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Sontag On Sontag: Journals Record A Writer's Birth

By the end of her life in 2004, the novelist and essayist Susan Sontag had turned the most persistent critique of her talent — that her greatest creation was her own daunting persona — to a point of pride. "Good for her! More power to her," she said about Emma Hamilton, the rags-to-riches heroine of her 1992 novel, The Volcano Lover. "I love self-made people."

Sontag was one herself. Born Susan Rosenblatt and raised in Tucson, Ariz., and North Hollywood, she had, by age 30, catapulted herself to the center of America's literary establishment. With the just-published Reborn, the first installment of Sontag's journals — edited by her son, David Rieff — we now have the absorbing story of the inner evolution that made that journey possible.

The strong-willed voice was there from the beginning. In her very first journal entry, the then 14-year-old writer declares there is no afterlife. Among her other beliefs: "that an ideal state ... should be a strong centralized one with government control of public utilities, banks, mines + transportation."

Her seriousness does not let up. Reborn is full of earnest exhortations to read books (Moll Flanders, another tale of self-creation) and smile less ("Think of Blake. He didn't smile for others"), as well as descriptions of lectures attended and films inhaled, sometimes at the rate of three a day.

Were Reborn merely a diary of such intellectual conquests, it would grow tedious, even to fans. But in passages chronicling the experiences that gouged her, the self-consciousness that dogged her, the marriage that nearly smothered her and the self-discoveries that redefined her, the famously fierce Sontag retreats to a sometimes humble, sometimes confused tone that is a revelation.

"Being queer," she wrote in one diary entry from 1959, "makes me feel more vulnerable." Another, from 1960, records a day: "Awake at 7:00 — rage."

As the journals progress, Sontag's thoughts on love and sexuality and the car-wreck relationships she had with women push from the page her earnest list-making of books to read. It's as if the poles of the private life and the life of the mind are bending toward each other. Finally, on the book's last page, they touch in a sentence fragment: "Intellectual 'wanting' like sexual wanting."

As do all the best critics, Sontag gave us new metaphors for how to read and see. Fabulously, surprisingly, Reborn shows she used that skill to understand her own pell-mell life.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Freeman is the editor of Grantamagazine. A former president of the National Book Critics Circle, his criticism has appeared in publications around the world, including The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times Book Review. His latest book is The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox.