Featured in
Issue 192

Precarious See-Saw

The long-overdue publication of Susan Sontag's collected short fiction 

BY Jerome Boyd-Maunsell in Opinion | 19 DEC 17

There is a very large gap in the middle of Susan Sontag’s career as a writer of fiction. Her first two novels, The Benefactor and Death Kit, appeared in 1963 and 1967 respectively; then she fell mute, as a novelist, for some 25 years, before publishing The Volcano Lover and In America in 1992 and 2000. That’s a long hiatus for someone who saw herself, as Sontag did, primarily as a fiction writer. Of course, she was hardly idle in the interim, writing and directing several films and authoring many volumes of essays – including Styles of Radical Will (1969), On Photography (1977) and Illness as Metaphor (1978) – despite her diagnosis with breast cancer in the mid-1970s. But by the time Sontag re-emerged as a novelist in the 1990s, many people had forgotten that she had ever written novels before; and, indeed, she was an utterly different kind of novelist, having moved from nouveau roman-style experimentation in her first two novels to a postmodern take on historical fiction in her last two.

However, throughout her extended period of novelistic radio silence, she continually wrote and published short stories. In some ways, they were an ideal form for Sontag’s restless, hungry, mercurial turn of mind, allowing her to try on ideas, pursue whims and play with sudden passions, as well as to move between contradictory positions, test her aphoristic prowess and extract the potential from a particular line of thought. In stories, puzzles do not always need to be solved or narratives connected. You can take them, as Sontag did, right up to the point where the reader loses patience – and then move on.

Stories (2017) comprises (and reshuffles the order of) the eight works from Sontag’s only prior collection of short fiction, I, etcetera (1977), augmented by three important extra pieces. These additions – ‘The Letter Scene’ (1986), ‘The Way We Live Now’ (1986) and ‘Pilgrimage’ (1987) – all first appeared in The New Yorker, but have not been collected before. They have been slightly homeless within Sontag’s oeuvre until now, although ‘The WayWe Live Now’ was also published as a stand-alone book in 1991, with fold-out illustrations by her friend Howard Hodgkin. Their inclusion in this new volume significantly recalibrates our overall view of Sontag as a writer of short stories.

Sontag’s stories are often essayistic, but her voice in them is more loose, arch and wry than in her essays. Generally speaking, her stories follow two different tendencies. Around half of the texts in this collection – particularly the earlier ones – operate within an experimental, surrealistic tradition, influenced by Jorge Luis Borges, William S. Burroughs, Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka, in whose work Sontag was steeped during the 1960s. (Further deep influences include Donald Barthelme, William H. Gass and Elizabeth Hardwick.) Other pieces especially those published in the 1980s – flirt with autobiographical self-revelation. Some fuse both tendencies: Sontag sometimes swings one way, sometimes the other; occasionally she maintains an equipoise. It’s a precarious see-saw. In a 1983 interview with Amy Lippman in The Harvard Advocate, Sontag described I, etcetera as ‘a series of adventures with the first person’. With Stories, this tendency is emphasized further, making it possible to see many of her texts as prefiguring the 21st-century turns towards autobiography, fiction and life-writing, as in the work of Karl Ove Knausgård and Rachel Cusk. While in I, etcetera the Kafkaesque, Borgesian strain ultimately formed the heart of the collection – arguably surfacing in five out of eight stories – the extra material gathered in Stories shifts the overall balance slightly, but decisively, towards the autobiographical.

‘Pilgrimage’, which opens the collection, is a case in point, situating itself on the seams between essay, fiction and memoir. It’s an account  of a real-life visit Sontag paid to her hero, Thomas Mann, at his home in Los Angeles during the late 1940s, shortly after reading and adoring The Magic Mountain (1924). The story hews to Sontag’s life, correlating so closely to her diaries that it has been described by many critics (as well as by Sontag’s son David Rieff) as ‘memoir’. In his book of travel essays, White Sands (2016), Geoff Dyer remarks that it’s hard to justify calling it ‘fiction’. Yet, the piece’s positioning at the outset of Stories emphasizes its artful reshapings and how cleverly its main themes are explored via an indeterminate genre – especially the discrepancy between an author’s life and work, between Mann’s banality in person and the magnificence of his novel. The framing of ‘Pilgrimage’ in this new collection allows it to shimmer as a fragment of fictional autobiography exploring the futility (and the lure) of biography.

Susan Sontag, Stories, 2017. Cover image: Howard Hodgkin, Artificial Flowers (detail), 1975. Courtesy: Penguin/Hamish Hamilton and Tate

Other stories draw from more transfigured autobiographical sources, pulling their emotional force from this primally powerful and highly charged material. ‘Project for a Trip to China’ (1973) reflects elliptically on Sontag’s childhood and the death of her father in China when she was very young. ‘Debriefing’, first published in the same year, is largely about the sudden and incomprehensible suicide of her friend Julia – based on Susan Taubes, whom Sontag met while a student at Harvard and called, in her diaries, ‘my double’. As in ‘The Way We Live Now’, which Sontag was spurred to write after witnessing friends become ill during the 1980s AIDS epidemic, an abiding concern in her autobiographical works is death.

Sontag often writes her best fiction out of grief, but her approach is far from morbid. Indeed, many of the stories are quirky, neurotic and amusing. They play daringly, quizzically with form, switching between styles and points of view in a way that recalls Sontag’s diaries, constantly breaking up into small fragments, lists, aphorisms, quotations, pirouetting from subject to subject on the edges and folds of conventional modes.

The Kafkaesque stories remain more challenging and are not always so successful. In the earliest piece here, ‘The Dummy’, first published in 1963, Sontag plays more explicitly on the theme of the double. The narrator, ‘tired of being a person’ and of the humdrum routine of life as a married man, creates a double to live his life for him – until the double wants to have an affair, necessitating the creation of yet another double. The double motif is taken up again in a mysterious and demanding story, ‘Dr Jekyll’ (1974), which transplants Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) to 1970s New York (and is reminiscent of early Paul Auster).

Escape, and its impossibility, is another recurring motif. The weirdly science fictional ‘Old Complaints Revisited’ (1974) deals with the agonizing involutions and circular thoughts of a translator – a first-person narrator who deliberately avoids ‘making it clear whether I’m a man or a woman’. The translator wishes to leave ‘The Organization’ but, in a way reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s stories, is somehow trapped, spinning tortuously. In ‘Baby’ (1974), we are presented with the alternating remarks of a couple whose narratives slowly start to disintegrate as they take it in turns to tell their psychiatrist about their problems with their offspring.

Sontag, who died in 2004, was always far more than one kind of writer (often within the space of a few pages). It’s tempting to suggest that she would have been seen differently – less harshly, perhaps – as a fiction writer if she hadn’t also written essays. The stories become all the more interesting when set alongside Sontag’s other work, yet they have tended to shrink in its shadow. With the publication of this new collection, it’s good to see them finally come blinking out into the light.

Main image: Susan Sontag, 1972. Courtesy: Roger-Viollet and Getty; photograph: Jean-Regis Rouston

Jerome Boyd-Maunsell is a writer and critic based in London.