Jan 14

"There’s hope for you, too:" an excerpt from Sempre Susan

Over the years, I have met or learned about a surprising number of people who said it was reading Susan Sontag when they were young that had made them want to be writers. Although this was not true of me, her influence on how I think and write has been profound. By the time I got to know her, I was already out of school, but I’d been a mostly indifferent, highly distracted student, and the gaps in my knowledge were huge. Though she hadn’t grown up in New York, she was far more of a New Yorker than I, who’d always lived there, and you could have had no better guide to the city’s cultural life than she. Small wonder I considered meeting her one of the luckiest strokes of my life. It’s quite possible that, in time, I’d have discovered on my own such writers as John Berger and Walter Benjamin and E. M. Cioran and Simone Weil. But the fact remains, I learned about them first from her. Though I’m sure she was often dismayed to discover what I hadn’t read, how much I didn’t know, she did not make me feel ashamed. Among other things, she understood what it was like to come from a place where there were few books and no intellectual spirit or guidance. She said, “You and I didn’t have what David’s been able to take for granted from birth.”

After I published a memorial essay in which I had written that Susan was not a snob, I heard some outraged responses: everyone knew she was a terrible snob! What I meant was that she did not believe a person must be lacking in any worthy quality simply because of his or her roots, no matter how primitive or deprived; she was not a class snob. She was the kind of person who noticed that the uneducated young woman who cleaned her house for a time had “beautiful, naturally aristocratic manners.” On the other hand, she never pretended that a person’s success did not depend—and to no small extent, either—on being connected (about a woman who’d asked her for a letter of recommendation for a certain fellowship, she said, “She’ll never, ever get it—not because her work isn’t good enough, she just doesn’t know the right people”), or that she didn’t know what Pascal meant when he said that being wellborn can save a man thirty years.

In fact, the ways of the wellborn (a significant number of whom would always chase after Susan) were a never-ending source of fascination to her. She came home from a dinner party once with this story: one of the guests, a woman from a well-known wealthy family, had fallen asleep and, while the others drank their coffee, sat with her head thrown back and her mouth open, snoring. Susan told this story in tones of awe. “Now, that’s class assurance.” And there was another awe-inspiring story, about the young patron of a theatrical production who had invited her and a large group of people to a restaurant for drinks after a preview performance. When the maître d’ said they could not have a table if all they were going to order was drinks, the young man told him, “No problem. Just bring us our drinks, and you can charge us for dinner.” (Meaning, of course, charge him.) In an airport once, struck by the beautiful skin of a man sitting near her, Susan made a bet with herself. And sure enough, she reported later, when it was time to board, the man turned out to be flying first class.

This kind of observation was very common to her, but it did not make her a snob. She could not have cared less if a person came from a “good” or a “bad” family; she knew the distinction was specious. Wherever you were from, what really mattered to her was how smart you were—for, needless to say, she was an elitist. And if you had taste and were intellectually curious, you didn’t even have to be that smart. And if you were gorgeous, you didn’t have to be smart at all. And though she could get quite riled at a bookstore clerk who didn’t recognize her name, it was okay when a New York City Ballet dancer to whom she was introduced said, “And what do you do?” (Susan who?)

The gaps in my knowledge didn’t really surprise her. She had a low opinion of American education and of American culture in general, and she took it for granted that I could learn more in a year at 340 than I had in six years at an American university. She was a natural mentor. She didn’t have what would be called exactly protégés (except, I suppose, for David), but you could not live with Susan or spend any significant time with her and avoid being mentored. Even someone who met her only once was likely to go away with a reading list. She was naturally didactic and moralistic; she wanted to be an influence, a model, exemplary. She wanted to improve the minds and refine the tastes of other people, to tell people things they didn’t know (in some cases, things they didn’t even want to know but that she insisted they damn well ought to). But if educating others was an obligation, it was also loads of fun. She was the opposite of Thomas Bernhard’s comic “possessive thinker,” who feeds on the fantasy that every book or painting or piece of music he loves has been created solely for and belongs solely to him, and whose “art selfishness” makes the thought of anyone else enjoying or appreciating the works of genius he reveres intolerable. She wanted her passions to be shared by all, and to respond with equal intensity to any work she loved was to give her one of her biggest pleasures.

