Posts Tagged ‘“Terry Castle”’

Farewell to Stanford’s “How I Write” – and hello to Hilton’s new book!

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

Teamwork: Charlie Junkerman and Hilton Obenzinger

It’s a cliché that all good things come to an end, but stoicism was little consolation for the 40 or 50 of us who came to bid farewell to the “How I Write” series that has been part of Stanford life for more than a dozen years. The series of public conversations has been ably and amiably hosted by Hilton Obenzinger, under the aegis of Continuing Studies.

Here’s a few things that were consolations: the send-off party at the Stanford Faculty Club was celebrated with good food and good company. And here’s the best part: Hilton has made the 13-year series into a 262-page book, How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experienceavailable on Amazon here. The book is dedicated to the late Diane Middlebrook. Hence, last week’s event was a fête for the new book, though tinged with a little sadness, too.

Charlie Junkerman, the dean of Continuing Studies, called the book “a portable condensation of all those conversations” and “the right capstone to this project of many many years.” Noting Hilton’s ventures in fiction, poetry, history, and criticism, he added that “he hasn’t written a cookbook so far, but that may be coming.”

What did Hilton learn from this long venture? “People are weird and they work in all kinds of strange ways.” He remembered the author who required his “writing sweater” to write. He spoke with award-winning Irish poet and essayist Eavan Boland, who likes writing code and reading tech magazines, while engineer Eric Roberts, author of Programming Abstractions in C, has no TV and surrounds himself with books, not tech toys.

As Tom Winterbottom writes in his discussion of the book here:

Who knew that the renowned Stanford literary critic Terry Castle wrote the entire first draft of her dissertation in tiny handwriting on just seven sheets of legal-sized paper?

Or that the acclaimed author and Stanford professor Adam Johnson learned the craft of storytelling at a young age in part by rifling through his neighbors’ garbage cans for inspiration?

Amusing, yes, but anecdotes give little sense of the grueling process of writing itself, or the perils of publication. The longed-for moment when you see your book in publication can bring as much rue as reward:

When you read your own work as something fresh, something strange, it can be very exciting – especially if there’s time to make revisions. But then, once published, you almost inevitably discover typos, mistakes, and causes for regret and even remorse. As in a lover’s quarrel, sometimes we wish we could take the words back. But it’s almost never possible. …

obenzingerMost of the time the ill-chosen words hang there; if you’re lucky, no one reads them and they turn to dust. But sometimes the words act and cause actions, as words do, and some readers may be led down the wrong path or may have terrible thoughts planted in their brains. So far I haven’t disowned any of my own writing, although I often cringe at how infantile, wrong-headed, or tone-deaf some passage may be.

I certainly can’t disavow my typos. No matter how much the copy editor and I comb the text, at least one goof will slip right through the galleys. For some reason there’s an article repeated or a word misspelled or worse. Yet I’ve come to terms with the stray typo, because the error demonstrates that the work is not perfect, the text is always contingent, always transient, a ‘draft of a draft,’ as Herman Melville‘s Ishmael describes Moby-Dick. …

But shame, failure, despair, utter horror, these are all stations on the journey, even after completing a ‘draft of a draft.’ …

“Where’s the quote from?” several of the guests called out when he was finished reading. “Me!” beamed Hilton. It was his own. It’s in his book. You can buy it here. (And you can read a little more about it here.)

J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself comes to Stanford

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Roger and Joe Ackerley, 1913 (Photo courtesy Harold Ober Associates)

J.R. Ackerley led an outwardly quiet life between his flat in suburban Putney and his London office at The Listener, the BBC’s weekly magazine, where he worked from 1935 to 1959.  Though he was the leading literary editor of his generation, he was in no hurry to publish his own work – hence, his controversial memoir appeared posthumously.

Now his following is growing.  It’s likely to expand further when Stanford’s “Another Look” book club takes on My Father and Myself, exploring Ackerley’s life as a gay man and his determined outing of long-held family secrets. A book discussion will be held Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. in the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Hall.  The event is free and open to the public.

The evening will be moderated by Terry Castle, professor of English and author of  The Professor and Other Writings. She will be joined by Adrian Daub, an associate professor of German studies, and Jeffrey Fraenkel, founder of San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery for photography.  The event launches the second year of “Another Look,” founded by the English/Creative Writing Department.

It’s not the first time Stanford has had a role in beating the drums for My Father and Myself.  When Edwin Frank, a former Stegner Fellow in Stanford’s Creative Writing Program, founded the New York Review Books Classics in 1999, none of Ackerley’s books were in print.  Frank republished all four – they were among the first titles of the eminent series that rediscovers out-of-the-way classics.

