Posts Tagged ‘“Susan Sontag”’

Indefatigable spirit: Remembering the legendary Robert Conquest (1917–2015)

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015
Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

My favorite photo of him, by the matchless Linda Cicero.


To each of those who’ve processed me
Into their scrap of fame or pelf:
You think in marks for decency
I’d lose to you? Don’t kid yourself.

Robert Conquest wrote these lines in his last collection of poems, Penultimata (Waywiser, 2009). I suppose, although he was too polite to say so, I might be included in his roster, since we met when I interviewed him – here.  Although the interview form is a kind of exploitation, I suppose, it didn’t exactly bring me either fame or pelf, but something much better. I expect my own “processing” will continue for some time now, as I digest, in future years, his work over a long lifetime. As everyone now knows, the Anglo-American historian and poet died on Monday, after long illness. He was 98.  (Obituaries from the New York Times here, the Wall Street Journal here, and London’s Telegraph here.) He was working until his last few weeks on an unfinished memoir called Two Muses. I hope there’s enough of it to publish.

The short quatrain above refers, I expect, to his dirty limericks and light verse, rather than his sobering prose and more serious poems. “Limericks are not very gentlemanly – or it’s a special kind of gentleman,” he told me. But perhaps the lightness of much of his verse was a necessary psychological counterbalance to the grim history he relentlessly documented in the books that were his major achievement, chronicling the devastation caused by the Soviet regime, throughout its existence. His landmark book, The Great Terror reads like a thriller, and is a detailed log of Stalin’s assassinations, arrests, tortures, frame-ups, forced confessions, show trials, executions and incarcerations that destroyed millions of lives. The book instantly became a classic of modern history, and other titles followed, including The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986) and a 1977 translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s 1,400-line poem, Prussian Nights, undertaken at the author’s request.

The late Christopher Hitchens, a close friend, praised Bob’s “devastatingly dry and lethal manner,” hailing him as “the softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny.” Timothy Garton Ash said“He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn.”

When he revised The Great Terror for republication in 1990, his chum Kingsley Amis proposed a new title, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.” Catchy title, although Bob settled for the more circumspect The Great Terror: A Reassessment. 


Mentor and mentee, 2009.

“His historical intuition was astonishing,” Norman Naimark told the New York Times (we’ve written about Norm here and here and here). “He saw things clearly without having access to archives or internal information from the Soviet government. We had a whole industry of Soviet historians who were exposed to a lot of the same material but did not come up with the same conclusions. This was groundbreaking, pioneering work.”

My 2010 interview, however, wasn’t my first encounter with the poet-historian, although it was his first encounter with me. I was one of a throng of people who attended a 2009 ceremony at Hoover event when Radosław Sikorski, then Poland’s minister of foreign affairs, awarded him the country’s Order of Merit. (I wrote about the occasion here. Incidentally, Bob received a U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.)

“His books made a huge impact on the debate about the Soviet Union, both in the West and in the East. In the West, people had always had access to the information about Communism but were not always ready to believe in it,” said Sikorski at that time. “We longed for confirmation that the West knew what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. Robert Conquest’s books gave us such a confirmation. They also transmitted a message of solidarity with the oppressed and gave us hope that the truth would prevail.”

An excerpt from my 2010 article:

Susan Sontag was a visiting star at Stanford in the 1990s. But when she was introduced to Robert Conquest, the constellations tilted for a moment.

“You’re my hero!” she announced as she flung her arms around the elderly poet and acclaimed historian. It was a few years since she had called communism “fascism with a human face” – and Conquest, author of The Great Terror, a record of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, had apparently been part of her political earthquake.

Sitting in his Stanford campus home last week and chatting over a cup of tea, the 93-year-old insisted it’s all true: “I promise. We had witnesses.” His wife, Liddie, sitting nearby confirmed the account, laughing.

Conquest, a Hoover Institution senior research fellow emeritus, moves gingerly with a walker, and speaks so softly it can be hard to understand him. But his writing continues to find new directions: He published his seventh collection of poems last year and a book of limericks this year, finished a 200-line poetic summa and is working on his memoirs.

He’s been a powerful inspiration for others besides Sontag. In his new memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens described Conquest, who came to Stanford in 1979, as a “great poet and even greater historian.” The writer Paul Johnson goes further, calling Conquest “our greatest living historian.”


He deserved the medal. In 2005.

I made a few return visits to that immaculate and airy Stanford townhouse on the campus. Liddie was always bubbly, intelligent, and hospitable – a thorough Texan, and always a charming and welcoming hostess. Often the two of us were talking so quickly and with such animation Bob couldn’t keep up – he spoke barely above a whisper. He was still a terrific conversationalist, one just had to listen harder. Among his considerable gifts, “He had a wicked sense of humor and he loved to laugh: the look of playful delight that animated his face as he nailed a punch line is impossible to forget,” said Bert Patenaude (I also wrote about Bert here). “His poems and limericks convey a sense of his mischievousness—and naughtiness—and his late poems chronicle the aging process with sensitivity and, one is easily persuaded, acute psychological insight.”