Some of her enthusiasms mystified me. As we sat in the theater, sharing a giant chocolate bar, I kept wondering why she had wanted to see a double feature of old Katharine Hepburn movies, both of which she said she’d already seen more than twenty times. Of course, she was besotted (another favorite word) with moviegoing—in the way, perhaps, that only someone who never watches television can be. (We know this now: if one size screen doesn’t addict you, another one will.) We went to the movies all the time. Ozu, Kurosawa, Godard, Bresson, Resnais—each of these names is linked in my mind with her own. It was with her that I first learned how much more exciting a movie is when watched from a seat close up to the screen. Because of her, I still always sit in the front of the theater, I still resist watching any movie on television, and I have never been able to bring myself to rent movie videos or DVDs.

Among living American writers, she admired, besides Hardwick, Donald Barthelme, William Gass, Leonard Michaels, Joan Didion, Grace Paley. But she had no more use for most contemporary American fiction (which, as she lamented, usually fell into either of two superficial categories: passé suburban realism or “Bloomingdale’s nihilism”) than she did for most contemporary American film. In her view, the last first-rate American novel had been Light in August, by Faulkner (a writer she respected but did not love). Of course, Philip Roth and John Updike were good writers, but she could summon no enthusiasm for the things they wrote about. Later, she would not find the influence of Raymond Carver on American fiction something to cheer. It wasn’t at all that she was against minimalism, she said; she just couldn’t be thrilled about a writer “who writes the same way he talks.”

What thrilled her instead was the work of certain Europeans, for example Italo Calvino, Bohumil Hrabal, Peter Handke, Stanislaw Lem. They, along with Latin American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, were creating far more daring and original work than her less ambitious fellow Americans. She liked to describe all highly inventive form-or genre-bending writing as science fiction, in contrast to banal contemporary American realism. It was this kind of literature that she thought a writer should aspire to, and that she aspired to, and that she believed would continue to matter.

I cannot recall a single book she recommended that I was not glad to have read. One of the last times I saw her, it was W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants that she went on and on about. The Emigrants would become one of my favorite books, and Sebald would become an important influence—and again, I heard about him first from her.

I would have read anything that she told me to read. When it came to writing, though, it was a different matter.

It took me weeks to get up the courage to show her any of my work, though she, in her typical way, kept prodding. (“I’m dying of curiosity!”) The story I finally gave her was not a story at all but the sort of thing Flannery O’Connor (another major American writer Susan did not love) had in mind when she complained about beginning fiction writers being “concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions.” Susan saw the problem at once. “You need an agon,” she said. And then, of course, she had to explain to me what that meant.

At other times she cautioned me against being too explicit, and she said I should try to write more elliptically and streamline the prose to get it moving at a faster clip. (“If there’s one thing modernism has taught us, it’s that speed is everything.”) Describing an evening as sultry, she told me, was as bad as describing someone as having distinguished gray hair.

Other than this, though, I remember very little that she said about anything I ever showed her that was helpful. Most of the problem lay with me: I was like a lot of the students I would end up teaching. It’s not criticism many young writers want, just praise, thank you very much. And Susan did offer praise; in fact, she was overgenerous. (“I’m so relieved,” she confessed, after reading my work that first time. And one could tell she really was. She had taught in a writing program and knew that having an MFA did not necessarily mean that you could write a sentence.) But because I did not like her fiction—because I saw so little to admire in her use of language, her style—I did not trust what she had to say about writing.

