrity of what can seem bloodless and amoral, but is something rather more in its thoroughgoing decency and commitment.