Another of our mutual friends, the poet R.S. Gwynn, agreed: “As a poet Bob is funny, intensely lyrical and deeply reflective,” he said. “Whenever I read him I think of how rarely we are allowed to see a mind at work, and what a mind it is.” (I’ve written about Sam Gwynn here and here.)

Bert said that Bob’s final speaking appearance on the Stanford campus may well have been his participation in an annual book event, “A Company of Authors,” where he discussed Penultimata on April 24, 2010. “Bob seemed frail that day, and at times it was difficult to hear him and to understand his meaning, but no one in the room could doubt that the genial elderly man up there reciting his poetry could have carried the entire company of authors on his back. Seated next to me in the audience was a Stanford history professor, a man (not incidentally) of the political left, someone I had known since my graduate student days—not a person I would ever have imagined would be drawn to Bob Conquest. Yet he had come to the event, he told me, specifically in order to see and hear the venerable poet-historian: ‘It’s rare that you get to be in the presence of a great man. Robert Conquest is a great man.’ Indeed he was.”

In the last few months, I tried to visit – but the Conquests were either traveling or packing, or else, more distressingly, he was in the hospital or recovering from a round of illnesses. And finally time ran out altogether. Time always wins. We don’t have time; it has us.

Postscript on 8/7: My publisher Philip Hoy pointed out in the comments section below that Penultimata was not Bob’s final collection of poems, it was (as the name suggests) a penultimate one. Blokelore & Blokesongs was published by Waywiser in 2012.


A pleasure to know you, sir. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)


Salman Rushdie: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.”

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Would people defend him today? He thinks not. With Timothy Garton Ash last year. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Charlie Hebdo has announced that they will publish no more cartoons featuring Mohammed, although every other religion and public figure will continue to be fair game. In other words, the terrorists have won. “We have drawn Mohammed to defend the principle that one can draw whatever they want… We’ve done our job,” said Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief.

It’s hard to be nostalgic about a fatwa, but Sir Salman Rushdie‘s recent comments in The Telegraph remind us that his Valentine’s Day card from the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 were the good old days. Leading figures from around the world linked arms to express solidarity with him, and to protest any encroachment on freedom of speech. Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joseph Brodsky, Christopher Hitchens, Seamus Heaneyand others stood for Rushdie. There was no backing down. And today?

Said Rushdie, “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.” The author of the condemned Satanic Verses, told France’s L’Express. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.”

Everblooming friendship

Thank you, Christopher.

In particular, Rushdie said he was dismayed by the protests that followed a decision by the American branch of the PEN writers’ association to award a prize for courage to Charlie Hebdo after a dozen of its staff were massacred in January. More than 200 writers, including Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Peter Carey, and Junot Díaz, signed a letter objecting to PEN rewarding the satirical magazine for publishing “material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

“It seems we have learnt the wrong lessons,” Rushdie told L’Express. “Instead of realizing that we need to oppose these attacks on freedom of expression, we thought that we need to placate them with compromise and renunciation.” Cole explained to him that his case was different – 1989 protesters defended Rushdie against charges of blasphemy; Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, he argued, were an expression of Islamophobia.

Rushdie thinks it’s a case of political correctness gone wild. “It’s exactly the same thing,” he said. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against The Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.” (To be clear, I find Charlie Hebdo cartoons tasteless and not very funny. That’s not the point.) 

Let’s remember Sontag, president of PEN, in that 1989 moment. Hitchens wrote: “Susan Sontag was absolutely superb. She stood up proudly where everyone could see her and denounced the hirelings of the Ayatollah. She nagged everybody on her mailing list and shamed them, if they needed to be shamed, into either signing or showing up. ‘A bit of civic fortitude,’ as she put it in that gravelly voice that she could summon so well, ‘is what is required here.’ Cowardice is horribly infectious, but in that abysmal week she showed that courage can be infectious, too. I loved her. This may sound sentimental, but when she got Rushdie on the phone—not an easy thing to do once he had vanished into the netherworld of ultraprotection—she chuckled: ‘Salman! It’s like being in love! I think of you night and day: all the time!’ Against the riot of hatred and cruelty and rage that had been conjured into existence by a verminous religious fanatic, this very manner of expression seemed an antidote: a humanist love plainly expressed against those whose love was only for death.”


Thank you, Susan.

Sontag and Hitchens were famous people, of course, who lived in high-rise apartments and could go into hiding, as Rushdie did. But a lot of other people put their lives on the line. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, was stabbed to death on the campus where he taught, the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was knifed in his Milan apartment, and in Oslo, William Nygaard, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, was shot three times in the back and left for dead.

Others at risk included bookstore owners, bookstore managers, and the people who worked for them. So let me take a few moments to recall the heroism of one of them, Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, which was bombed in the middle of the night two weeks after the fatwa was announced. On his own blog (he is now a literary agent) he wrote:

I spoke of the fire bombing that occurred at 2 AM. More troubling was that as we were cleaning up in the morning, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. … As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Literally hundreds. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. At this point I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent. …


Cody’s in 2006. (Photo: Creative Commons/Pretzelpaws)

One-time heroism wasn’t enough. How were they to react to the attack? Would they continue selling the book? Would they put it at the front of the store, or hide it somewhere towards the back? Or would it, like 1950s pornography, be offered by request only, in a brown paper bag?

