Reborn: Early Diaries 1947-1964, By Susan Sontaged David Rieff

Susan Sontag's diaries prove she was a born writer. But did she always have something to say?
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The Independent Culture

Susan Sontag died four years ago and no amount of prestige publishing is going to bring her back. Reborn might make a handsome gift, with a handsome cover picture of Sontag standing handsomely at an arty party. Between the chic grey flyleaves, however, there is little substance and no delight. Sontag's son (and here editor) David Rieff seems to know this, and his uneasy foreword reveals that his mother was a very private person, that her diaries were written just for herself and that he felt compelled to publish them because Sontag had sold her papers to the University of California at Los Angeles. Cornered and disquieted, he realises that "either I would organise them and present them or someone else would ... My misgivings remain".

Rieff's unease soaks the pages of Reborn and flows unpleasantly into the reader, until Reborn feels like a collection of rags gathered furtively from around a grave, a collation of small and eerie incidentals. The diary entries of this first volume commence when Sontag was a prodigal teenager and end after the conclusion of her marriage to Philip Rieff, her first two love affairs with women, her successful academic studies and her debut novel. But there is no real change of tone between the provincial 14-year-old who is full of promise and ambition and the successful woman who has just entered her thirties with some pretty brisk worldly experience in her pocket. The 14-year-old Sontag writes beautifully about youth's "impetuousness, wild enthusiasm, immediately submerged in a flood of self-deprecation". Ten years later she writes with exactly the same observant eloquence about an acquaintance of hers, a failed intellectual, whose "limp, his briefcase, his empty days, his addiction to films, his penny-pinching and scavengering, his arid family nest from which he flees – terrifies me".

It is obviously shaming for lesser talents to read this and realise that Sontag broke into the world fully formed, already a great writer before her mid-teens. And it is no surprise that this young dreamer went on to write Regarding the Pain of Others, direct films and plays and craft the novel The Volcano Lover. But Reborn is formally frustrating precisely because Sontag is so strong and stable right from the start. There is no sense of time passing, of challenges met or of countries crossed. The marriage to Philip Rieff seems merely boring, not hellish. The braininess, intensity of thought, drive and charisma are all present, as expected, and Sontag's rise was easy enough to merit no special comment in these diaries. She was private, but she kept no secrets, and so Reborn gives us countless reading lists, cinema times, jotted-down addresses, plans for future projects, elliptical notes to self and splashes of factual ephemera. For example, "Ethiopia has replaced Iraq as one of the main sources of meat supply to Israel."

Sontag is perceptive when describing her weak, feminine-cliché mother, who cried behind closed doors and was "never angry, only hurt". Sontag seems to have got over it pretty quickly, though, leaving home with a ruthless (and correct) sense of her own greatness. Ditto her lesbianism, which for all her protested guilt and bafflement she takes to with marvellous aplomb. She is at her funniest when writing about the stupid-making dullness of marriage: "Lovers fight with knives and whips, husbands and wives with poisoned marshmallows, sleeping pills and wet blankets." In a very rare moment of sorrow she writes, "The sense of not being free has never left me these six years."

The diaries of Susan Sontag would be a fascinating read if Sontag had been a diarist. But essentially she was not. She was something far better, a bold and public writer whose best ideas were set forth clearly in the essays, articles, analyses and novels for which she was rightly celebrated. The tormenting dark side of her intelligence is revealed by the ceaseless self-punishments in Reborn, the doubtfulness and brooding which make the entries just as frustrating to read as they must have been to write. One of the last lines of the book is, "There are no people in what I've written. Only ghosts." Accordingly there are lists of faces seen, parties attended and people met, but these are just recorded data, not name-drops or crafty character satire. And so it is from start to finish: brief realisations and book recommendations.

Reborn was assembled from working journals kept by a busy and acclaimed thinker, not the paper confessionals scribbled in private desperation by an ailing wallflower. For new readers who are unfamiliar with Sontag's mythos, Reborn will be incomprehensible. For those who already admire her, it reveals nothing of note, just a lot of notes.

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