The life of a Head Girl

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Susan Sontag really found herself at college, when she met a bunch of kindred spirits who not only read Proust but could put the new girl straight on how to pronounce his name. Now, more than 40 years later, she is famous not only for the fearsome breadth of her intellect but for her unapologetic response to those who scorn it. And, after the hard graft of essay-writing, she has discovered a less onerous vocation.

SUSAN SONTAG summoned me to Germany for our meeting. 'Welcome to Berlin,' she said with husky glamour when I rang up to her bedroom from the hotel lobby. Half an hour later, I was nervously picking at some breakfast in the dining room when she made her magnificent entrance.

The waitresses swerved respectfully out of her path. A row of thryoid-eyed Bavarian matrons swivelled their heads as she passed, like something in a Ziegfeld show. One old man appeared to choke on his Wurst.

Aside from 'probably the most intelligent woman in America', Sontag has been variously titled 'the Dark Lady of American Letters', 'the belle dame sans merci of the literary world' and (my personal favourite) 'the Natalie Wood of the avant-garde'. These epithets, functioning as code for this woman is brainy, but, guys, she's a looker, too, originated in the Sixties, when Sontag had just begun publishing her writing and was still a relatively new star in New York's intellectual firmament. Now she is 59, but neither age nor the cancer which threatened her life at the end of the 1970s have withered her much. She doesn't look a lot like Natalie Wood, but it's unlikely that she ever did. What she really reminded me of, as she strode towards my table, was a high-ranking Sioux squaw.

Physically she is grand: very tall, and built of enormous but well-arranged bones. Her scruffiness - layers of rumpled shirts, odd slippers that look as if they are knitted, nicotine stains on her teeth - is correspondingly prodigious. And at the front of her wild black hairstack there is a thick swathe of grey that falls regularly into her eyes.

If she was aware of her impact, Sontag did not betray it. She sat down, sonorously ordered black coffee, began a mini-treatise on Berlin architecture and remained regally impervious to the fluster about her, even when the woman at the next table began elbowing her son furiously, announcing in a stage whisper: 'Ich kenne diese Frau. Sie ist beruhmt, nein?' (I know this woman. She's famous, no?)

The roots of Sontag's fame lie in her achievements as an essayist. She has written about everything from Walter Benjamin and cancer to popular movies, and several of her works of cultural criticism (Against Interpretation, Notes on 'Camp', Styles of Radical Will, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, Aids and Its Metaphors) have become modern classics. As a defender and explicator of other writers and artists, she is credited with having popularised (or at least made more accessible) a range of avant-garde and otherwise 'difficult' forms - the philosophy of E M Cioran, the music of John Cage, the films of Jean-Luc Godard, the writing of Roland Barthes, and so on.

But, as is so often the case with celebrity, Sontag's reputation has long since been cut adrift from the specific nature of her achievements. She sourly points out that the people who rush up to her in bookstores often finish their fan spiel by acknowledging that they've never read anything she's written. 'They always tell me,' she says, ' 'You're my heroine. I don't know your work but I've heard so much about you.' ' These days, her fame has less to do with what she has written than with what she supposedly represents: the glamorous female intellectual combining high seriousness with progressive aesthetic opinions; the committed liberal bringing gravitas to fashionable causes. As Time magazine once pointed out, if Susan Sontag hadn't existed, the New York Review of Books would have had to invent her.

It is in defiance of this enduring image that her latest work turns out to be a historical romance based on the lives of Lord Nelson, Sir William Hamilton and Sir William's wife, Emma. Sontag couldn't have hit upon a better way to flummox her public. She has written novels in the past, it is true - The Benefactor and Death Kit. But they were published more than 25 years ago and have been dismissed as youthful experiments - mere hiccups in what was meant to be a scholarly career. They were, in any case, the sort of fiction one expected from Sontag: dense, oblique, philosophical, short on laughs.

The Volcano Lover, by contrast, is a proper, honest-to-goodness entertainment with love scenes and battle scenes and detailed accounts of what the protagonists are wearing. 'The great discovery for me,' Sontag says, 'has been to find that I am, after all, a story-teller. I thought what I was good at was describing what people thought and felt - you know, head stuff - but now I've found what I didn't know I had - a talent for narration.'