I stood and told the staff that we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or to take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this. It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was the moment when I realized that bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation. Because ideas are powerful weapons. It was also the moment that I realized in a very concrete way that what I had told Susan Sontag was truer and more prophetic  than anything I could have then imagined. I felt just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But from the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

The story wasn’t over. Rushdie visits the Bay Area regularly (I wrote about his visit to Kepler’s here). And even while in official hiding, he insisted on calling on Cody’s several years later (Berkeley rents finally did what bombs could not, and the valiant bookstore closed its doors in 2008). Ross recalls Rushdie’s appearance at Cody’s:

We were told that we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence, had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole”. Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “well, you know some people get statues – and others get holes.”

Read the whole thing here.

The Great Kvetch, or, why kids are turned off by literature

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Read Anna Karenina for answer.

We’ve had some tremendous defenses of literature in the Book Haven pages over the years: Susan Sontag, in an interview with James Marcus, said (here): “Reading should be an education of the heart … Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. … It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”


There are better photos of him online. Really.

Joseph Brodsky went even further in his Nobel lecture (here), famously saying, “There is no doubt in my mind that, had we been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth. It seems to me that a potential master of our fates should be asked, first of all, not about how he imagines the course of his foreign policy, but about his attitude toward Stendhal, Dickens, Dostoevsky. … As a form of moral insurance, at least, literature is much more dependable than a system of beliefs or a philosophical doctrine.”

Lots of selling. Buying? Not so much. I haven’t read that much about why kids don’t read, why lit classes are dwindling. By gum, this is the best thing I’ve read on the topic. Gary Saul Morson writing in Commentary calls the problem the “Great Kvetch” among university professors. Slavist Morson is something of an expert on the topic: he teaches the largest class at Northwestern University – on Russian lit, of all things – for 500 kids. Nor does he teach the easy stuff: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are on the syllabus, and he devotes another course entirely to War and Peace, attended by 300.

Here are three reasons he gives. Reason #1 is the Wikipedia Delusion. Excerpt:

“I once delivered a paper in Norway on Anna Karenina, and a prominent scholar replied: ‘All my career I have been telling students not to do what you have done, that is, treat characters as real people with real problems and real human psychology. Characters in a novel are nothing more than words on a page. It is primitive to treat fictional people as real, as primitive as the spectator who rushed on stage to save Jesus from crucifixion.’ Here is the crux of it: Characters in a novel are neither words on a page nor real people. Characters in a novel are possible people. When we think of their ethical dilemmas, we do not need to imagine that such people actually exist, only that such people and such dilemmas could exist.”


The heartburn wasn’t just his.

Reason #2, or … why I hated Downton Abbey. Or, “Why don’t the women in Sense and Sensibility just go out and get jobs?” Excerpt:

“In this approach, the more that authors and characters shared our beliefs, the more enlightened they were. This is simply a form of ahistorical flattery; it makes us the wisest people who ever lived, much more advanced than that Shakespeare guy. Of course, numerous critical schools that judge literary works are more sophisticated than that class on Huckleberry Finn, but they all still presume the correctness of their own views and then measure others against them. That stance makes it impossible to do anything but verify what one already believes. Why not instead imagine what valid criticisms these authors would advance if they could see us?”

Reason #3, and here’s Exhibit One: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, in which the editors “paraphrase a key tenet of the dominant movement called ‘cultural studies,’ which has set the critical agenda”:

“Literary texts, like other artworks, are neither more nor less important than any other cultural artifact or practice. Keeping the emphasis on how cultural meanings are produced, circulated, and consumed, the investigator will focus on art or literature insofar as such works connect with broader social factors, not because they possess some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values.”


Why don’t they all just get jobs?

I don’t know about you, but they deserve jail time for making “artwork” plural. Morson politely overlooks that, and summarizes the argument this way: “If elements of popular entertainment illustrate social forces better than Pope or Proust do, then they should (and sometimes do) constitute the curriculum. The language of ‘production, circulation, and consumption’ is designed to remind us that art is an industrial product like any other and supports the rule of capital no less, and perhaps more insidiously, than the futures market.”

In short, “When you read a great novel, you put yourself in the place of the hero or heroine, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become your bad choices. You wince, you suffer, you have to put the book down for a while. When Anna Karenina does the wrong thing, you may see what is wrong and yet recognize that you might well have made the same mistake. And so, page by page, you constantly verify the old maxim: There but for the grace of God go I. No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as that direct sensation of being in the other person’s place. … Empathy is not all of morality, but it is where it begins. … It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to be someone else.” Sounds like a recommendation for Tolstoy‘s Resurrection to me.


Can’t wait.

Why is all it important? If you aren’t sold so far, try this:

“The more our culture presumes its own perspective, the more our academic disciplines presume their own rectitude, and the more professors restrict students to their own way of looking at things, the less students will be able to escape from habitual, self-centered, self-reinforcing judgments. We grow wiser, and we understand ourselves better, if we can put ourselves in the position of those who think differently.

