A writer who mattered

Print edition : January 28, 2005



IT is daunting to try to find words with which to lament the parting of someone whose command of language was as absolute as that of Susan Sontag. Words such as `aesthete', `essayist' and `thinker' (her own least favourite) get in the way. Susan Sontag preferred simply the description of` `riter'. With Susan's death December 28 lastTuesday, America and the world lost one of themost brilliant minds and sharpest pairs of eyes of her generation. I, likethe many others who were lucky and honoured enough to know her, lostsomeone extremely precious. Susan Sontag mattered - she mattered very much. The obituaries havealready charted her remarkable output over four decades and that is not mypurpose here; except to try to pay tribute to what that output meant, andhow important it was. In a world of moral fluidity and caprice, Susan Sontag's challenge wasto be morally serious and morally radical. In an age of spin, politicaldouble-speak, whimsy and dumbing-down, Susan's was one of the loudestcontrapuntal voices of quality, of clarity, of insatiable curiosity and oferudition. While she bore a torch for seriousness and culture, Susan was anythingbut lofty - quite the reverse. Her writing was above all accessible to alland everyone; she had a devilish sense of humour and keen eyes for thelibidinous and vernacular. Her range of stimuli (and thereby her ability tostimulate others) was extraordinary. She once said that a writer `should beinterested in everything', and she was. Susan Sontag combined, in her own way, intimacy with detachment, thepersonal and the political; to combine the best of enlightenment with thatof romanticism. She showed that reason could be passionate and that passioncould be charged with reason. It is remarkable that the same writer couldhave produced the sharp, crystalline analysis of her essays in `AgainstInterpretation' and `Where the Stress Falls' and then the great romancenovels The Volcano Lover and In America. She would suffer neither fools nor foolishness, bigots nor bigotry,tyrants nor tyranny of any kind. She was a feminist and a dissident in thenoblest sense, true to her Polish-Jewish ancestry and the rich tradition ofradicalism in America. Her last book was in its way - for all its coolness - the most passionate of all, Regarding the Pain of Others, - reflections onthe representation of war. Susan and I bonded first over our experiences of war in Bosnia. Whilethe chattering classes of Europe and America were largely left stupefied bythe worst carnage to blight Europe since the Third Reich, Susan was on herway to Sarajevo. Not to report or observe but to contribute to the spiritof a European capital under siege by barbarians. She reopened the nationaltheatre with her production of Waiting for Godot for which the citycherished her. We met in New York but often talked of the impact of war onour lives. Outings with Susan were high points of my life in New York and in that Iwas certainly not alone - all this is but my very small fraction of herlife. Whenever music by Shostakovich was played we went along. She wasimmersed in the composer's work and the no-man's-land he inhabited betweenthe Soviet regime and his own conscience and artistry. It made sense forher to love Shostakovich: Susan was also a civic artist - a communicator; aprivate, even enigmatic person who nonetheless wanted to be widely andclearly understood. If we met during day time it was usually for a picnic of takeaway mezzein her apartment among her astonishing collection of books and prints byPiranesi. More often, though, an evening would conclude at a Russian placecalled the Samovar in the theatre district. There, they served vodkaflavoured with pepper, garlic and many other things and Susan particularlyliked Friday nights when a heel-kicking dancer would perform, reminding herof Grushenka in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov. And there, into the early hours Susan would discuss music just heard, orsome book or film, as her discourse wound its inimitable way...or else shemight demand some update on personal life while remaining imporous abouther own.Susan's urge to communicate was not born of self-promotion for it propelledher far beyond her writing. Among the least appreciated aspects of her workwas the discovery and nurturing of other writers, of books which shethought deserving of a wider audience. Here is a story typical of SusanSontag. Some years ago she was browsing in Charing Cross Road, London, andchanced upon a remaindered novel by the Russian writer Leonid Tsypkincalled Summer in Baden Baden, going for 50 pence. She found the work to be`a masterpiece of modern literature' and secured its prominentrepublication in New York with an introduction by herself. Along the wayshe met and befriended the late Tsypkin's son, Mikhail, teaching at amilitary college in California. Grateful for the recognition Susan had wonfor his father, he came to visit her in New York and we convened for dinner - at Samovar of course. One of the striking things about Susan Sontag was how deeply beloved shewas. She commanded affection and loyalty among interconnecting circles of friends of all ages and nationalities. And she was beloved by her publictoo - she was forever touring Europe and America to speak to her readersand could find hours to respond to emails from strangers about her andothers' books or ideas. Perhaps her closest bond with her readers were for her two essays nowcoupled into a single edition, `Illness as Metaphor' and `Aids and itsMetaphors', both of which have become staple manuals of comfort andconfidence for those who have cancer or HIV. The irony that such gifts tothe sick could come from someone who died as she did, aged 71, is almosttoo bitter to ponder. She was planning another book on illness right up until her death. Shedevoured life, culture and the world; she used her solitude but lovedcompany, invariably of those younger than herself. Last May I returned to New York to see Susan just before she left forSeattle and the bone-marrow transplant which she was determined to risk butwhich ultimately failed her. Although sick, she had - typically andindefatigably - just completed her last major essay entitled `The PhotosAre Us' about the scandal of torture in Abu Ghraib prison. We went fordinner with friends and discussed her article - the j'accuse against thebelligerence of American culture and the debacle in Iraq. Susan talkedabout an emergent form of American imperium which alarmed and appalled her - and also about her disease and her plans to conquer it. Within 48 hoursshe was on her way to hospital. When someone really precious to us dies, there is that temptation toturn the happiest of memories into sad ones, recalled through the filtersof death and loss. With Susan, one has - out of duty to her - to fight suchan urge. She gave so much to so many people; she touched so many lives thatone must insist, as I expect she would, on cherishing her influence beyondmourning. So Susan Sontag lives on in three ways: first and foremost in the personof her son, David Rieff, and his own scalpel-edged wit, wisdom and writing.Second, in the memories she leaves for those lucky enough to have known heror heard her speak, and third in one of the most impressive and importantbodies of work by anyone in modern America or Europe. Susan Sontag reminds me of the majestic heroine of that Bob Dylan songwhich begins: `She's got everything she needs, she's an artist, she don'tlook back.'

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