I think I am ready to learn to write

This review of Susan Sontag’s diaries appeared recently in the Irish Times.

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IN 1964 SUSAN SONTAG sat for seven of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, short filmed portraits of notable visitors to the Factory. On screen, Sontag is by turns antic, assured and ill at ease; she poses stiffly with sunglasses on, risks a languid smile, then loses her cool in a goofy bout of cross-eyed gurning. It’s a touching display; she remains the Sontag of the first instalment of her journals, published in 2009: a young critic flirting with fame, still unsure how to play the character called “Susan Sontag”.

In the diaries she frets constantly about her public face: “Has my uncultivated manner outlived its usefulness?” In the first volume, Reborn, one could ascribe her arch self-doubt to immature ambition. But it’s actually no surprise to read her still in that anxious, cunning mode well into her 30s, and beyond. For what Sontag’s diaries reveal is a writer agonised – at times paralysed – by the question of what kind of writer she ought to be.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh takes us from the cusp of Sontag’s celebrity in 1964 – the period of classic pieces on the problem of style, the camp sensibility and figures such as Camus, Sartre, Sarraute and Godard – to 1980, by which time her best critical essays were behind her but she could still turn in a bravura short book such as On Photography or Illness as Metaphor. As her son, David Grieff, who has edited the diaries, puts it, this second collection ought to be “the novel of vigorous, successful adulthood” to follow the Bildungsroman that is Reborn. In fact, all the anxiety regarding self-invention is still there, and by the end of the present volume Sontag complains that she can no longer write – she did, of course – and has simply run out of energy.

What had gone wrong? It would be trite in the extreme to conclude that life had got in the way, though, as in Reborn, these diaries are full of tortured reflections on her erotic failures. (Early marriage aside, Sontag had easily accepted her lesbianism, but relationships with women such as the aristocratic former junkie Carlotta del Pezzo caused her considerable torment: “The incredible pain returns again and again and again.”)

We might guess that she was kept from sustained and serious work by success itself: by the endless round of travel, interviews and panel discussions that distracted her from the late 1960s onwards. Or by political intervention instead of analysis: she travelled to North Vietnam in 1968 and found herself bored and frustrated by the crude militant attitudes she was expected to strike.

All of the above makes for many fascinating, if also self-aggrandising, entries among the 500 pages here. But it is also secondary to the main action of the diaries, which concerns Sontag’s efforts to become what she considered a “real” writer. That meant, in part, a turn to fiction: she published two novels, The Benefactor and Death Kit, in the 1960s and a collection of short stories, I, Etcetera, in 1977.

A diary entry on one of those stories gives some clue to just how badly, in the face of hostile reviews, she wanted the transformation. Unguided Tour is a brilliant, though po-faced, imitation of a smarter and funnier writer of fiction, Donald Barthelme. From the first sentence (“I took a trip to see the beautiful things”), the debt is obvious. But in her diary, with astonishing egotism, Sontag deadpans that she has “written a better story than Barthelme”.

Hubris aside, it’s the desire in that comment that takes us to the heart of Sontag’s perplexity. She knew that despite all her brilliance as a critic – her analytic precision and polemical force on behalf of the avant-garde – her essays were essentially discursive, “architectural”, texturally “thin”. She longed for a style such as she found in her friend Roland Barthes, a style that seduced with sound and image as well as persuading by its proper deployment of concepts. And she sometimes hoped she had found it, writing in 1970: “I think I am ready to learn to write. Think with words, not with ideas.”

She reminds herself to “keep an image-log. One a day.” She punctuates her journal with the word “style”, draws a circle around it, or a square.

But she also declares an uptight allergy to figurative language itself: “I’m irritated with images, often: they seem ‘crazy’ to me. Why should X be like Y?” She seems to fear the slipperiness of metaphor, its capacity to undo intellectual certainties.

Perhaps that seems a pretty rarefied problem, or rather an abstract reason to read a writer’s diary. Recall, though, that this is the critic who wrote in 1964: “In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.”

Sontag spent her career oscillating between the conceptual and the sensual, championing artists and writers who let themselves be carried away by their medium in a way she could not. She wanted to be a great writer as much as she wanted (on the melancholy evidence of the diaries) to be a great lover. That is quite a drama, and in her diaries Sontag struggles to play all its conflicted parts at once.

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