Democracy depends on having a strong sense of the value of diverse opinions. If one imagines (as the Soviets did) that one already has the final truth, and that everyone who disagrees is mad, immoral, or stupid, then why allow opposing opinions to be expressed or permit another party to exist at all? The Soviets insisted they had complete freedom of speech, they just did not allow people to lie.”

Read the whole thing here. He’s currently working on a study of The Brothers Karamazov. Can’t wait.

Susan Sontag, Berlin, 10 years later: “Thinking is a form of feeling, feeling is a form of thinking”

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Sontag_06The Institute for Cultural Literacy in Berlin is having a retrospective on cultural icon and author Susan Sontag ten years after her death, to discuss the continuing relevance of her work. The reason I know about this distant event: my former editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Steve Wasserman, will be giving the keynote address. Steve, a friend of the late author and cultural critic, is now editor-at-large for Yale University Press, which under his guidance recently released Jonathan Cott‘s Complete Rolling Stone InterviewSontag was also one of the contributors of the late lamented LATBR, so I was in good company.

“Susan Sontag Revisited” will take place January 29-30 at Christinenstrasse 18/19. Apparently, the organizers are apparently expecting a crowd, for the website warns: “For safety reasons, venue doors will be closed when capacity limits are reached. We apologize for any inconvenience.” Get there early, or you will be pushed away by gendarmes.

In addition to Steve, other speakers include: Andrea Braidt, Carolin Emcke, Jörn Glasenapp, Erika and Ulrich Gregor, E. Ann Kaplan, Nihad Kresevljakovic, Michael Krüger, Juliane Lorenz, Christina Pareigis, Anne Ratte-Polle, Laurence Rickels, Hanna Schygulla, with Christina Tilmann moderating the proceedings, in English and German.

An excerpt from Steve’s blogpost about his friendship with Sontag:

I would repair, at her invitation, to Sontag’s penthouse, Jasper Johns’ former studio, located on the Upper West Side at 340 Riverside Drive.

sontagI remember the apartment well.  Flooded with sunlight, surrounded by a generous terrace overlooking the Hudson, it was spartan: hardwood floors, white walls, high ceilings; in the living room a single Eames chair, an original Andy Warhol of Chairman Mao, and in the dining room a long monk’s table made of oak with a brace of long benches on either side; in the kitchen’s cupboards a stack of plates, a few glasses, and row after row of back issues of Partisan Review; leaning against one wall of Susan’s bedroom a curious stained-glass window from Italy of a spooky Death’s Head, a kind of memento mori and, perhaps most impressive, by her bedside a 24-hour clock featuring time zones spanning the globe.  Most important, of course, were the walls which bore the weight of her 8,000 books, a library which Susan would later call her “personal retrieval system.”

I spent the summer nearly getting a crick in my neck from perusing the books and I remember thinking that, while I had just finished four years of college, my real education was only beginning.  I discovered scores of writers I had never heard of as well as writers I distantly knew but had never read.  For reasons wholly mysterious I found myself drawn to four blue-backed volumes: the journals of André Gide.  These, like others in Susan’s library, were filled with her pencil underlinings and marginal notes.  One such passage by Gide made a deep impression: “When I cease getting angry, I shall have already begun my old age.”

I think Gide is wrong on that one – but I think Sontag is right when she declares, according to Steve, “what amounts to a credo, asserting that ‘thinking is a form of feeling and that feeling is a form of thinking.’” Check out Steve’s post and voice recording of Sontag here.

Susan Sontag: “A freshly typed manuscript begins to stink.”

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Asontag2 new biography of Susan Sontag  has just hit the shelves. The Wall Street Journal has one of the first MSM reviews on Daniel Schreiber‘s book, translated from the German. Clearly, the writer Micah Mattix didn’t like Sontag, and says Schreiber felt the same:

When it comes to Susan Sontag, there are those who dislike both the woman and the work and those who just dislike the woman. In the preface to his biography of Sontag—the first since the essayist and novelist died in 2004— Daniel Schreiber reluctantly puts himself in the latter group. Writing on Sontag, the German critic tells us, was both wonderful and difficult: “Wonderful because I had the chance to immerse myself in almost everything Sontag had ever written or said. . . . Difficult, also, because Sontag’s character made it impossible for me to adopt the tone of unbridled admiration authors of literary biographies usually adopt.”

Even readers who have never opened the New York Review of Books, where so many of her essays appeared, know the name Susan Sontag. Even those who never puzzled their way through “Notes on Camp,” her provocative 1964 article in Partisan Review that helped define a certain ironic intellectual pose, will recall she was one of America’s most celebrated public intellectuals. Sontag was famous for writings on film, photography and philosophy, as well as for the striking photographs of her that appeared in publications like Vogue and Mademoiselle, which once led Mary Ellmann to call her the “Chanel of the arts.” Mr. Schreiber’s book, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, presents an opportunity to ask what it adds up to—aside from a sort of intellectual glamour. And, not least, how did Susan Sontag become “Susan Sontag”?