The head stuff still gets quite a lot of room in this novel. Sontag is a digressive narrator - forever being waylaid into mini-essays about opera or feminism or the psychology of the collector; she also plays about modishly with historical anachronisms and clashing tenses. But the book includes sufficient amounts of what publishers call 'romp' to put it on the US bestseller lists. And Sontag is rather indignant that anyone should be surprised. 'People seem to think it strange that this book should be enjoyable,' she says. 'I am irritated to find that all the reviews so far have begun with the sentence, 'Who would have thought that Susan Sontag, legendary proponent and symbol of difficult, avant-garde work, would now write a historical novel?' But, I mean, I've always liked historical novels.'

The confusion has arisen, she believes, from a misreading of her early essays and their recherche subjects: her literary and intellectual tastes have always been more various, she says, than those essays suggested. 'I remember when a journalist asked me who my favourite author was and he roared with laughter because I said Shakespeare. He said, 'But you're so identified with the avant-garde.' But I've never used the concept of avant- garde. In essays and debates I have supported certain difficult contemporary art which other people have called avant-garde - I have just called it good. And if I've never written about Shakespeare, that's just because I didn't have anything original to say about Shakespeare. Of course he is my favourite writer - I don't have to say that, do I?'

For the meantime, at least, Sontag has given up essay-writing to concentrate on fiction. Not everyone will welcome this decision. She is almost certainly a more distinctive and interesting essayist than she is a novelist. But she is clearly thrilled to be liberated from the slog that the essays required. 'They were such hard work. The Volcano Lover only took three years. Whereas the essays . . . I remember being pleased when I wrote the essay on Barthes because it only took six months - this was 35 pages in typescript. After I'd been working on it for about four months, my son read it and he said, 'It's done.' Now he's brilliant and has very high standards, but I still went and tore it up and did another five drafts before I was satisfied.'

Compared to this sort of hard labour, one can see how novel- writing - 'making things up' - might seem a pretty relaxing pursuit. But it is not just an easier life that has motivated Sontag's career change. She has always been keen on the idea of her work enduring, of being remembered and read in centuries to come. Now, she has recognised her desire to be remembered as an 'artist' - a term she used to describe herself more than once during our conversation.

'You're finding her at a very intense time in her life,' her son, writer David Rieff, explained, when I returned from Berlin. 'This novel represents more for her than anything has in a long time. She is in a passionate, aggressive mood.'

'It sounds a little vainglorious,' she told me, 'but I don't want to write anything that I don't think is really good. When I'm about to write something, I ask myself 'Is it really good? Could it possibly be wonderful and last?' That takes lot of confidence and maturity. If I look back at my past fiction and and ask why it was . . . inhibited, it's simply because I was immature. Most writers do their best work in the first half of their careers, but I think I am going to be more like a painter or composer. My best work is only just beginning.'

SONTAG could not be accused of reticence or excessive modesty on the subject of her own intellect. Her casually wide frame of reference and her frequent unembarrassed statements about her intelligence can be startling, particularly to a British sensibility reared on the virtues of ironic self-deprecation. In 1964, when she appeared on the British television arts programme, Monitor, chatting with her friend Jonathan Miller, the two of them were pilloried and parodied for months afterwards.

'They said we were pretentious and so on,' Miller recalls. 'It was the worst sort of British anti-intellectualism. Thousands of people wrote about it, but Bernard Levin was the most vociferous . . . The impudence - the appalling, cosmic impudence - of a sad little creature like Levin, thinking he had the licence to comment on Susan] It's right, Susan doesn't wear her learning lightly in the way that the civilised English middle-class is meant to. She doesn't wear it lightly at all. She thinks very hard and takes it seriously. For her, it is a burdensome commitment.'

'They called us pseudo-intellectuals,' Sontag says, with equal irritation. 'But there was no pseudo about it] We are intellectuals, Jonathan and I'

It would be untrue to say that Sontag is a complete stranger to false modesty, for occasionally a certain coyness does creep into her self-assessments. She is also good at treating lesser minds with flattering respect, and finding in other people's banalities fascinating insights of which they themselves were not aware. But the moment one shows any sign of entering into this game too earnestly, of forgetting the vast intellectual superiority that, out of good manners, she is playing down, a snappy reminder is issued forthwith. 'I have led a cosmopolitan life and I am perfectly aware of the differences between America and Europe,' she told me, when I made some casual remark, comparing smoking habits in the two continents.