Given current critical esteem, their former obscurity is surprising, but Frank cites several reasons why this was so. “He published one book early on, and it was a success.  Then he didn’t write anything for years on end. If you do that, you will have a more vulnerable career as a writer,” he explained. “My Dog Tulip was published privately.  My Father and Myself was posthumous.  We Think the World of You was published in 1963 – it was a relatively open picture of a gay relationship between two none-too-appealing people.

“Each of the books is odd,” said Frank.  “They don’t match anybody’s expectations. Ackerley’s books are not good in the way people expect them to be good.”

Read the rest here.

There’s more.  At the “Another Look” website here, you can read:

“The Many Loves of J.R. Ackerley”

J.R. Ackerley was sitting on a park bench with Forrest Reid in Hyde Park, when the older writer asked him, “Do you really care about anyone?”

In My Father and Myself, Ackerley says he pondered the remark long afterwards. “To this searching question I do not know the answer, it goes too deep; since people and events vanish so easily from my memory it may be no.”  Not everyone shares his assessment. “It is characteristic of him to report against himself – he fears he is an uncaring person,” said Edwin Frank, founder of the New York Review Books Classics.

When accused of hating the human race, however, Ackerley was quite startled: “I am not a misanthropist,” he insisted. “I like people and get on well with them; I am only a numerical misanthropist.” To stem the rising population tide, he recommended homosexuality. No one could be entirely sure how serious he was.

8Read the rest here.

“Sometimes Love Really is a Bitch” 

My Father and Myself is dedicated simply “To Tulip.”

Tulip’s identity is no enigma. Although the real name of J.R. Ackerley’s dedicatee was “Queenie,” his editors worried the name had racy connotations, even for a dog, and hence the title of his earlier book had been My Dog Tulip. It is perhaps the only story of a man and his dog in which the two are treated as equals.

Read the rest here.

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.

Ovid: Middlebrook’s last passion comes to light

Monday, November 26th, 2012

Mama’s boy.

When the legendary biographer Diane Middlebrook died of cancer in 2007, she left behind an unfinished manuscript about the Roman poet who had been her lifelong passion. Had death not halted her progress, Ovid: A Biography would almost certainly be in print by now.

In her last months, she tried to radically revamp her book into a study of Ovid’s early years, Young Ovid. Finally she had to abandon the project altogether, leaving as her completed legacy Anne Sexton: A Biography (1992), Suits Me: The Double Life of Billie Tipton (1999), and Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, A Marriage (2003).

Her executors, her daughter Leah Middlebrook and literary scholar Nancy K. Miller, are working to publish the completed sections of the book. The first of their efforts has been published in the current edition of Feminist Studies as “20 March, 43 BCE: Ovid is Born.”

Her work cut short.

The piece describes childbirth practices in ancient Rome as well as the role of Ovid’s family – particularly his mother – in his writing and his life.

“Was it in childhood that Ovid’s imagination was captivated by what went on among women sitting together over their spindles and their looms?” Middlebrook asks. “If Ovid’s poetry is original in its treatment of fathers, it is unique in ancient literature in its representation of the social world that women created for themselves within the household, a world largely concealed from the attention of men. Women of all ages and kinds appear and interact with one another in Ovid’s tales, enriching the world of the poem and broadening its emotional and social reach. If an unwelcome man should arrive on the scene, interrupting the women, this world would immediately fold itself up and away out of sight. A male child of less than 7 years, however, might have been a tolerated exception.”

Stanford colleague and friend Terry Castle said of the article (which can be ordered online here), “It’s a lovely memorial to Diane, but also a marvelously interesting essay on Ovid and the nature of childbirth in ancient Rome: a feminist topic if ever there were one.”

(By the by, I just discovered Diane Middlebrook’s 1998 lecture on Ovid online here.)

Terry Castle’s advice to kids: become an orphan!

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Breaking up is hard to do.

Terry Castle‘s new essay on “The Case for Breaking Up with Your Parents” is getting a lot of attention over at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

She begins by discussing her Stanford students, who seem to be in constant contact with their parents via email, texting, voicemail. Helicopter parents?  It’s worse than that, she says – we’ve now got snowplow parents, blowing everything out of their way as they blaze a path for their kids.  Not only do they mastermind student schedules and coursework, they’re in touch with kids up to half-a-dozen times a day.