Apparently, Schreiber points out the inconsistencies in Sontag’s descriptions of herself. “She claimed, for example, that she had no idea where her family was from, even though she knew her grandparents had emigrated from Lodz. She would later claim that she was born in Poland herself. Mr. Schreiber is also rightly skeptical of Sontag’s claims about her own youthful brilliance. Her idealization of her childhood, Mr. Schreiber writes, would ‘serve above all to promote the aura of genius in which Sontag consciously wrapped herself later in life.'” Well, of course. Is there anyone who doubted that her accounts of reading Immanuel Kant shortly out of the womb were anything but hyperbolic? Read the WSJ review here.

Flavorwire has a lengthy excerpt from the book, describing how she became “Susan Sontag.” Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt, to remind you that even this famous writer had hard times, a lot of them, in fact:

“After The Benefactor was published, the contradiction between Sontag’s academic career and her literary ambitions became more acute. The fact that she had not completed her dissertation, instead becoming more and more involved with the literary world, led to difficulties with Columbia University. Roger Straus, who had recommended his author for fellowships from the Rockefeller and Merrill foundations, discreetly but urgently told his friend Harry Ford at the latter foundation, ‘As you may know, she is a member of the Philosophy faculty at Columbia, where her writing efforts have been greeted most unphilosophically by her senior colleagues. As a result of this stupid attitude, she is now in financial need.’


Also recently published

“Sontag’s academic mentor and promoter Jacob Taubes was at this time negotiating his return to Germany to take up a post at the Free University in Berlin, so she could expect no more support from him. Her job would be at risk once he was gone. Finally, however, her publisher’s efforts on her behalf bore fruit. On the basis of her literary and critical publications, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded her a post as writer in residence at Rutgers University during the academic year 1964–1965, and for 1965, she also received a fellowship from the Merrill Foundation. These awards put her in a position to leave her unloved instructorship in Columbia’s Department of Philosophy.

“Sontag’s friend Annette Michelson seemed very surprised by this turn of events. The art historian was pursuing an academic career in film studies, at the time still a completely obscure discipline, and could not understand why Sontag would so cavalierly abandon her university career in favor of a highly insecure existence as a freelance writer, apparently without a backward glance. But Sontag’s departure from academia was not quite as straightforward as that. Three years later, she still regretted not having finished her dissertation and even planned to complete it after all—probably on recent French philosophy—and earn her PhD from Harvard. But she never carried out this plan. The numerous teaching positions, honorary doctorates, and professorships that were later offered to her she mostly also turned down, often with the flippant justification that she had too much respect for a real PhD to accept an honorary one. Although she kept abreast of scholarly publications in the areas of literature, film studies, and cultural history, her essayistic approach remained basically antiacademic. She repeatedly stressed that the life of a writer and that of an academic were mutually exclusive. She had, after all, seen “academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.” It is not difficult to discern behind this remark a pose of wounded vanity. Herself one of the best authors of her generation, Sontag’s failure in academia was due not only to her wish for an antiacademic life but also to the fact that she was a woman in the still strongly patriarchal world of the universities.

“At the end of the spring semester in 1964, Sontag left her teaching position at Columbia and began life as a freelance author and essayist. After early difficulties earning enough to get by, she increasingly was able to support herself with her writing.

“In the few published journal entries from that year, Sontag’s personal problems sometimes shade into self-loathing. With great clarity she mounts attacks against herself, criticizing her tendency “to censor [sic] others for my own vices, to make my friendships into love affairs, to ask that love include (and exclude) all.” What fell victim to her new notoriety was her literary output. After finishing The Benefactor in 1962, Sontag wrote essays almost exclusively. A second novel she had already begun proved too short of breath and appeared as a short story titled ‘The Dummy’ in the September 1963 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.Otherwise, journalism and essays predominated until the fall of 1965, and for good reasons. For one thing, the intense life Sontag led in New York was expensive and her essays, reviews, and articles paid much more than novels or short stories. The Atlantic Monthly, for example, paid $500 for a 3,000–3,500 word article, as much as FSG paid her for the completed manuscript of her entire novel. For another thing, her extraordinary articles appeared to gain her more—and more immediate—recognition from colleagues and friends than her fiction.

“Yet as her journal shows, writing at this time became a real challenge and even a torture for Sontag. ‘A freshly typed manuscript, the moment it’s completed, begins to stink. It’s a dead body—it must be buried—embalmed, in print,” she said. By her own admission, she needed to build up pressure to write. Her work got done in intense bursts: “I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down.'”

Read the rest here. Or read an excerpt from Jonathan Cott’s The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, also recently published, here.

Susan Sontag to writers everywhere: “Stay home!”

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

sontagThe book has been in my bedside stack for awhile now, but I didn’t realize quite how long awhile until I reread the note that came with it, on cream-colored Yale University Press letterhead, dated 2 October, 2013. “Dear Cynthia, All yours.”

Steve Wasserman, editor at large, had kindly sent me Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stones Interview by Jonathan Cott. The original interview ran in The Rolling Stone in 1979 – but only a third of the twelve hours of conversations were published, hence this book. From the fly jacket: “Few modern intellectuals relished the art of the interview more than Susan Sontag. She embraced the process of thinking out loud. She spoke to Cott not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. He was struck by her ‘exactitude’ and ‘moral and linguistic fine-tuning’ – as she had once described Henry James‘s writing style. She would confide in her journals that ‘I am hooked on talk as a creative dialogue’ and added: ‘For me, it’s the principal medium of my salvation.'”