Tales of her superciliousness are legion: the time she wandered into a smart bookshop and berated the cowering owners for stocking so much 'middlebrow fiction'; the time an acquaintance gave her a lift and apologised for the state of her ancient car - 'For goodness sake,' Sontag is said to have replied, 'do you think someone like me cares about cars?' In his memoir In a Little Kingdom, Perry Stieglitz, the US cultural attache in Laos during the Sixties, describes entertaining a very frosty Sontag and an American journalist, Andrew Kopkind, at his house in Vientiane during their stop-over en route to North Vietnam. He recalls Sontag looking idly through his collection of Baroque music. 'She turned to Kopkind and asked if he, too, remembered those days when this period music was 'our' music. She clearly implied that she was sorry for those of us, who did not realize that Baroque music was 'out'. '

Such hauteur seems to have been developed early on in Sontag's life. Growing up in Arizona and later, the suburbs of Los Angeles, she was a lonely, asthmatic child, neglected by her parents and further isolated by her precocious brilliance. In the autobiographical essay Pilgrimage, she recalls her sense of 'slumming in her own life'. Her self-imposed task, she writes, was 'to ward off the drivel - the jovial claptrap of classmates and teachers, the maddening bromides I heard at home.'

Home was unhappy. 'I grew up in a situation where there was little family presence,' she says. Her father was a wealthy furrier called Jack Rosenblatt with a business based in China, and her mother, a beautiful alcoholic, spent most of the time away, accompanying him on trips. Sontag and her younger sister were 'parked' with an illiterate Irish nurse called Rose McNulty. 'My mother was obsessed with getting old and losing her beauty. So she told me, when I was quite small, never to call her 'mother' in public because she didn't want anyone to know that she was old enough to have me as a daughter.'

In 1938, when Sontag was five, her father died in China, and the family became poor. The servants departed and a new, humbler house was moved into, but her mother continued to spend long periods of time abroad. 'To this day I don't know where she went or what she did,' Sontag says. 'I guess,' she adds coolly, 'she had boyfriends.' By the time her mother got a new husband, a war hero named Captain Sontag, and the family moved to Los Angeles, Sontag was a haughty, brilliant 12-year-old, already 'moralement partie'.

She had started reading at three. At five she had read Eve Curie's biography of Marie Curie and told the family cook that she was going to be a Nobel prize-winning chemist. At seven, having devoured a six-volume edition of Les Miserables, she had been made, for the first time, 'a conscious socialist'.

At 14, she and a schoolfriend invited themselves to tea with her hero, Thomas Mann, then living out his exile in Los Angeles. The episode, which gave Pilgrimage its title, was a disappointment to Sontag. 'He talked very slowly - you could have driven a truck between one word and the next - and he said these things about his work which seemed to me rather obvious. He was used to explaining himself very simply to Americans who hadn't the faintest idea of what he was about. I was infinitely indulgent, but I just thought what a pity it was that he didn't realise he could have said more.'

She wasn't aware of being clever, she says, so much as of other people being silly. 'I was occasionally told I was smart, but the standard against which I was being judged was so low it wasn't really a compliment - it was almost offensive.'

All her childhood memories are like this - memories of being quarantined by her own intellect. She remembers Rose McNulty being puzzled by her prodigal young ward and remarking to another nurse: 'Sue is very high strung, you know.' ('I looked up at them - I must have been about six at the time - and I thought, 'Hmmm, is that what they think?' ') She remembers her stepfather telling her: 'Sue, if you read so much you'll never find a husband.' She responded to the warning with disdainful laughter. 'I thought, 'This idiot doesn't know there are intelligent men out in the world. He thinks they're all like him.' Because isolated as I was, it never occurred to me that there weren't lots of people like me out there, somewhere.'

Liberation came when she was 15 and the principal of North Hollywood High told her that she had nothing more to learn from her schoolteachers. She enrolled first at Berkeley and then moved to the University of Chicago. She was in bliss. 'I remember standing on line to register for all my new classes and hearing these two graduates talking about Proust. I thought 'Oh shit, it's pronounced 'Proost'. I had read Remembrance of Things Past, of course, but I had never used the name Proust to anyone except in my head and I had always thought it was pronounced 'Prowst'. It was actually a wonderful feeling - at last I was going to learn how to pronounce these names. At last, here were other people who read what I read. I felt I'd finally arrived and it was true, I had.'

