Susan Sontag’s career as a novelist can be divided into two distinct phases. Early on, she produced work considered to be experimental in the European tradition of the New Novel or nouveau roman. Thus The Benefactor and Death Kit were interpreted as rejections of the American realist school. In other words, Sontag was not concerned so much with the manners and mores of contemporary society as she was with literature itself; that is, she pursued a form of narrative that was self-reflexive, turned back on itself, in which the narrator made the idea of “reality” itself problematic, a fiction. Perhaps the best example of her technique is to be found in Death Kit, in which Sontag leaves the reader wondering if Diddy really did murder a railroad worker or if the entire action of the novel is taking place in his mind. This doubt as to the reality of Diddy’s experiences is a way of exploring the radically subjective way people perceive reality. Similarly, The Benefactor focuses on the consciousness of its narrator, Hippolyte. To a great extent, he makes his world by fictionalizing it, transforming his friends and family into projections of his sensibility.
After publishing these two early novels and a similarly constructed collection of short stories, I, Etcetera, Sontag by her own account lost confidence in her ability to write fiction. Reviews of her novels had been mixed, and, aside from this lack of encouragement, it may be that the kind of fiction she was writing proved to be a dead end—that is, as soon as she established the radical subjectivity of her main characters and narrators, contriving an energetic and engaging narrative that would fully engage with the world seemed beyond her reach. Her novels were enervating rather than inspiriting.
After two decades of writing essays that were very much engaged with social and political reality, Sontag’s turn to historical fiction made sense—even though it was surprising given the nature of her earlier novels. As she noted in several interviews, history itself became an exciting study for her, and she came to appreciate how much ideas are shaped by historical context and not only by the sensibilities of those who hold those ideas. Thus The Volcano Lover and In America became the perfect vehicles for an exhilarating collation of radical individual perspectives and the forces of history.
In The Benefactor, Hippolyte attempts to live through his dreams, which are often nightmares in which he is dominated and tortured. His dreams are the art he makes of his life, and his desire is to make his life conform to the immediacy and sensuousness of dreams. Like Sontag’s idea of art, Hippolyte’s dreams are self-contained, which is to say that like Sontag he fancies himself to be self-invented, and, also like the early Sontag, he prefers to obscure the details of his past. Not even his last name is divulged.
Sohnya Sayres observes that this youthful first novel tries too hard to reject autobiography. Other critics have noted that the details about Hippolyte’s family and background are quite vague. By making her narrator a sixty-one-year-old man, Sontag may be, in Sayres’s words, “hiding from a complex set of feelings” as much as she is exploring them.
Diddy, the protagonist of Death Kit , narrates his life in the third person. The book is his artifice. He inhabits his dreams as much as Hippolyte lives in his. It eventually becomes clear that the “events” of the novel are actually Diddy’s hallucinations in the final minutes of his life (he has committed...
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suicide). Diddy’s death dream is an attempt to repeat his life and to get it right the second time. His tragedy is the human condition; human beings do not get the chance to live again. Critics who like the novel have admired its form and language, but even they have expressed regret that Diddy is never believable as a fully created character. In effect, the novel fails the test of good fiction because many of its readers are unable to identify with its main character.
The Volcano Lover
The Volcano Lover was a major breakthrough for Sontag, lifting her out of the hermetic shell of her earlier fiction. The novel closely channels the consciousness of Sir William Hamilton, a neoclassical man, the vivid romantic behavior of his wife, Emma, and the bold actions of Admiral Horatio Nelson as naval hero. Each of them has a sense of greatness and grandeur, with Nelson serving as the apex of their hero worship even as he sees his heroism reflected in their unstinting devotion. Sontag understands that theirs is a combined quest for fame and glory.
Sontag admitted in an interview that The Volcano Lover was the only one of her books she really liked, the only one that fulfilled her ambitions as a writer. In it she finally fuses in brilliant fashion the techniques of her fiction and her nonfiction. It is also her most autobiographical work, finally releasing a pent-up romanticism.
In Sontag’s final novel, In America, a group of Poles travel to Anaheim, California, in 1876 to establish a utopian community. Their leader is Maryna Zaleska, Poland’s greatest actress, who has forsaken her career to create a farming commune. She is aware of the likelihood of failure, but the romance of starting anew, the challenge of succeeding where communities such as Brook Farm failed, is too enticing not to pursue. She takes with her a devoted husband, Bogdan, a young son, Piotr, and the young writer Ryszard, who aspires to win her love.
The novel is inspired by the career of Helena Modjeska (originally Modrzejewska), Poland’s renowned actress, who did indeed immigrate to the United States in 1876 and settled in Anaheim with her husband, Count Karol Chapowski; their fifteen-year-old son, Rudolf; Henryk Sienkiewicz, a future Nobel Prize-winning writer; and a group of friends. While relying on the historical record, Sontag also indulged her freedom to invent characters and scenes, including an opening section, “Zero,” that is the culmination of her efforts to deal with her own biography in the realm of fiction. “Zero” contains numerous references to events in her life (her marriage, her trips to Sarajevo, and her upbringing in Arizona and California).
Although Sontag won the National Book Award for In America, critical opinion has been deeply divided on the novel’s merits. Several critics have deemed the novel a farrago of historical research and bland psychological commentary, whereas others have praised its panoramic quality and dazzling array of devices, including diaries, letters, dialogue, and interior monologues. Still others have expressed admiration for the range of Sontag’s social observations and the variety of her characters while also noting their regret that her intrusive intellectual side (her ideas) slows the narrative and undermines passages that are not deeply imagined.