A rigorous intellectual gets personal.

 SMOKE SIGNALS Sontag was one of America’s most elliptical writers.

SMOKE SIGNALS Sontag was one of America’s most elliptical writers. Photograph: Fred W. Mcdarrah

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<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

I first read Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’_” in college. I proceeded slowly and with minimal comprehension, took careful notes and imagined the owner of that stern, abstruse voice living in a faraway land of brilliance, black sweaters and espresso. In New York, or Paris somewhere, smoking with Roland Barthes, Michelangelo Antonioni and Jackson Pollock. Sontag was not real. Not until the morning about four years later when one of my coworkers at PEN American Center was instructed to “call Susan” to ask her something or another, and upon placing the call was soundly lambasted by Ms. Sontag herself. Everyone with half a brain cell knew, apparently, not to call a writer before two in the afternoon.

For the next ten years, I had what seemed like regular encounters with the enigma. I witnessed the tussles between PEN and an unauthorized biographer over access to her PEN files; pored over a box of endearingly neurotic correspondence in the archives of her publisher Farrar Straus and Giroux at the New York Public Library; spotted her and Annie Leibovitz at a Strindberg play at BAM, soon after a bout with breast cancer.

By the time Sontag died in 2004, she had become human. But not entirely comprehensible, and never simple. She might in fact be one of the most elliptical writers to have crossed over into mainstream American cultural criticism. Her essays are dense hedges of precisely constructed ideas, cloaked in rhetorical assault and accessorized by brilliantly aphoristic quotes.

Remarkably, Sontag’s notebooks, out this month in a first volume, Reborn, covering the years 1947–1963, aren’t all that different from her other published work—at least in temperament. “Ideas disturb the levelness of life” is the leadoff entry to her 15th year. “Life lives on,” she writes, quoting herself quoting Lucretius at 16, “it is the lives, the lives, the lives that die.” Ten years later, a crib note on the philosophy of Max Scheler is followed by the pronouncement: “In marriage, every desire becomes a decision.” Sontag expressed herself in crystals, even when dredging the murk of adolescence, sexuality, ambition, divorce, motherhood and love.

David Rieff, Sontag’s son, expresses great reservations in his introduction about publishing these personal writings. “To say these journals are self-revelatory is a drastic understatement,” he writes, and adds, “My mother was not in any way a self-revealing person.” Sontag did, nonetheless, sell her entire written archive and left no instructions restricting access. She effectively took out of her son’s hands the decision about whether or not to expose her intimacies, passions and punishing weaknesses. Though she refused to publicly comment on her sexuality, the diaries reveal that she fell deeply—and messily—in love with women and men, and that her desire could almost send her sturdy tone off the rails.

Even unguarded, however, Sontag’s thought process molds viscera into elegant shapes. She is always writing, even when she’s just emoting. And many entries seem only to masquerade as diary: “Becoming aware of the ‘dead places’ of feeling—Talking without feeling anything. (This is very different from my old self-revulsion at talking without knowing anything.)”

The journals are stocked with lists of books to read (Scholem! Gide! Flaubert!), movies seen (so many) and philosophical précis. Despite the fact that a book list from an 18-year-old Susan Sontag is a literary log of the highest level, these sections are essentially little intrusions to the latticework biography emerging from the candor of a woman who lived in a huge, lustful, deep way, yet always also in her mind.

Rieff worries most about his mother’s penchant for judgment, and that she will be judged for it. His concern seems disingenuous. In her 2001 essay collection, Where the Stress Falls, Sontag describes her younger self as a “pugnacious aesthete.” She’s always been a challenging intellectual guide, and as a reader it’s never occurred to me to seek out from Sontag anything less than the most aggressive, un-glib opining. I wouldn’t expect less from her most interior expressions. And, I probably wouldn’t have gobbled this book up like popcorn unless I were already nigh on obsessed with Sontag.

Of course, the impression I have of the woman doesn’t emanate exclusively from her books. There will always be that Thursday-morning scolding my innocent coworker received all those years ago, and reports from all corners of similar interactions with the difficult intellectual. I was thrilled then to find the strangest sort of explanation buried in this revelatory thicket of Sontag: “Don’t be kind,” she reminds herself. “Kindness is not a virtue. Bad for people you’re kind to. It’s to treat them as inferiors, etc.”

Susan Sontag's greatest hits: We list our favorite essays»

By Susan Sontag.
Edited by David Rieff. FSG, $24.