It was in her second year at Chicago, shortly after her 17th birthday, that she met Philip Rieff, a 28-year-old lecturer in social theory. He was, she says, the first person in her life, that she 'could really talk to'. And he obviously felt something similarly epiphanic, because he asked her to marry him the day after they met. She didn't want to rush into anything, so they waited another eight days.

To others, she and Rieff seemed a weird couple. She looked rather less than her 17 years and he, an early forerunner of the young fogey, looked rather more than his 28. Early on in their marriage, she attended one of his lectures and heard a student confidently informing his friend that Rieff had just tied the knot with 'a 14-year-old Indian'.

They were happy nonetheless. They moved to Boston, where Rieff began work on his book, Freud: The Mind of a Moralist, and Sontag took masters degrees in English literature and philosophy. In 1952 their son was born and Sontag's old nurse offered to help look after the child while his mother got on with her academic work. (Grandmother Sontag visited her grandson for the first time when he was 18 months old. On which occasion she remarked - the words are evidently scored deep in her daughter's memory - 'Oh, he's charming. And you know I don't like children, Susan.')

Then, in 1958, Rieff and Sontag separated for a year. Sontag took up a fellowship at Oxford, where she finished her D Phil, and Rieff took up a fellowship at Stanford. Sontag enjoyed her time away mightily. She was taught by Iris Murdoch and A J Ayer. She gadded about on a bike in a gown. She met interesting young chaps. 'It was being young in a way that I had never allowed myself to be. I'd been so busy growing up before - it was the first proper student life I'd ever had, even though I was married and a mother by then. In fact that year in Oxford was the end of the marriage.'

On her return to America, she and Rieff were 'painfully' divorced. Having demanded no alimony, Sontag set off for New York with David, two suitcases and dollars 70 in her pocket. She set up as a 'freelance intellectual', teaching philosophy and the history of religion at Columbia and Sarah Lawrence, while writing her first novel, The Benefactor.

This period marked the beginning of an extraordinarily intense relationship between mother and son. At seven years old, David's precocity rivalled that of his mother. Stephen Spender, who became a friend of Sontag's at around this time, used to call David 'the infant Samuel'. But where Sontag had been more or less abandoned as a child, David's brain was enthusiastically nurtured. He was his mother's constant companion. Wherever she went - neurology lectures, concerts, parties - David went too. Jonathan Miller, who was appearing with Footlights on Broadway, remembers them as constant companions, 'passionately wrapped up in each other'.

'We had a sort of symbiotic relationship,' David recalls. 'A lot of that was because there was only 19 years between us. I was aware that it was very different to the relationships most kids had with their mothers. In the end, separation was difficult and probably took too long.'

David lived at home until he was 26. Even now, at 39, he remains unusually close to his mother. Their relationship is widely believed to be the model for the mother and son portrayed in Edmund White's novel, Caracole: 'Mathilda was delighted when naive or provincial people mistook Daniel for her brother or lover,' White wrote, 'and to increase the confusion, she often referred to him coyly as 'the darling'. They were so close . . . that if they'd never merged entirely it was because fusion was less intimate than reciprocity.'

Sontag shares most of David's friends. If anything important happens to her, he is the first person she calls. When doctors told her she was likely to die of breast cancer in 1976, her greatest grief, she says, was the thought of leaving David. She calls him her 'best friend' - but the language she uses when speaking of him frequently slips, as in White's account, into the idiom of romance.

'He is the most important thing in my life,' she admits. 'That's a terrible thing to say because it puts such a lot of pressure on him, but it's difficult for me too. For a long time, I didn't know who I was, we were so indivisible . . . We have had a long, hard time separating - it has been hard for both of us. My big regret is that I only had one child - if I had had more, I think it would be easier for me now.'

