Susan Sontag‘s brand of earnest enthusiasm is completely redundant, right? The idea that you might live with a body of work [ha!] -especially written work [ha! ha!]- for a long time and then find a way to articulate what it means to you and perhaps us/we too is obviously ridiculous. Isn’t it?
I don’t think these things stand or fall around Sontag and I don’t think that it’s any easier to do the work of exception now; to stand back, up or out enough to be willing and able to celebrate, polemicise, passionately engage, act commitedly, work with words, difficult though they ought to be. No easier, no harder, no more necessary. No less.
Sontag is not the tool or resource I reach for either; she was historicised/historical, boringly everywhere and thus to be avoided as well as out of sync with some of what she was celebrating when I first encountered her ‘great’ essays on the ‘great’. I didn’t start with Sontag, but if you did, my only question was where you went afterwards? -because you did go ‘on’, no?
Then there are all the obvious ways in which she does incarnate American culture’s definitive civilisational moment, which I’m not going to call by any name or term, but which she surfed and was flooded with. Commodity/celebrity. You know, if you endlessly tell everyone every day that you are greatly detained with greatness, difficulty and authority, the wise will only listen awry. If you do it in the literally shiny pages of Vanity Fair, the wise become a little deaf. And yet. Flooded and surfing means that it is not contradictory. It is what it is.
So, I tried to critique Sontag’s In America honestly and for what it’s worth this little review called it right. I don’t mean to be dismissive, though, which is partly why I’m re-archiving it here and now. Nor do I mean to be seen to be right! [agents on the Estate Express don’t make ‘right’ either, nor my critique wrong, obviously.] Sontag’s novel may well be so bad in a way that it exemplifies the badness that is also its subject; American commodity/celebrity, in a perfectly condensed single volume.
Sontag worshipped books as possessions, brains as fetishes, writers and thinkers as gods/goddesses. There are admirable aspirations in there, residue beyond the packaging. All I can now recall about her going to Sarajevo and putting on Waiting for Godot in the late stages of a brutal siege is that she did it. It’s irreducible. While western powers contorted themselves to look the other way for year after year and so-called radicals corrupted themselves to ignore the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims before the world, she was there. She was there, being there, doing being there. I don’t care exactly why, or exactly what measurable impact it made, but I note that she went, stayed, knew what it was like. Just another person, not just another person.
There is something similar about the way her critical writing could work; the breathless intensity of baptismal enthusiasm for a book or a writer felt convincing [or not] while reading, generated an appetite for her object or a sugary rush and desire for more Sontag. It’s true that nothing of hers materially altered or even impacted on [made Sontagian] its object or my lasting understanding of it. Rather it enacted Sontag’s urgent appetite for it [of course], was a convincing herald for the work, took it so seriously that it could butterfly it all over again. The residue is urgency and appetite.
I was caught up by this when reading one of her last pieces; Loving Dostoevsky, in At The Same Time 2007. It recounts her accidental discovery of Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden and in essence her passionate admiration for the book [as well as “the incomparable” Dostoevsky, a sentiment I claim as my own]. I don’t want to say anything about Tsypkin, his book, or her critique, only to recall how affective her voice was within the first and last line of her piece. It excited me, I panicked about what else I didn’t know, whether I knew the author or not who now sounded so different, relished the sheer thrill of it all -as she presented it- and felt more alive and clarified in all I thought during those minutes of reading.
It’s easy to sneer about Godot resistance in Sarajevo -even if raised to the challenge of Camp Gaza today- easy to sneer about bursts of enthusiasm and gushing celebration of [dead] writers. Is anything much easier than such a sneer? In fact, it’s notably hard to articulate an agility of intellect or thirst in place of being merely academic and especially difficult to keep the words alive, generative.
The problem is legacy, or residue: if I can appreciate Sontag’s championing of under-recognised figures at one cultural moment, their subsequent ubiquity -or just belated recognition- belittles her effort. It’s forgotten/forgettable and, fatally, it’s polemical need to foreshorten makes it less critically robust after its assimilation too.
Did she know or realise this? Did she hope that the passion might out live the historicising correction? I know it isn’t that she didn’t care! Then again, it’s Calvino’s celebration of Fourier that lingers with me more than all the rest. Zizek’s introductory interpretation in English of Badiou too [yes!]. Then de Quincey’s short text on Kant is a tattoo of truth almost as lasting as Joseph Frank’s staggeringly good five volumes on Dostoevsky. Yet again, look at her perspectival acuity with regard to the Twin Towers and Abu Ghraib…
NB; Speaking of Dostoevsky and Frank, I missed the abridged version of his light-footed monument Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, published by Princeton UP in December 2009. The publisher has a good page here, including contents and a pdf of the first chapter. There is an interview with 91 year old Frank here in which he says of Dostoevsky that “He poses questions in such a way that, whether you agree or not, it makes you think about them.”
