Notes on Sontag
by Phillip Lopate
Princeton University Press, 2009
In many ways this is the perfect book about Susan Sontag, because Phillip Lopate is so much her opposite—warm where she is cold, personal where she is stiff-armed, steely maned where he is bald, self-doubting where she is authoritarian in her judgment, discursive where she is aphoristic. And yet, despite these differences in approach and sensibility, there is a genuine sympathetic vein running throughout this commentary. Lopate didn’t just read Sontag regularly; his professional life kept intertwining with hers. He was an undergraduate at Columbia when she was teaching there, young and married with a teenaged son. And they knew each other in the professional way of postwar intellectual Jewish writers in New York City. (Ah, it makes one want to move to New York!) They were both interested in many of the same foreign, obscure, aggressively arty films and novels, and they both ended up writing fiction and essays, but are mostly known for the latter. In Sontag’s case, she is of course famous for the aphoristically brilliant, perceptive, withering critical gaze at various artists and intellectuals, not so much “personal essays” as essays as personality. Judgment as a style. Lopate is of course the old king of the personal essay, a bard of wandering through the porousness of his own life tying knots of comprehension, then loosening them.
In fact, one of the most interesting parts of this book, for me, is when he discusses her fiction. He says, “Her fiction is, for the most part, unsuccessful. . . . She lacked broad sympathy and a sense of humor, which are usually prerequisites for good fiction. More germane, perhaps, she did not convincingly command a fictive space on the page.” She often thought of her essays as a distraction from fiction writing, which Lopate finds absurd: “I, who revere the art of essay writing, and who can never regard literary nonfiction as even a fraction inferior to fiction, find puzzling Sontag’s need to be thought primarily a novelist.” It is a strange provincialism of the mind, still prevalent today, that nonfiction is below the novel, that greedy fat king of prose, who, like a threatened toddler, takes all the attention and yet still demands more. He says that Sontag was always overvaluing her fiction while kicking the legs from under her magisterial essays, while he himself thinks that the ratio of critical acclaim portioned out to his essays (high) versus his fiction (not nearly as high) is perfectly fitting. (Why that is, why he’s so agreeable on this, is never explored, and is something I would love to know. Just how did he get this levelheaded about the great novelistic beast?)
But aside from this shop talk, there is just the sympathetic explication of her work. Sontag seems more complex and difficult here and yet warmer somehow in her chilly remove. The judgments on her work are complexly layered and precise, and it makes one want ot read more Sontag, while importing Lopate’s heightened example of sympathy.
The looseness of the book is also a pleasure. The book, a tidy, narrow volume issued by Princeton University Press, rambles, juts forward, and then recycles itself. It’s not redundant, but it’s also not a belligerently progressive, teleological argument. It’s a rumination, a chewing through of Sontag’s oeuvre. If it dwindles somewhat in energy toward the end, it’s only appropriate. Sontag’s career does the same, as does Lopate’s enthusiasm for it.
And finally, it’s one of the best things I’ve read by Lopate. Like Sontag, but yet so unlike her, the peculiar glimmer of his aesthetic sensibility is illuminated by his studious concentration on another writer’s work.