Terry finds this all very depressing.  She concludes:

My own view remains predictably twisty, fraught, and disloyal. Parents, in my opinion, have to be finessed, thought around, even as we love them: They are so colossally wrong about so many important things. And even when they are not, paradoxically, even when they are 100 percent right, the imperative remains the same: To live an “adult” life, a meaningful life, it is necessary, I would argue, to engage in a kind of symbolic self-orphaning. The process will be different for every person. I have my own inspirational cast of characters in this regard, a set of willful, heroic self-orphaners, past and present, whom I continue to revere: Mozart, the musical child prodigy who successfully rebelled against his insanely grasping and narcissistic father (Leopold Moz­art), who for years shopped him around the courts of Europe as a sort of family cash cow; Sigmund Freud, who, by way of unflinching self-analysis, discovered that it was possible to love and hate something or someone at one and the same time (mothers and fathers included) and that such painfully “mixed emotion” was also inescapably human; Virginia Woolf, who in spite of childhood loss, mental illness, and an acute sense of the sex-prejudice she saw everywhere around her, not only forged a life as a great modernist writer, but made her life an incorrigibly honest and vulnerable one.

Or are her reflections pertinent only to the world of Stanford students, spending $50K a year  to be among the palm trees and sandstone? “The first step towards getting rid of parents is paying your own bills,” replies one pragmatic reader.  The responses in the comment section are all over the map.

Read the whole article, and the comments, here.

Vindication for Terry Castle in Sempre Susan

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

Applause for Nunez (Photo: Marion Ettlinger)

Terry Castle took a lot of heat for what she wrote about Susan Sontag in “Desperately Seeking Susan.” (The London Review of Books carries the 2005 Sontag anti-memoir here).  Although she had she been invited to Sontag’s memorial service, she was “disinvited the day after this piece came out.” She received a nasty email from Sontag’s son, David Rieff.

So it’s curious to see the respectful reception given to novelist Sigrid Nunez‘s memoir, Sempre Susan, which is getting some good reviews. Nunez had been Rieff’s lover — a threesome in Sontag’s apartment.  The commotion is somewhat surprising, given that no bookstore in Palo Alto seems to have the book yet — not Stanford Bookstore, nor Kepler’s, nor Borders, nor anywhere else I could find — so I figure it must be carried by a handful of bookstores in New York.

One thing is clear: Sempre Susan vindicates every word Terry wrote.

Joseph Epstein, former editor of The American Scholar, uses the occasion of the publication to take Sontag down a notch or two in the the Wall Street Journal: “In her thrall to ideas she resembles the pure type of the intellectual. The difficulty, though, was in the quality of so many of her ideas, most of which cannot be too soon forgot,” he writes, before recapping her political career.

Vindication for Terry

He concludes:

Although Sigrid Nunez appreciates Susan Sontag’s curiosity, wide reading, courage in the face of bad health, and independence, her unreality, her deep and abiding unreality, is the final impression that “Sempre Susan” leaves on the reader. Sontag didn’t mind whose feelings she hurt. Her trips to give talks at universities are strewn with stories of her disregard of her audience and astonishing impudence. No one was allowed to get in the way of her desires or disrupt her sense of her own high seriousness.

At the end of Sempre Susan, Ms. Nunez presents a woman who is filled with regrets, not about her treatment of others but about her own achievement. Still confident of her “worthy contribution to culture and society,” she nonetheless wishes that she had been “more artist and less critic, more author and less activist. . . . No, she was not happy with her life’s work. . . . True greatness had eluded her.” Deluded to the end, Susan Sontag had no notion that not literature but self-promotion was her real métier.

This is far more unjust than anything Terry may have said in her wry and self-mocking piece. While Epstein quotes Camille Paglia‘s assessment of Sontag — that she “made fetishes of depressive European writers” — it’s worth noting that Sontag’s championing of world literature in America did make a dent in American consciousness, which had, at the time of her launch in the 1960s, been a pretty parochial affair.

And despite Epstein’s dismissal of it, it did indeed take courage to face boos and jeering at the 1982 rally (not to mention the nasty aftermath in the press) where she said: “Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or [t]he New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?” Is there anyone outside Nepal who would defend Communism today?

That said, it will take years to figure out Sontag’s legacy — as a writer, and as a role model for a generation of women who were born when the coupon-clipping Mamie Eisenhower was First Lady.

I wrote to Terry to ask her what she thought — of the book, and also of Epstein’s review.  It was several days before she responded — she was swept up in the first week of spring classes. But she finally dashed off a quick email:

“Yes, I devoured the Nunez book as soon as it came out, & also found it pretty good….   The epstein piece made some vivid & nasty & accurate points,  but I don’t think he had any conception of what was great about her too—esp for women of my generation…  It’s all very bittersweet!”

