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Wake Up, Little Susie

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The most thrilling stretch of Reborn is its beginning, where we get a sustained look at a heretofore entirely mythical creature: the teenage Susan Sontag. As a grown-up, Sontag was so relentlessly, categorically adult that the very notion of a “teenage Sontag” (I imagine her eating sno-cones, lip-synching into a hairbrush, giggling) threatens to tear open some kind of existential wormhole, like a “male Gloria Steinem.” And yet here she is, at 15, a steaming vat of molten adolescence—possibly the most eloquently self-dramatizing teen of all time. She stays up all night reading André Gide (“Gide and I have attained such perfect intellectual communion,” she writes, “that I experience the appropriate labor pains for every thought he gives birth to!”), uses the word aye unironically, and nearly wears the needle off her turntable playing Mozart records. She compiles epic lists for self-improvement: books to read, difficult vocabulary, central beliefs (“the only difference between human beings is intelligence”). She strains mightily against the philistinism of middle-class life with her mother and stepfather: “Wasted the evening with Nat. He gave me a driving lesson and then I accompanied him and pretended to enjoy a Technicolor blood-and-thunder movie.” When she gets to Berkeley she reads poetry aloud and walks around with friends speaking “brilliantly” (her description) about “everything from Bach cantatas to Mann’s Faustus to pragmatism to hyperbolic functions to the Cal Labor School to Einstein’s theory of curved space.”

Just when you’re ready to snap, however, and stuff Teenage Sontag into the nearest empty locker, you realize you can’t: She is, against all odds, a deeply lovable character. Her comically oversize ambition grew out of an equally oversize pain. Her father died when she was 5. As a lonesome genius, she felt the usual agonies of precocious teenhood with superhuman intensity. She grew up self-conscious, self-critical, and ashamed of her sexuality. Her pretension, in other words, was protective. If some researcher ever wants to study the connection between insecurity and intellectualism, Sontag’s journals would be a very good place to start.

As a psychic collage, Reborn is far more fascinating than the sum of its parts: lists of errands, scraps of dialogue, notes on the breakup of a marriage. An essential tension animates almost every page. Sontag’s theoretical mind always wants to be totalizing—to sum up, distill, command. But journal entries are, like the lives they document, provisional, incomplete, ragged. The resulting clash—with its canceled insights, non sequiturs, and self-critical marginalia—often reads like a brilliant pomo bildungsroman: A Portrait of the Theorist As a Young Woman. Take, for example, Sontag’s futile attempt, at the age of 23, to sort out her love life: “For each person there is a very limited range of types of people he [this ‘he’ is crossed out in the notebook but no other pronoun is put in its place] could fall in love with in this way. For instance, I could never fall in love with someone who was—what?” The indeterminacy of the pronoun, the sentence’s final sudden petering out right on the brink of wisdom strike me as more lively, mysterious, and profound than most of Sontag’s published work. This is typical of Reborn: Her journals are composed of a series of beautiful absences that suggest more than her public presences ever could.

Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963
By Susan Sontag.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.


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