Friday, August 02, 2019

Book Blackout Bingo: Deep Diving With Susan Sontag

July's reading found me taking a deep dive into Susan Sontag's work. It's not a bad way to spend time. This all began when I read an article saying that a new in-depth biography of Sontag would be coming out in September.

It really began 30 years ago, the first time I saw Bull Durham. In the movie, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) goes on a long rant to Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) about things he believes in (high fiber, good scotch, Oswald acted alone, Astroturf and the designated hitter should be outlawed, long slow wet kisses that last three days) and in this lengthy list, he spewed out that he thought the novels of Susan Sontag were self-indulgent overrated crap.  The next time Crash and Annie meet up, she retorts that she likes Sontag's novels. Well, of course the screenwriter threw Sontag into that long list for comedic effect and to show the depth and breadth of Crash's erudition.

 Did Sontag ever see Bull Durham? Of course she did. In her diaries, she talks about seeing 3-4 films a day. This was before the advent of the VCR. Of course, she lived in NYC, but racing from movie house to movie house indicates a real devotion to cinema. Also: I'm no Sontag, but if some character says my name is some movie, disparagingly or not, I'm there. Plopped right down in the center of the front row.

So yeah, Bull Durham left me wondering about Susan Sontag. A tiny bit of research into her bibliography was enough to scare me off.  But I continued to hear her siren song. I bought a paperback copy of In America, Sontag's last novel, and it sat unread on my bookshelf for years. I was too intimidated.

In the meantime, I read an anecdote about Susan Sontag in Larry McMurtry's Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Sontag came to Archer City to visit McMurtry. Upon seeing his massive but haphazardly organized home library, she vowed that she couldn't go to sleep until she'd gotten it into some kind of order. My intimidation started to melt away. How could you be afraid of someone like that? Perfectly understandable impulse. Susan was me and I was Susan and it wasn't just the first name, either.

Flash-forward to last year, which I guess would technically be a flashback: I was in Dollar Tree (never underestimate their book section; they've got some quirky treasures there) and I saw Reborn, which is volume one of Sontag's diaries and journals which were posthumously edited (lovingly, meticulously) by her son, David Rieff. After paying my dollar, Reborn sat on my shelf until last month, then I just fell into it, utterly entranced. After that, I had to have the second volume, When Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. (That title doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it?)

When I had polished off Vol. 2, I discovered that Vol. 3 is the works???  I was ready to move on to the novels. A search of my local libraries turned up one: The Volcano Lover. It's a historical novel about Sir William Hamilton, Lady Emma Hamilton and Admiral Horatio Nelson, one of the most famous love triangles in history. But it's more than that. Told primarily from Sir William's point of view, it's a meditation on collecting, possession, theft and loss. Cerebral and compelling. It's good in the way Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall novels are satisfying.

I paused in reading to watch a YouTube video of Sontag being interviewed at about the time In America came out. I didn't get very far. Sontag was breathtaking, but the guy interviewing her (Charlie Rose, I think) was a complete and utter horse's ass. Apologies to the horse. It is to Sontag's credit that she treated him with the utmost courtesy instead of decimating him with first her gaze and then her intellect, which is what he richly deserved.

My deep dive is spilling over into August as I'm happily reading In America. Next up is a memoir of Sontag by David Rieff,  Swimming in a Death Sea, and after that is an audiobook of her essays, On Photography.


Unruly Reader said...

Oh, I'm completely envying the depth of your dive... It's been way too long since I dove into something with such delightful abandon. Must mean I'm overdue for some type of reading spree...

Bybee said...

I'm glad that I finally overcame being intimidated by Sontag!