Kudos for Terry Castle’s The Professor — “the prime-cut book of the year”

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Castle: Love me tender

Speaking of The Chronicle of Higher Education … In the onslaught of the holiday season, we rather lost track of Terry Castle‘s honors.  Her The Professor and Other Writings was named one of the top ten books of the year by New York Magazine, which praised her “big human stew of tones: goofy, analytical, slangy, raw, confessional.” It was also among BookForum’s “favorite books of 2010” by which noted that Terry’s “radical candor makes it hard to enlist her under any ideological or political banner, and this recalcitrance alone gives her book an invaluable civic function.”  Amazon also named it #2 among its top ten books in gay and lesbian studies.

But Carlin Romano in the Dec. 12 Chronicle of Higher Education provided the pièce de résistance:

Looking back at the year in criticism between hard covers, one finds lines lingering in the mind, and not a few belong to Terry Castle. Her images of Susan Sontag as “sibylline and hokey and often a great bore,” a “bedazzling, now-dead, she-eminence.” Her self-portrait as a “japing, naysaying, emotionally stunted creature,” the “Spoiled Avocado Professor of English at Silicon Valley University.” …

Castle’s own self-grasped pathology (“Sontag was the Supremo and I the obsequious gofer”) makes the essay a masterpiece on the anxiety of influence in intellectual life. Yet deftly woven in, with all her other jewels of insight, is the superb, ruthless, spot-on assessment of Sontag as a “great comic character,” one with whom Dickens, Flaubert, or James “would have had a field day.” For Castle, “the carefully cultivated moral seriousness—strenuousness might be a better word—coexisted with a fantastical, Mrs. Jellyby absurdity. Sontag’s complicated and charismatic sexuality was part of this comic side of her life. The high-mindedness, the high-handedness, commingled with a love of gossip, drollery, and seductive acting out.”

Romano concludes: “If this is the higher potty mouth, bring it on. Castle remarks at one point that ‘the tenderness between lesbians and straight men is the real Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.’ OK, love me tender. For any gourmet of cultural criticism with an unabashed taste for truth, this is the prime-cut book of the year.”

Still seeking Susan Sontag …

Friday, April 30th, 2010

sontag3Czesław Miłosz told me in 2000:  “It seems to me every poet after death goes through a purgatory, so to say.  …  So he must go through that revision after death…”

He was referring to T.S. Eliot — but he might as well also have been referring to prose writers, too, such as essayist and novelist Susan Sontag. We recently participated in the cyberspace roasting with Terry Castle here — but reading an interview with Sontag by my friend James Marcus (of House of Mirth blog fame) reminded me of how inspiring and impressive she was in the first place — a figure so relentless and towering that you craved her approval and patronage.  You can read the Marcus interview here.   An excerpt that reminds me why I’ve spent a lifetime with my nose in a book:

“Reading should be an education of the heart,” she says, correcting and amplifying her initial statement. “Of course a novel can still have plenty of ideas. We need to discard that romantic cliché about the head versus the heart, which is an absurdity. In real life, intellect and passion are never separated that way, so why shouldn’t you be moved by a book? Why shouldn’t you cry, and be haunted by the characters? Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too.”

“Perhaps some people don’t want to be taken out of themselves,” I suggest.

“Well, reading must seem to some people like an escape,” she allows. “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.”

“Spoiled Avocado Professor” and the “six-foot tall first-generation Turkish woman”

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

More reviews of Terry Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them — in New York magazine here, and The New York Times here.

UPDATE:  Reviews of The Professor pouring from the MSM in a Vesuvial flow:

  • At the New Republic here.
  • At Canada’s National Post here.
  • And the Huffington Post picked up the San Francisco Chronicle review here.
  • And there’s a podcast from a Santa Cruz radio interview here.

(New Republic review off the “wow” meter: “The Professor goes places no book ever written about professors has ever gone. And it understands more about the academic vocation, and the art of self-examination, than the shelf of grave and socially responsible studies of and by professors that have appeared in recent years. It is a superb weapon for tearing up that soul-destroying cardboard figure of fun its title names.”)

Meanwhile, Elif Batuman is guest-posting at the New Yorker here.


And … and … and … Batuman’s book is reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle here:  ” … Batuman’s collection of ‘many unclear purposes’ is comic and baggy and wayward…”


And here in the Christian Science Monitor:  “Part sleuth, part pundit, Batuman both plays the game of literary exegesis and skewers it”:

When a colleague maintains that Babel’s “Red Cavalry” cycle would never be totally accessible to her because of its “specifically Jewish alienation,” Batuman responds, “Right…. As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.” It goes right over his head.