I began almost immediately penciling in arguments, cross-references, and approval in the margins. The text is addictive. But what might the Book Haven reader like to read?  Here’s a favorite excerpt:

… you’re not a public celebrity who gossips in the media about whom you’re going out with.

Well, what serious writer ever did?

I could go through a list.

But those people have destroyed themselves as writers. I think it’s death to one’s work to do that. Surely, the body of the work of writers such as Hemingway or Truman Capote would be on a higher level if they hadn’t been public figures. There is a choice between the work and the life. It’s not only a choice between how much you manifest yourself in the ways that the media invite you to, but just how much you go out altogether.

There’s a story of Jean Cocteau – to take an example of a writer I really admire – who, when he was in his late teens or early twenties, went to see Proust, who was already in his cork-lined room. Cocteau brought him some of his work, and Proust said, You really could be a great writer, but you have to be careful about society. Go out a little bit, but don’t make it a main part of your life. And Proust spoke as someone who, in the early part of his life, had lived a very social, what we would call café-society or jet-set life in Paris, but he knew that there was a time when you had to choose between the work and the life. It’s not just a question of whether you’re going to give interviews or talk about yourself – it’s a question of how much you live in society, in that vulgar sense of society – and of having a lot of silly times that seem glamorous to you and other people.


Be careful.

But think of the Goncourt Brothers, who wouldn’t have written what they did unless they frequented parties almost every night in Paris during the Second Empire. In a way, they were extraordinarily brilliant but high-class gossip types.

They were also social historians using both the novel and documentary forms. Even Balzac did that. The problem, however, is a little different in the twentieth century since the opportunities are so much greater. I’m not saying that one has to be in a cork-lined room, but I think that one must have enormous discipline, and the vocation of the writer is, in some deep way, antisocial, just as it is for painters. Somebody once asked Picasso why he never traveled – he never took trips or went abroad. He went from Spain to Paris and then moved to the south of France, but he never went anywhere. And he said: I travel in my head. I do think there are those choices, and perhaps you don’t feel them so much when you’re young – and probably you shouldn’t – but later on, if you want to go beyond something that is simply good or promising to the real fulfillment and risk-taking of a big body of work, then that only becomes a possibility for a writer or a painter after years of work, and you have to stay home.”

A morbid anniversary: two new books mark the half-century since Sylvia Plath’s suicide

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

plath6Gosh, Terry Castle is a brave writer.  And a bracing one.  She is still recovering from the bashing over her Susan Sontag piece of oh, a decade ago, and here she leaps into the fray with a fire-eating piece on the Sylvia Plath morass in this week’s New York Review of Books. The avalanche of letters she’s triggered may never, ever stop.  She begins:

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), and as one might expect given the sensational details of her short and appalling life, both her US and UK publishers are celebrating the occasion with a kind of vulpine festivity. Faber has just issued an “anniversary” edition of The Bell Jar (1963)—the harrowing autobiographical novel Plath had just published at the time of her death—and has been marketing it, distastefully enough, as “chick lit” avant la lettre. A clutch of new biographies … are likewise among the morbid tie-ins. “Sylvia Plath may be the most fascinating literary figure of the twentieth century”—so the publisher’s copy for one of them gushes. “Even now, fifty years after her death, writers, students, and critics alike are enthralled by the details of her 1963 suicide and her volatile relationship with Ted Hughes.” Such ambulance-chasing fans no doubt also dote on Frida Kahlo’s near-fatal impaling by the tram rail.

Given this opening, it’s not hard to figure out that Terry is not a Plath fan, given the poet’s “shocking necrophilia and refusal of life.”  She claims “Plath’s verse lacks wisdom and humor and the power to console. She invariably scours away anything sane or good-natured.”  I wrote last year (here) about underestimating Plath’s over-the-top sense of the ridiculous – and that her “Daddy” was meant to be dark and above all fun, anticipating Mel Brooks‘s The Producers by five years.

I’m glad April Bernard took up the cry earlier this month in the New York Review of Books:

Plath can cause embarrassment through overstatement—going a little too far is her signature move. (One line from “Elm,” another late poem, that best captures her veer towards overstatement is, “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.”) But if we consider embarrassment as an aesthetic strategy rather than as a mistake, we begin to see how funny Plath often is. I confess I had read and admired Plath for several years before her humor struck me full-force—the first time I heard a now-famous BBC radio recording in which she reads “Daddy” with a discernible wave of laughter in her voice. (And yes, there is also rage, and profound sorrow.) I re-read the poem, and realized for the first time that her exaggerations and preposterous claims, which link the Holocaust with an American middle-class “family romance,” were meant to be an elaborate joke, one in extreme bad taste, right on the edge of kitsch.


Not a fan.

