Sontag, Susan (Vol. 2)
Sontag, Susan 1933–
An American novelist and essayist, Miss Sontag is best-known for her essay "Notes on Camp" in her collection entitled Against Interpretation, and Other Essays, and for her novels Death Kit and The Benefactor. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)
Miss Sontag is a didactic, naturalistic, Jewish-American writer who wants to be an entirely different sort of writer, not American but high European, not Jewish but ecumenical, not naturalistic in style but allusive, resonant, ambiguous. It is as an heiress to Joyce, Proust, and Kafka that she sees herself; her stand to be taken on foreign rather than on native ground. The tension between what she is and what she would like to be creates odd effects. She presents Diddy [in Death Kit] as a Gentile. But, to make a small point, middleclass American goyim do not address each other continually by name while, to make a larger point, Diddy's possession of a young brother who is a virtuoso musician seems better suited to a Clifford Odets drama than to one by Sherwood Anderson or William Faulkner. But Miss Sontag is nothing if not contemporary and perhaps she is reflecting the current fashion for Jewish writers to disguise Jewish characters as Gentiles….
As for style, Miss Sontag demonstrates a considerable gift for naturalistic prose, particularly in the later parts of the book when she abandons her sources and strikes out on her own. But she is not helped by the form in which she has cast her work. For no apparent reason, certain passages are indented on the page, while at maddeningly regular but seemingly random intervals she inserts the word "now" in parenthesis. If she intends these (now)s to create a sense of immediacy, of presentness, she fails. Also, though the story is told in the third person, on four occasions she shifts to the first person plural. It is a nice surprise, but one that we don't understand. Also, her well-known difficulties in writing English continue to make things hard for her. She is altogether too free with "sort ofs" and "kind ofs" and "reallys"; she often confuses number, and her ear, oddly enough, is better attuned to the cadences of the lower orders than to those of the educated….
In a strange way, Miss Sontag has been undone as a novelist by the very thing that makes her unique and valuable among American writers: her vast reading in what English Departments refer to as comparative literature. As a literary broker, mediating between various contemporary literatures, she is awesome in her will to understand. This acquired culture sets her apart from the majority of American novelists (good and bad) who read almost nothing, if one is to admit as evidence the meager texture of their works and the idleness of their occasional commentaries….
Miss Sontag has been, more than any other American, a link to European writing today. Not unnaturally, her reading has made her impatient with the unadventurous novels which our country's best-known (and often best) writers produce…. Unhindered by a sense of humor, she is able to travel fast in the highest country, unafraid of appearing absurd, and of course invulnerable to irony.
Unfortunately, Miss Sontag's intelligence is still greater than her talent. What she would do, she cannot do—or at least she has not done in Death Kit, a work not totally structured, not even kind of. Worse, the literary borrowings entirely obscure her own natural talent while the attitudes she strikes confuse and annoy…. Yet the coda of Miss Sontag's novel suggests that once she has freed herself of literature, she will have the power to make it, and there are not many American writers one can say that of.
Gore Vidal, "Miss Sontag's New Novel" (1967), in his Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship (copyright © 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Gore Vidal; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co.), Little, Brown, 1969.