Like Mother, Like Son

Is Susan Sontag's son keeping the real Susan Sontag hidden from the public with his edit of his late mother's journals? Sontag biographer Carl Rollyson sure seems to think so.

BY Carl Rollyson

May 20 2009 11:00 PM ET

SUSAN SONTAG X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Poor David -- except that this passage from Sontag's journals is unrepresentative. In truth, Rieff was Susan's darling, and though Rieff is right to say that he had quite a troubled relationship with his mother, it always constituted a lovers' quarrel. His mother knew from experience she could count on him. A younger, brasher Rieff, then her editor at FSG, cudgeled the literary editor of The Nation with complaints when a reviewer scorned the notion of publishing The Susan Sontag Reader while the author was still alive.

Rieff is simply too close to the material to do it justice. He has too many ownership rights. He cannot let go. Rieff will not relinquish his right to deliver up his mother's literary remains. And the result is reckless.

A few reviewers, when they are not pitying Rieff, seem to have an inkling that something is amiss. Even the sympathetic Daniel Mendelsohn observes, "This volume has a jittery, disjointed feel, and it is not clear whether this is how the journals were written or if the published version of them was shaped to accord with Sontag's trademarked aphoristic style." In plain English, the editing is incompetent.

Yet another sympathetic reviewer, Sontag's friend Norman Birnbaum, notes on Truthdig.com that "Persons ... make brief and frequently spectral appearances. We are left to guess why the rest of the world thought some of them colorful -- and, often, what they might have meant to Susan."

In many cases, these persons are identified by single letters -- E, L, H, and so on. If Rieff is concerned about not violating their privacy, why publish now? Without some contextualization many passages in the diaries prove nugatory. And H, by the way, is Harriet Zwerling, identified as such in Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, with Zwerling's consent. To mention H without also telling readers that H has published her own diary of her time with Sontag is just another sign of Rieff's irresponsibility.

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