New Beginnings: Susan Sontag Finds Freedom as a Successful Novelist

Article excerpt

SUSAN SONTAG, improbably, seems a little nervous and ill at ease speaking before an audience. She adjusts the microphone and tries without success to tame a wisp of her trademark black hair, shocked with white, that has fallen free of her ponytail.

As the leadoff speaker in the St. Louis Public Library's Signature Series, Sontag has been given an hour to hold forth on "the art of fiction," and she seems unsure of how to begin.

The small audience gathered in the main library's Great Hall doesn't see m to mind, however. They expect Susan Sontag the young feminist, essayist, critic and the voice that for many served as a sort of intellectual Sherpa guide to the intentions of the avant-garde in the 1950s and '70s. Most have not come expecting to hear Susan Sontag, now 64, the novelist. Either way, they will not be disappointed. "I am less a collector than an accumulator," Sontag tells the audience, and she begins to share her accumulated thoughts on fiction. "Fiction is a voice," she says, "but I have always been a great opponent of the idea that writing is self-expression. Fiction always transcends the mere sense of self." She quotes writer E.L. Doctorow on the defining difference between essay and fiction: "I always prefer the thrown voice to my own voice." She venerates the writing of Flaubert, in which "every word had to be absolutely inevitable," and laments what she calls "the atrophy of storytelling" in favor of meaning and symbolism in much contemporary fiction. "As if telling stories were somehow banal," she marvels. Sontag describes, using multiple, rapid-fire examples, her take on the sensibility of fiction. She speaks in digressions, a flurry of commas and semicolons, embarking on tangents that career around the academic and the popular, the esoteric and the accessible, but always manages to bring the sentence under control. Pity the poorly read person in the audience, as references to obscure European writers are jumbled with an allusion to the movie "Robocop." She then reads a passage from her 1992 novel "The Volcano Lover," and the audience is rapt. A historical romance set in the 18th century, the novel was Sontag's first after nearly 25 years of working almost exclusively in the essay form. For her audience, it was a surprise, a departure from the Susan Sontag they knew as a critic of Anglo-American fiction in her essay "Against Interpretation" or the Sontag who perfectly captured the absurd in her "Notes on Camp." For Sontag, though, the novel is now the place she feels most at home. "I hope I will continue to write in many forms," she says, "but the one that attracts me least at the moment is the essay form, perhaps because I have done so much in it." That wasn't always the case. Her first efforts at fiction, "The Benefactor" and "The Death Kit" (both published in the 1960s), received mixed reviews. Critics considered them too self-conscious, even contrived, but nonetheless praised Sontag's intelligence and the precision in her language. Sontag, however, was her own harshest critic. "From my first work with the novel form, I knew I could write really good essays, but I didn't think I could write the sort of prose fiction I aspired to." Her eclectic interests and personal experiences provided the raw mate rial for collections of essays such as "On Photography," "Styles of Radical Will" and "Under the Sign of Saturn." In 1978, after her battle with breast cancer, she wrote "Illness as Metaphor," brilliantly tracing the myths and mysteries that attach them selves to disease and followed it a decade later with "AIDS and Its Metaphors," an examination of how the HIV epidemic was discussed. Sontag made the essay form her pulpit, and in the process gained recognition as one of America's most celebrated provocateurs. She brought her insight to storytelling, directing several plays and four feature-length films. Only occasionally did she venture back into the realm of writing fiction, notably with a play,"Alice in Bed" and a collection of short stories titled "I, etcetera. …