Which reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s acute, urgently honest and revealing review of Frank’s Dostoevsky [orig. Feodor’s Guide VV 1996] in which the big questions asked by Dostoevsky of his world and of writing clearly formed a big brick in the wall that DFW must have hit at about that time*, finding himself perhaps on the wrong side of the only question/line that matters. Which reminds me, in contrast, of William Gaddis…
*It’s not online now, so I quote: “… we have abandoned the field … who is to blame for the philosophical passionlessness of our own Dostoevskys? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t–could not–laugh if a piece of passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction was also ingenious and radiantly transcendent fiction. But how to do that–how even, for a writer, even a very talented writer, to get up the guts to even try?”
Famous for 35 years
In America by Susan Sontag (Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 387pp)
Saturday, 27 May 2000
As a literary brand the name, Sontag is a synonym for serious. So the phrase “Susan Sontag’s new book” is a promise of significance. The writer has long grown accustomed to a state of “perma-profile” involving, on the one hand, recent battles with her good conscience in Sarejevo and against traumatic injury, as well as a second brush with the cancer she famously defeated in the 1970s. On the other is the dubious realm of critical sanctification and the Vanity Fair puff.
Sontag, born in 1933, earned a reputation in her thirties with the essay collections Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will. Her writing influenced what we think about camp, photography and illness, and helped make icons of European men such as Barthes, Canetti, Artaud, and the saturnine Walter Benjamin. She has long been “the most intelligent woman in America”, and countless column inches have been spent on the miles of book-shelves that line her Manhattan apartment.
She returned to fiction in 1992 with a well-received historical romance, The Volcano Lover: a novel invested with the matured intellectual vigour that fuelled her reputation. It was a gamble, and it revealed a problem: not the predictable cynicism of the intellectual, but the way that Sontag’s profile precedes, envelopes and smothers her work. It does so in the sense not just that In America is “Susan Sontag’s new book”, but also by her presence, which is felt on almost every page – sometimes deliberately, but rarely appropriately.
In America is the story of an actress and her successes in her native Poland and adopted America. In between, Maryna Zalewska, with an entourage that includes her husband the Count and another close admirer, gives up acting to found a utopian community in California – a brief experience of failure. The novel is set during the 1870s and is “inspired by” a historical figure. The actual actress’s exhaustingly researched biography has spurred on Sontag’s fascination with artistic celebrity, which she treats as an American story.
Marina’s stage genius is unrivalled in America, and Sontag writes at devoted length about her Shakespearean cameos, her fizzing fame and its endorsements – from fans and of products. At the end of her previous novel, the volcano lover himself, Sir William Hamilton, was judged against Sontag’s criteria of originality, discipline, invention and zeal. Hamilton was found wanting, but these are Marina’s possessions. Sontag celebrates them with this novel about one woman’s specialness.
In America is a bold attempt to inhabit the experience of success. The problem is that Sontag is rarely able to animate the past or, in particular, her characters. Sontag is essentially a collector, the figure she has so often written about, and her novels are the product of fascinations. The result here is inventive non-fiction awkwardly parading as a novel. Sontag’s appetites, perspectives and exactitudes would sparkle in almost any other form.
In The Volcano Lover, Sontag produced a vivid portrait of late-18th-century Naples. Her fascination with Neapolitan society in the age of Nelson and Napoleon was so effective that it compensated for the absence of a pumping heart in her story of Nelson and Emma Hamilton’s love affair. For In America, the equivalent object of fascination is the actress’s mobile world of veils, feints and flaming egotism. When the book is over, this leaves almost no residue. Further, Sontag has attempted to re-jig the 19th-century novel, which must teem with life, but cannot sustain the required imaginative autonomy.
Marina wonders whether “she had used up the allotted number of impossible feats her will could make possible”. Sontag writes often and well of American “willing”, the knowledge “that I can triumph by sheer stubbornness, by applying myself harder than anyone else”. Which is laudable – until the rigid fruit of such stubborn labouring is before you.
So few writers will risk their intellectual ambitions in the form of a story now that it’s tempting to minimise the failings of this attempt. But Sontag, aiming for absolute achievements, deserves more than tempered praise. The way that In America re-stages the American dream speaks urgently to the present; combined with Sontag’s abilities, it could be a triumph. Yet it fails because of her limitations as a fictionaliser, as she proves unable to free her narrative voices from authorial echo and prod – and, dare I suggest, a blinding self-regard.
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