THERE HAS been an outlet for her surfeit of maternal feeling in a variety of nurturing roles. 'It is not really for me to say,' she remarks at one point, 'but I do act as a sort of caretaker to people around me.' She had come to Berlin to visit a dying friend - a trip she tries to make every month. And since writing Illness as a Metaphor, which was the product of her own struggle with cancer, she has become a sort of cancer guru. Four or five times a week, she says, she finds herself providing cancer sufferers with advice or moral support. 'Just before I left New York, I spent an hour on the phone with a woman from Baltimore, who was clearly being given the wrong treatment. I told her to get another doctor immediately.'

Sontag refers to these and other altruistic gestures with some frequency, anxious, it seems, to dispel any notion that her capacious brain has nullified her 'femininity'. On our way out for lunch, we stop off at a newsagent so that Sontag can pick up her daily pile of foreign newspapers, and the young man behind the counter recognises her. 'Excuse me, are you famous?' he asks, interrupting her description of the Kaiser Wilhelm Kirche. ('This new stained glass they have - abstract, blue and red - it is quite awful. It seems to me a good indication of the complete bankruptcy of Christianity . . .'). She peers at him over her dark glasses. 'Hmm, I might be,' she says. There is a pause. 'Actually,' she owns up, 'I'm a writer.' The young man bangs the counter in triumph. 'Ach so] You are Susan Sontag?'

Sontag beams and stays chatting to him for several minutes. Later, she tells me she has been 'moved in a very feminine and almost maternal way' by the encounter. 'I just think of him standing there selling papers,' she says, 'and probably it's not the thing he wanted to do most in the world. If he knows who I am, that means he reads and he probably went to college and then . . . Well, this is my over-empathetic sensibility at work. I just feel he's probably not doing what he wants to and he is struggling for self-esteem.'

In spite of this warm reaction, Sontag claims that she would much rather go unnoticed in public. 'People find this hard to believe,' she says, 'but despite all the attention that has been paid to my person, I'm not at all interested in being famous. I completely separate my activities as a citizen and private person from what I do as a writer.' To this end, she keeps various aspects of her life utterly closed to journalistic inquiry. She lives alone in her New York apartment with 15,000 books and says, simply, that she 'does not want to share her life in a domestic way'. As far as any of her friends can make out, all her romantic relationships since the break-up of her marriage to Rieff have been with women, but Sontag refuses to be categorised as a lesbian, or to confirm the status of her relationship with her long-term companion, the photographer Annie Leibovitz. 'Of course I think it's wonderful that a woman of 59 is assumed to have an active emotional life - which I have - but I don't talk about my erotic life any more than I talk about my spiritual life. It is . . . too complex and it always ends up sounding so banal.'

This disdain for the blithe personal revelations that are increasingly part and parcel of modern American celebrity explains some of the horror with which Sontag regards the maverick, Madonna-worshipping academic, Camille Paglia. Sontag is not familiar with Paglia's work (she doesn't care to be). But Paglia, who claims to have been snubbed by Sontag many years ago, has recently been casting loud and vicious aspersions on Sontag's intellectual reputation. She says Sontag is a socialite. She says she used to be smart but she's gone off the boil. A recent profile in Vanity Fair ended with her declaring: 'I've been chasing that bitch for 25 years and at last I've passed her.' Sontag makes a pained face when reminded of this. 'She should go join a rock band,' she snaps. 'Are people impressed by this shamelessness? We used to think Norman Mailer was bad, but she makes Mailer look like Jane Austen. The vindictiveness, the vulgarity, the aggression - she is repulsive to me. I am not interested in her kind of vulgar self-promotion. I am interested in the challenge of thinking and learning. The point is not me - but it, the work.'

One sympathises with this dignified refusal to partake in personality cults. But in truth, Sontag is not as indifferent to her public image - to the way glossy magazines or men in Berlin newsagents perceive her - as she would have one believe. Like most people, she betrays considerable irritation when she believes she is being misread, and goes to some lengths to put misconceptions right.

When she first got to New York, people used to come up to her at parties and say: 'It's not fair that you're so smart and good-looking.' Or they would say: 'I'm so intimidated by meeting you.' It still happens sometimes. 'That's when all my feminine resources go into play,' Sontag says. 'I despise myself for it, but I can't control it. I will start reassuring them, showing them that I'm not really intimidating.' She smiles her oddly goofy smile, and cocks her head to one side. 'I'll try and show them that I'm really just an ordinary, nice, warm woman. It's just that I come with some extra packages.' -

(Photographs omitted)

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