“Other writers try not to use the same word twice in one paragraph. I don’t like to use the same word twice on the same page.” It was a boast—like her much-repeated “I care about every comma.” But a more confident writer would not have been so anxiously strict about this, I thought. A more confident writer would not have been as addicted as she was to the thesaurus. Another thing she often depended on while writing was a pal, someone to sit and work with her during the many long hours it took to polish a draft. Sometimes that person would move into the apartment for days at a time, and the two of them would work together in Susan’s room, discussing every idea, going over every line, every comma. I have never known any other writer to work like this, though the arrangement obviously helped Susan thrive, and she said she was always much happier when she was working with someone else than when she had to work alone. She hated doing anything alone, and if solitude was a necessity in a writer’s life, she would, inasmuch as she could, find ways of getting around it. Also unlike most writers I’ve known, she liked passing her work around while it was in various stages, showing many drafts to David and to me and to any number of other readers. Once, when I went to pick her up at her house (at a time when David and I were no longer together), as soon as I arrived she handed me a draft of AIDS and Its Metaphors. She wanted me to read all one hundred pages of it right then and there; dinner could wait.

On a manuscript page of mine, she circled the word hurried. “Think about it. Do people actually hurry? Or is that just the way we talk? Don’t they really rather hasten? I would change it to ‘hastened.’”

I did not take this advice.

In fact, I rejected most of her advice, and this hurt her. It must have seemed arrogant, disrespectful (so it seems to me now; also dumb). And she didn’t forget. In later years, she would ask me to give her my work to read, and when I did she would ignore it. Consequently, though she kept asking, I stopped giving her any of my work, and, after a while, she stopped asking. The last time I gave her something (a draft of the opening chapter of what would become my first published book), months passed and still I had not heard from her. At last we had dinner together and I asked her if she’d ever read the chapter. “Of course I read it,” she said, bridling as if I had dissed her. “I read it right away.” But she would not say one word more.

When I started submitting stories to literary magazines, she behaved as if it were my fault they were rejected. “You need a publication so badly,” she said, in a tone that could only demoralize me. And once, in front of several other people, she told me, “Everyone else publishes their crap. Why shouldn’t you publish your crap too?”

Many years later, my heart sank when I was told she was in the audience for a reading I was about to give. It was not me she had come to hear (except in passing, we hadn’t seen each other in almost a decade) but the two other writers on the program that night, her friends Elizabeth Hardwick and Darryl Pinckney. At the reception after the reading, she said to me only, without any expression, “You read very well.”

Not long after that reading, though, I was sitting in my office at Smith College, where I was a visiting professor, when the phone rang. It was Susan. I could not have been more surprised. It seemed she had just learned that I’d received that year’s Rome Prize fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “You must be so excited,” she said. In fact, I almost burst my seams whenever I thought about my year’s residency, beginning that fall, at the American Academy in Rome.

“You know, they offered that prize to me once,” she said. (I had not known this.) “But I couldn’t accept it then. I thought they’d offer it to me again sometime, but they never did.” Something about the way she put this made me swallow. I was trying to think what to say when she asked me if I had read In America, her fourth, recently published novel. I had not—or, rather, I had read only excerpts from it, in two different literary journals. But I said simply, “Not yet.” I started to say something more, but she cut me off. “Look, I didn’t call you to chat. I just called to say congratulations.” And then she hurried, or hastened, off the phone.

She was a natural mentor…who hated teaching. Teach as little as possible, she said. Best not to teach at all: “I saw the best writers of my generation destroyed by teaching.” She said the life of the writer and the life of the academic would always be at odds. She liked to refer to herself as a self-defrocked academic. She was even prouder to call herself self-created. I never had a mentor, she said. Though she must have learned something from the college professor she married when she was just seventeen. And she’d had other professors, among them Leo Strauss and Kenneth Burke, whom she remembered as extraordinary teachers and for whom she had no end of praise. But however else these men might have inspired her, it was not to be a great teacher herself.

Like many other writers, she equated teaching with failure. (At Columbia, I’d had Richard Yates for one class—a job to which he showed up each week with his tail between his legs—and I remember him grumbling, “Norman Mailer doesn’t have to teach.”) Besides, Susan had never wanted to be anyone’s employee. The worst part of teaching was that it was, inescapably, a job, and for her to take any job was humiliating. But then, she also found the idea of borrowing a book from the library instead of buying her own copy humiliating. Taking public transportation instead of a cab was deeply humiliating. “When I moved to New York”—at twenty-six, in 1959—“I promised myself, no matter how poor I was, I would never do it.” Stoop to it, her tone said. Divaism? She seemed to think any self-respecting person would understand and feel as she did.