Reading at Kepler’s: Forever seeking Susan Sontag

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

SMallPosterThere’s no escaping Susan Sontag.

Terry Castle, author of The Professor and Other Writings (she was also introduced as a “miniature dachshund enthusiast”), gave a reading of her new book at Kepler’s on Tuesday night.  Or rather, she gave a reading of her book’s deathless essay, “Desperately Seeking Susan.” (The London Review of Books carries the 2005 Sontag anti-memoir here.  By the by, Slate has an excellent Q&A interview with Terry online here.)

We are all desperately seeking Susan.  “All of the reviews of this book keep going back to it,” Terry admitted.  The vivacious former “towel girl” for Susan may never live it down:  She had been invited to Sontag’s memorial service, “and disinvited the day after this piece came out.” She received a nasty email from Sontag’s son, David Rieff.

Why did she write it?  “The obituaries had not, and did not, capture whole facets of her personality,”  Terry said diplomatically.  The reading, attended by about 50, was punctuated by knowing laughs from the audience.  Even the question-and-answer period, following the reading, was stuck on Sontag.

Perhaps it was the locale – Kepler’s — that inspired this week’s reminiscences.  Castle said she first encountered Sontag in 1995 at this very bookshop.  Sontag’s eye fell on book by Temple Grandin,  a high-functioning autistic author who advocated more humane treatment for animals, and whose book, Thinking in Pictures, was all the rage at the time.  “Somebody’s got to take that woman on,”  Terry recalled Susan saying, aggressively.  It was as if Sontag had threatened to take on Mother Teresa, Terry added (“I myself am not a vegetarian…” said Sontag, while going on to tout vegetarian ethics.)

We could never quite be Sontag, though a generation of women mesmerized by her tried and tried and tried.  And perhaps the relief Castle’s short anti-memoir provokes is the realization that, well, Sontag couldn’t quite be Sontag, either.  But the knowing laughter had a bit of unpleasant smugness below the surface.  Was it Sontag’s fault we felt short?   After all, she didn’t ask for the idolatry  … did she?

Castle’s essay inspired more than ire – it inspired international catharsis.  Castle received grateful comminiqués from “people all over the world who had been “insulted, dissed” and had been on the receiving end of “unbelievable” rudeness.

“Desperately Seeking Susan” mentions a beautiful, fawn-like assistant named Oliver – but he was only one in a series.  Another one sent Terry a “stream of consciousness email” that almost jammed Castle’s electronic inbox because of its size.  She learned that Sontag’s former assistants even “had a support group to deal with their emotions.”

One told Terry he had watched Sontag open the envelope with her million-dollar advance for The Volcano Lover.  “It was the first time she had real money,” said Castle. “She collapsed on the floor saying, ‘I don’t deserve this, I don’t deserve this…’”

After “sobbing violently for a minute or so,” the assistant “heard and saw her say, ‘Yes, I do,’ ‘Yes, I do,’ ‘Yes, I do,’ picking herself up off the floor.”

As the Kepler’s kaffeeklatsch broke up, I cornered poet Ken Fields (he, too, had been laughing).  Did he think the merriment had, perhaps, a bit of a bitter  edge?

Instead of answering directly, Ken launched into a story about a young Stanford-based journalist who had been assigned to interview Sontag.  At one point in the interview, she asked him to turn off the tape recorder.  Off the record, she suggested he ask her if she thought The Volcano Lover, the novel that had become her obsession, was a feminist novel.

The journalist played along and asked the question.  And got a Sontag outburst as a reward. “That is the stupidest question ever heard!  Of course not!” she exploded, and launched into a tirade.

The interview nevertheless continued.  Again she asked him to stop the recorder.  She suggested he ask a second question.  It was another set-up, with a Sontagian outburst.  It happened a third time to the (by then) hapless, hopelessly browbeaten interviewer.

Ken Fields finished by recounting when Edmund White was a visiting lecturer at Stanford.  During refreshments after a colloquium, Sontag’s name came up in a discussion among White, Fields, and Castle.  Castle described herself as a former friend of Susan.

The visiting author corrected her at once:  “We are all former friends of Susan Sontag.”  Perhaps another support group is needed?

Terry will give another reading tonight, at 7:30 p.m., at Books Inc. in the Castro, and another, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 9, at City Lights. Just don’t ask about Susan.