Terry’s task at hand is two new additions to the Plath library:  Carl Rollysons “diverting, gossipy” American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, which “bounces along, jalopy-like, at a madcap pace. No slack metaphor, shameless cliché, or laughable anachronism can slow the authorial juggernaut.”  Curiously enough, she doesn’t mention that one of Rollyson’s more controversial efforts was a biography of Terry’s own bête noir, Sontag.) Andrew Wilson‘s more judicious work, Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, turns over a few new stones – he even had the partial cooperation of Plath’s so-far-silent lover Richard Sassoon.

Could it all have been different?  Counterfactuals abound. A chance meeting at a party Ted Hughes hadn’t planned on attending, interrupting a serious affair in Paris with Sassoon.  Terry writes:

plath5A striking effect of the chronology is to take away some of the fatal glamour one associates with Hughes. He seems less the craggy, carnal bogeyman of Plath mythology here and more just another contender for Plath’s widely broadcast sexual charms. It all could have gone a different way. “Plath’s feelings for Sassoon were so intense,” Wilson argues, “that, had Richard decided to stay in Paris, it’s highly probable that [Plath] would never have returned to England to marry Hughes. It was his rejection that catapulted Sylvia into Ted’s arms.” Waiting in vain for Sassoon to return to Paris, she wrote to a friend, “If he would come today I would stay here with him.”

And here once again, the fancy that Wilson’s book—a study at once stately and strange—so often elicits: how easily the “life before Ted” might have become the “life without Ted.” Would such a tweak in the course of destiny have meant more years—with or without poems—for Sylvia? Sanity, self-possession, and an escape from the prescribed doom? Or merely some other kind of agony and mental collapse?

She tips her hat to a former colleague: with about fifteen Plath biographies in English to date — “some adversarial in tone, others less so” – then rates Diane Middlebrook’s elegiac Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath—A Marriage as “one of the more balanced and sensible.”  She also credits Eavan Boland for her kindly assessment of Plath’s legacy.  But she has limits to her charity.

At times, Terry seems to be judging the person rather than the poet, even blaming Plath for “creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave,” with the suicide of her son a few years ago, after a largely lonely life.  She hints that he lacked a mother’s love.  It is a great misfortune to lose one’s mother so young.  But … didn’t he also have a dad somewhere?

Read all of Terry Castle’s piece here. It’s better than coffee for a jolt.  Really.

Toute seule: “One can never be alone enough to write.”

Saturday, November 24th, 2012

Is it really so bad? The view outside my window. (Louvre at back, with trees of the Jardin du Palais Royal.)

Paris is for lovers, right?  Mais non.

I actually enjoy wandering the narrow streets of the first arrondissement alone, exploring the byways that open unexpectedly to a spectacular scene like the autumn trees of the Jardin du Palais Royal, or ducking out to the fromagerie for some Roquefort from the Pyrenées, or discovering a 200-year-old bakery around the corner, Au Grand Richelieu, which provides homemade marrons glacés – or simply sitting alone, in my tiny studio apartment overlooking the Louvre.  There is no one to mediate or mitigate my interaction with the city – it’s a direct hit, every step I take.

Susan Sontag, who adored Paris, nevertheless found being alone a drag – even for a quick croissant and coffee in the morning with Le Monde.  She told memoirist  Sigrid Nunez that when she was alone, her “mind went blank” like “static on the screen when a channel stops broadcasting.” Yet she also claimed, “One can never be alone enough to write.”  Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?

Emily Cooke discusses the writer’s solitude over at The New Inquiry:  “Being alone lets you develop, become strange, be mad. If to be with people is to be socialized, to submit your rough edges to the whetstone of others’ desires, to be asocial is to be ragged and, thus, original.”

Sontag falls under her lorgnette, but so does Vivian Gornick and Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik.

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on 11/25:  My friend Pierre de Taille over at La Plume Périodique  tells me what I already knew: “Roquefort cheese is not from the Pyrenées but from the region of the village of Roquefort, south of Le Massif Central (  There are similar kinds of cheeses in the Pyrénées, one of the best being from the town of Salies-du-Salat, a little hard to find but delicious.”  What can I say?  They told me it was Roquefort from the Pyrenées, but maybe they didn’t want to explain to all their customers why a very similar cheese is from the Pyrenées.  It just confuses us.  The price would certainly suggest it was hard-to-find. Thanks, Pierre!

Martin Amis: satire as “militant irony”

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

Getting ink (Photo courtesy Knopf)

Alfred Knopf tweeted this a few days ago, from Martin Amis, who novel Lionel Asbo has been getting a lot of ink of late:

“One definition of satire is that it’s militant irony: It’s irony brought to the pitch where you are actually hoping to bring about change. Irony brushes by a question and leaves you with a thought of it. Satire is meant to be much more vigorous and vehement – the suggestion being that you’re actually wanting to change reality. I don’t attempt to change reality. I would just say that satire is very exaggerated irony and that’s what I deal in.”

I googled, and found that he’d expressed a similar thought, in different ways on different occasions.  I like this one, from a Goodreads interview, which sounds a little less certain:

GR: Goodreads Author Steven Bauer asks, “What do you believe the place of satire is in a society and culture that always seems on the edge of satirizing itself?”