Going anywhere with her, as soon as you hit the street, she’d stride immediately to the curb, arm raised. In those days, in cold weather, she usually wore a green loden coat. (As I recall, Nicole had a matching one.) The seam had split under one of the arms, and she never got around to having it mended. This was the only time the hole showed: when she was hailing a cab.

I found it strange that there was this one part of her life—the teaching she did, either before or after I met her—that she never talked about. About being a student, she talked a lot. In fact, I’d never known anyone to speak with such reverence about his or her own student days. It gave her a special glow to talk about that time, making me think it must have been the happiest of her life. She said the famously rigorous Hutchins Great Books program at the University of Chicago, where she had earned her bachelor’s degree, had made her the mind she was; it was there that she’d learned, if not how to write, how to read closely and how to think critically. She still cherished her course notebooks from those days. And she would always take pleasure in buying things like notebooks, pens and pencils, typing paper, and the legal pads that she used for writing longhand drafts.

Now it occurs to me that at least some of her resistance to teaching might have had to do with her passion for being a student. She had the habits and the aura of a student all her life. She was also, all but physically, always young. People close to her often compared her to a child (her inability to be alone; her undiminishable capacity for wonder; her strong, hero-worshipping side and her need to idolize those she looked up to; her being without health insurance in her forties, when she got cancer, even though health insurance was easily affordable in those days). David and I joked that she was our enfant terrible. (Once, when she was struggling to finish an essay, angry that we weren’t being supportive enough, she said, “If you won’t do it for me, at least you could do it for Western culture.”) My enduring image of her fits exactly that of a student, a fanatical one: staying up all night, surrounded by piles of books and papers, speeding, chain-smoking, reading, taking notes, pounding the typewriter, driven, competitive. She would write that A-plus essay. She would go to the head of the class.

Even her apartment—strictly antibourgeois, unapologetically ungemütlich—evoked student life. Its main feature was the growing number of books, but they were mostly paperbacks, and the shelves were cheap pine board. To go with the lack of furniture, there was a lack of decorative objects, there were no curtains or rugs, and the kitchen had only the basics. About six square feet of kitchen space were taken up by an old freezer that hadn’t worked in years. A pair of pliers sat on top of the TV set—for changing channels since the knob for that purpose had broken off. People visiting for the first time were clearly surprised to find the celebrated middle-aged writer living like a grad student.

(Everything changes. In her mid-fifties she would say: “I realized I was working just as hard, if not harder, than everyone I knew, and making less money than any of them.” And so she transformed that part of her life. But the time I’m talking about was before—before the grand Chelsea penthouse, the enormous library, the rare editions, the art collection, the designer clothes, the country house, the personal assistant, the housekeeper, the personal chef. And one day when I was around the same age she had been when we met, she shook her head at me and said, “What are you planning to do, live like a grad student the rest of your life?”)

Whenever some university made her an offer she knew she shouldn’t refuse, she was torn. Often she turned it down, even though she needed money, and then she would congratulate herself. She was amazed at those who made a much better living from writing than she did yet were still tempted by tenure. She was outraged to hear other writers complain, as many often did, about how their teaching made them miserable because it interfered with their writing. In general, she had contempt for people who didn’t do what they truly wanted to do. She believed that most people, unless they were very poor, made their own lives, and, to her, security over freedom was a deplorable choice. It was servile.

She believed that, in our culture, at least, people were much freer than they thought they were and had more options than they seemed willing to acknowledge. She also believed that how other people treated you was, if not wholly, mostly within your control, and she was always after me to take that control. “Stop letting people bully you,” she would bully me.

She said, “I know you won’t believe this, but when I was your age I was a lot more like you than like I am today. And I can prove it!” It turned out that Maria Irene Fornés was coming to visit that day. She and Susan had been a couple between 1959 and 1963. When she arrived, as soon as she’d introduced us, Susan said, “Tell Sigrid what I was like when you met me. Go on, go on!”

“She was an idiot,” Fornés said.

When she’d stopped laughing, Susan said to me, “The point I was trying to make is that there’s hope for you, too.”

—From Sempre Susan

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