By the time she died four years ago, Susan Sontag had been for decades a kind of intellectual plenipotentiary, novelist, culture critic and that most unlikely of all job categories, famous essayist. In person, Sontag could be warm, patient and funny. On the page, she was omniscient and intimidating, somebody who had read everything and assumed you had too. Where, you wondered, did she find the time?
Now we know: she got an early start. Reborn, Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 318 pages), the first of three projected volumes selected from the diaries Sontag kept nearly all her life, is a portrait of the artist as a young omnivore, an earnest, tirelessly self-inspecting thinker fashioning herself into the phenomenon she will be. A typical entry: "Read the Spender translation of [Rilke's] The Duino Elegies as soon as possible." As soon as possible! She's 15.
When the book opens one year earlier, Sontag is enduring life with her mother and stepfather in Los Angeles. It's 1947, but this is not going to be the memoir of a bobby soxer: "Immersed myself in Gide all afternoon and listened to the Busch recording of Don Giovanni. Several arias (such soul stretching sweetness!) I played over and over again ... If I could always hear them, how resolute and serene I would be!" (See the 100 best novels of all time.)
Resolute she already is. Serene she can forget about. Sontag's every synapse is open to the joys of books, movies, music and theater, but the imperatives of her industrial-strength self-awareness guarantee that she will never quite measure up to her convictions about the importance of pleasure and sensuality. "Let go Let go Let Really go," she writes. But her brain won't let her body take the wheel.
By 16, Sontag is already a freshman at Berkeley, where for the first time she allows herself to act on her sexual attraction to women. To the end of her life, she never spoke publicly about her lesbianism. But much of this book, which was edited by her son, the writer and policy analyst David Rieff, is consumed by Sontag's accounts of her mostly anguished affairs with other women, particularly the mercurial beauty identified in the journals as "H."
After their first night together, Sontag runs to her book to hoist the flag of her future: "I know what I want to do with my life ... I want to sleep with many people I want to live and not die I will not teach, or get a master's degree after I get my B.A. ... I don't intend to let my intellect dominate me, and the last thing I want to do is worship knowledge or people who have knowledge!"
This, of course, is the declaration of a woman who will never escape the whip hand of her intellect, who will do graduate work and teach for a while. It may have been partly in flight from her sexuality that a year later, after she had transferred to the University of Chicago, the 17-year-old Sontag became engaged to sociologist Philip Rieff, 37, whom she had met only 10 days before.
Three years later we find them at Harvard, where Sontag is helping him write his big book and raising their son, all the while issuing brisk directives to herself ("Read Condillac!"). Inevitably the marriage becomes a burden. Sontag goes off on her own to Oxford and Paris, where she resumes her affair with H. It too ends badly. Eventually she returns to the U.S., settles in Manhattan, divorces Rieff and completes her first novel, The Benefactor. Still burdened and self-lacerating, she has at least become that thing she most desired to be a writer.
But of course she has been a writer all along. Her journal is her true first book, the story of a woman struggling with her consciousness. One entry reads, in its entirety, "need for order." You wish you could tell her that in your work you can create order. But in your life? Not a chance. Let go, Susan. Let go Let Really go.