Susan Sontag “Reborn” in publication of early diaries


Back in November, we told you that the diaries of the late bisexual writer Susan Sontag (1933-2004) would soon be published by her son. The first volume of the diary, Reborn, Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), was published this month, and to fantastic critical reviews. In fact, the book seems to have reminded readers of her incisive intellect and given some insight into the young woman who would develop into one of the most influential writers of her generation.

In the L.A. Times review of the book, Laurie Stone writes, “Sex is the theme of this volume, showing the way it illuminates life for a brilliant young thinker who is uncomfortable in her flesh and how it becomes a measure for her thereafter of personal and artistic freedom.” In fact, much of the book is devoted to her relationships with women, interesting considering that Sontag rarely spoke of her bisexuality while alive. (Her obituary in the New York Times allegedly made no mention of her long relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz because the writer wasn’t able to get independent verification of its existence.)

The book covers her teen years, including her first sexual liaison with a woman while a freshman at Berkeley (Sontag was16), and later an affair with a woman referred to only as “H.” After her first liaison “H”, Sontag wrote ecstatically, “I know what I want to do with my life … I want to sleep with many people — I want to live and not die — I will not teach, or get a master’s degree after I get my B.A. … I don’t intend to let my intellect dominate me, and the last thing I want to do is worship knowledge or people who have knowledge!”

Many of the reviews note that the tone of Sontag’s writing about women is dramatically different than that in which she writes about her relationships with men.In The New York Review of Books, Deborah Eisenberg writes, “We have also learned, however, of her attempts to demonstrate to herself that her homosexual yearnings are inessential ones, and of the difficulty of her struggles to reconcile herself in one way or another with her sexuality. So we recognize that the marriage has been undertaken with the rashness of panic, and the despairing finality, the very brevity of the entry, is like the somber tolling of a bell.”

Susan Sontag (1975)

Photo by Peter Hujar

But by the age of 17, she was engaged to sociologist Philip Rieff (then 37), who she’d known only for 10 days). She later wrote of marriage, “It is an institution committed to the dulling of feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition.”

The book was edited by Sontag’s son, David Rieff, who was highly critical of Annie Leibovitz’s highly personal book, A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005, which detailed her life with Sontag and Sontag’s death. It’s surprising that he would make these materials public given the battle with Leibovitz, but, as he wrote in, Swimming in a Sea of Death (2008):

“…I tend to believe that, left to my own devices, I would have waited a long time before publishing them, or perhaps never published them at all. There have even been times when I’ve thought that I would burn them. But that was pure fantasy…. While she was still well, my mother had sold her papers to the University of California at Los Angeles library, and…since the contract my mother concluded did not restrict access in any important sense, I soon came to feel that the decision had been made for me. Either I would organize them and present them or someone else would.”

Regardless of any misgivings her son may have about its publication, the book sounds like one of the most fascinating reads I’ve heard about in a long while. The review states that the memoir serves as “a portrait of the artist as a young omnivore, an earnest, tirelessly self-inspecting thinker fashioning herself into the phenomenon she will be.” That statement alone is enough to make me run out and buy it. How about you?

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