Monday, December 29, 2008

Four cafes a night

‘The cafe routine. After work, or trying to write or paint, you come to a cafe looking for people you know. Preferably with someone, or at least with a definite rendez-vous. . . One should go to several cafes - average: four - in an evening.’ So wrote Susan Sontag in her diary, exactly 50 years ago today. A first collection of her diary entries has just been published in the US, and is set for publication in the UK in January.

Susan was born in New York City in 1933 to Jack Rosenblatt and Mildred Jacobsen, both Jewish Americans. Her father ran a fur trading business in China, where he died of tuberculosis when Susan was five. Seven years later, her mother remarried, to Nathan Sontag whose surname Susan took. She studied philosophy and literature at the University of Chicago, but also spent time at Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne. When only 17, she married Philip Rieff, and they had one son, David, before divorcing in 1958.

After teaching philosophy at Columbia University for a while, Sontag began to focus exclusively on writing. She produced several novels (and plays), starting with The Benefactor in 1963, and ending with The Volcano Lover in 1992 and In America in 1999. She also wrote and directed several films. However, it was as an essayist that she is probably best remembered.

Against Interpretation, published in 1966, helped establish her reputation as a ‘dark lady of American letters’ (according to the neoconservative theorist Norman Podhoretz), and in 1977, she wrote a ground-breaking essay called On Photography. Over the next two or three decades, she wrote widely on photography, as well as about novels, film, the media and illness. She was also a busy human rights activist, and served, from 1987 to 1989, as president of the American Center of PEN, the international writers’ organization. She died on 28 December 2004, four years ago yesterday.

Sontag was also a diarist, and her son, David Rieff, a writer on international issues, has been preparing the diaries for publication. A first volume published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux - Reborn: Early Diaries, 1947-1964 - came out in the US a few weeks ago (see and is due for publication by Hamish Hamilton in the UK on 1 January (see

According to the publisher’s blurb, Reborn is ‘a kaleidoscopic self-portrait of one of America’s greatest writers and intellectuals, teeming with Sontag’s voracious curiosity and appetite for life’. The Independent, previewing the book last November, says it unveils ‘an intimate portrait of her early life and her much talked-about sexuality’. And it quotes one passage from when she was still only 15: ‘I am very young, and perhaps the most disturbing aspects of my ambitions will be outgrown . . . so now I feel I have lesbian tendencies (how reluctantly I write this).’

The Independent also quoted Rieff on the difficulties he had had with publishing such frank and personal material: ‘It was a difficult decision for me to make and my reasons are that I didn’t have much choice given the fact that she chose to sell the papers to the University of California. So later, down the line, editions of it would inevitably be published, so I would rather do it myself . . . I certainly made every effort in the editing not to cut anything on the basis of my being uncomfortable with it, and not to cut anything my mother might have preferred the world not to know.’

A generous helping of Sontag’s diary extracts can be found on the New York Times website, which published an article about her diary-writing more than two years ago. It says her interest in traditional journal-keeping - with dated entries and considered sentences - was ‘episodic’. There are outbreaks of diary writing, it explains, though more typical are lists (movies seen, books to read etc.). Although sometimes in her life she traces every detail of her private life with anxious care, it adds, at other times close relationships seem hardly to have been recorded.

Of particular note is this comment: ‘Seen in the light of her accomplishments and celebrity, Sontag’s life seems to have an admirable coherence. Her public persona was durable and unmistakably hers. But in the journals, the effort of it appears again and again: the reworking of the life and ideas, the total concentration, along with the excitement she felt when things were finally going well. She often meditates on this constant self-construction, and indeed some aspects of her life - the mixing of high and low culture, the sexual enthusiasm, the passionate intellectualism - would become, beginning in the 1960s, hallmarks of the Downtown life.’

Here are a few extracts from the diaries, starting with one written exactly 50 years ago today.

29 December 1958, Paris
‘St. Germain des Prés. Not the same as Greenwich Village, exactly. For one thing, expatriates (Americans, Italians, English, South Americans, Germans) in Paris have a different role + self-feeling than provincials (e.g. kids from Chicago, the West Coast, the South) who come to New York. No rupture of national identification, and mal-identification. Same language. One can always go home. And, anyway, the majority of Villagers are New Yorkers - internal, even municipal, expatriates.

The cafe routine. After work, or trying to write or paint, you come to a cafe looking for people you know. Preferably with someone, or at least with a definite rendez-vous. . . One should go to several cafes - average: four - in an evening.

Also, in New York (Greenwich Village) there’s the shared comedy of being Jewish. That’s missing, too, from this bohemia. Not so heimlich. In Greenwich Village, the Italians - the proletarian background against which deracinated Jews + provincials stage their intellectual and sexual virtuosity - are picturesque but pretty harmless. Here, turbulent marauding Arabs.’

31 December 1958
‘On Keeping a Journal. Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts - like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.

The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather - in many cases - offers an alternative to it.

There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. . .

Nothing prevents me from being a writer except laziness. A good writer.

Why is writing important? Mainly, out of egotism, I suppose. Because I want to be that persona, a writer, and not because there is something I must say. Yet why not that too? With a little ego-building - such as the fait accompli this journal provides - I shall win through to the confidence that I have something to say, that should be said.

My ‘I’ is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity. Sane men, critics, correct them - but their sanity is parasitic on the creative fatuity of genius.’

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