MA: I’ve never been sure what satire is. One of the definitions is that satire is militant irony, which sounds good. The suggestion, though, is that it’s militant and therefore sets the task of bringing about change. I don’t think that satire has actually ever done that. Satire attacks social ill and does it once the injustice has been cleared up, not while the injustice is going on, like imprisonment for debt in Dickens, for instance. I just don’t think that novels have that power. I think novelists are in the education business, really, but they’re not teaching you times tables, they are teaching you responsiveness and morality and to make nuanced judgments. And really to just make the planet look a bit richer when you go out into the street.

"Better than you"

Susan Sontag, I think, expressed the last idea better, from the point of a reader.  In her interview with James Marcus here she said:

“Reading should be an education of the heart … Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too. … But I really do think it’s necessary if you want to have a full life. It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”

László Krasznahorkai: “So-called high literature”? Finito.

Saturday, July 7th, 2012


Hungarian writers tend to be a lonely lot – the fruit of their labor is stranded out on the most inaccessible branch of the broad language tree.  Who speaks Hungarian, except those born to it?  Its closest antecedents are Turkish and Finnish, and they aren’t all that close.  Wisely,  László Krasznahorkai divides his time between New York and Berlin, as well as the cosy little village of  Pilisszentlászló,  about half an hour out of Budapest.  That, in addition to the skyrocketing  reputation of his work, has put him in the world’s literary epicenter.

More thoughts on "this rotten world we live in."

After all, Susan Sontag said he is “the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville. W. G. Sebald said, “The universality of Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.”

To my discredit, then, I discovered Krasznahorkai only this year when, in Paris, Daniel Medin shoved a Cahier into my hand.  The short, 39-page work,  Animalinside, was undertaken for the Cahiers Series as part of a collaboration with German painter Max Neumann (we’ve written about the Cahiers series here). For reasons to tedious to get into, the book wound up in a stack of backlogged reading, and I’d only got round to reading it after the interview in the current Quarterly Conversation.

The interview is republished from The Hungarian Review – a publication I regard with gratitude, as its editors allowed me to republish Czesław Miłoszs poem “Antigone,” translated by George Gömöri and Richard Berengarten – the poem, in English, exist only in the journal and An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. It’s not the only reason I read the Q&A with interest, however; it’s lively stuff.

A few excerpts:

Ágnes Dömötör: Many people have the impression that your books are hard to read and to understand. That’s a myth, but don’t you think you’ve got some bad PR?

László Krasznahorkai: You know, the problem is that anything that’s the least bit serious gets bad PR. Kafka got bad PR, and so does the Bible. The Old Testament is a pretty hard text to read; anyone who finds my writing difficult must have trouble with the Bible, too. Our consumer culture aims at putting your mind to sleep, and you’re not even aware of it. It costs a lot of money to keep this singular procedure going, and there’s an insane global operation in place for that very purpose. This state of lost awareness creates the illusion of stability in a constantly changing world, suggesting at least a hypothetical security that doesn’t exist. I see the role of the tabloid press somewhat differently. I can’t just shrug it off and say to hell with it. The tabloid press is there for a serious reason, and that reason is both tragic and delicate.

AD: Suppose someone who has never read anything by you picks up this interview and says: what an interesting guy, which one of your books would you recommend to them? What would be a point of entry to your life’s work?

LK: The Old Testament. The Book of Revelation. Let them choose from my books at random.

AD: How do you relate to your fellow Hungarian writers? Do you ever e-mail one another? Would you tell György Spiró, for instance,‟I liked your last book, Gyuri?” I’m asking because in an earlier interview you seemed to see yourself as an outsider on the literary scene.

Pilisszentlászló ... half an hour away from Budapest

LK: I don’t just see myself as an outsider, I am one. Which doesn’t mean I’m not happy to see colleagues I admire; after all, we share the same fate. But I also worry about them. I worry, for instance, because they’re in literature, something that you can still sell for awhile, but it’s getting harder and harder. This kind of communication is really over and done with. Its disappearance is a rather obvious process; it is happening faster at some points of the world than at others. I’m afraid this kind of literature is not sustainable.

AD: You mean it’s not just the authority of literature that’s finished but literature as such?

LK: The so-called high literature will disappear. I don’t trust such partial hopes that there will always be islands where literature will be important and survive. I would love to be able to say such pathos-filled things, but I don’t think they’re true.

On our tabloids: “The structure of vulgarity is very complex.”  He also talks about apocalypse, and “this rotten world we live in.”  And rock bands?  You can read about his favorite ones, along with the rest of the interview, here.

What does he think about bloggers, such as Humble Moi?  “Recently one blogger suggested that I should be hanged. I immediately put on my space suit, started the engine and went to the moon for a while.”  That puts me in my place.

Meanwhile, here’s what Irish novelist Colm Tóibín said about Animalinside:

Language for Krasznahorkai is a force struggling against the domination of cliché and easy consumption, offering small, well-organized revolts, plotting in upstairs rooms for plenitude and jagged rhythm, arming itself with clauses, sub-clauses and asides, preparing high-voltage assaults on the reader’s nervous system. … The world of his fiction is enclosed and stable, it must be taken on its own terms. … His work is full of menace, but it would be a mistake to read the menace either as political or as coming from nowhere. …