A collection of short fiction from Susan Sontag, the National Book Award-winning author of In America and Against Interpretation, and the renowned essayist praised as “one of our very few brand-name intellectuals” (The Yale Review).
An invaluable record of the creative output of one of the most inquisitive and analytical thinkers of the twentieth century at the height of her power, Debriefing collects all of Susan Sontag’s shorter fiction, a form she turned to intermittently throughout her writing life.
Ranging from allegory to parable to autobiography, these stories show Sontag wrestling with problems beyond the essayistic form, her more customary mode. Here, she catches fragments of life on the fly, dramatizes her private griefs and fears, and lets characters take her where they will. The result is a collection of remarkable brilliance, versatility, and charm. Sontag’s work has typically required time for people to catch up to it. These challenging works of literary artmade more urgent by the passage of yearsawait a new generation of readers.
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Susan Sontag (1933–2004) was the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including the groundbreaking collection of essays, Against Interpretation (FSG, 1966), and of four novels, including In America (FSG, 2000), which won the National Book Award.
Benjamin Taylor is the author of his family memoir, The Hue and Cry at Our House, as well as Proust: The Search in the Yale Jewish Lives series; Naples Declared, a travel memoir; and the award-winning novels, Tales Out of School and The Book of Getting Even. He edited Saul Bellow: Letters and There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, Bellow’s collected nonfiction. Taylor is a past fellow and current trustee of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Read an Excerpt
Everything that surrounds my meeting with him has the color of shame.
December, 1947. I was fourteen, steeped in vehement admirations and impatience for the reality to which I would travel once released from that long prison sentence, my childhood.
End almost in sight. Already in my junior year, I'd finish high school while still fifteen. And then, and then ... all would unfold. Meanwhile, I was waiting, I was doing time (still fourteen!), recently transferred from the desert of southern Arizona to the coastland of Southern California. Another new setting, with fresh possibilities of escape — I welcomed that. My peripatetic widowed mother's remarriage, in 1945, to a handsome, bemedaled and beshrapneled Army Air Forces ace who'd been sent to the healing desert to cap a year-long hospitalization (he'd been shot down five days after D-Day) appeared to have grounded her. The following year our newly assembled family — mother, stepfather, kid sister, dog, notionally salaried Irish nanny left over from the old days, plus the resident alien, myself — had vacated the stucco bungalow on a dirt road on the outskirts of Tucson (where we'd been joined by Captain Sontag) for a cozy shuttered cottage with rosebush hedges and three birch trees at the entrance of the San Fernando Valley, where I was currently pretending to sit still for a facsimile of family life and the remainder of my unconvincing childhood. On weekends my now out-of-uniform but still military perky stepfather marshaled sirloins and butter-brushed corn tightly wrapped in tinfoil on the patio barbecue; I ate and ate — how could I not, as I watched my morose, bony mother fiddling with her food? His animation was as threatening as her apathy. They couldn't start playing family now — too late! I was off and running, even if I looked every inch the baby-faced, overgrown elder daughter effusively munching her fourth ear of corn; I was already gone. (In French one can announce, while lingering unconscionably, Je suis moralemant partie.) There was just this last bit of childhood to get past. For the duration (that wartime locution that gave me my first model of condescending to present time in favor of the better future), for the duration it was permissible to appear to enjoy their receptions, avoid conflict, gobble their food. The truth was, I dreaded conflict. And I was always hungry.
I felt I was slumming, in my own life. My task was to ward off the drivel (I felt I was drowning in drivel) — the jovial claptrap of classmates and teachers, the maddening bromide I heard at home. And the weekly comedy shows festooned with canned laughter, the treacly Hit Parade, the hysterical narratings of baseball games and prize fights — radio, whose racket filled the living room on weekday evenings and much of Saturday and Sunday, was an endless torment. I ground my teeth, I twirled my hair, I gnawed at my nails, I was polite. Though untempted by the new, tribal delights of suburban childhood that had quickly absorbed my sister, I didn't think of myself as a misfit, for I assumed my casing of affability was being accepted at face value. (Here the fact that I was a girl seeps through.) What other people thought of me remained a dim consideration, since other people seemed to me astonishingly unseeing as well as uncurious, while I longed to learn everything: the exasperating difference between me and everyone I'd ever met — so far. I was certain there was a multitude like me, elsewhere. And it never occurred to me that I could be stopped.
If I didn't mope or sulk, it was not just because I thought complaining wouldn't do any good. It was because the flip side of my discontent — what, indeed, throughout my childhood had made me so discontented — was rapture. Rapture I couldn't share. And whose volume was increasing steadily: since this last move I was having near-nightly bouts of jubilation. For in the eight houses and apartments of my life before this one I had never had a bedroom to myself. Now I had it, and without asking. A door of my own. Now I could read for hours by flashlight after being sent to bed and told to turn off the light, not inside a tent of bedclothes but outside the covers.
I'd been a demon reader from earliest childhood (to read was to drive a knife into their lives), and therefore a promiscuous one: fairy tales and comics (my comics collection was vast), Compton's Encyclopedia, the Bobbsey Twins and other Stratemeyer series, books about astronomy, chemistry, China, biographies of scientists, all of Richard Halliburton's travel books, and a fair number of mostly Victorian-era classics. Then, drifting to the rear of a stationery and greeting-card store in the village that was downtown Tucson in the mid-1940s, I toppled into the deep well of the Modern Library. Here were standards, and here, at the back of each book, was my first list. I had only to acquire and read (ninety-five cents for the small ones, a dollar twenty-five for the Giants) — my sense of possibility unfolding, with each book, like a carpenter's rule. And within a month of arriving in Los Angeles I tracked down a real bookstore, the first of my bookstore-besotted life: the Pickwick, on Hollywood Boulevard, where I went every few days after school to read on my feet through some more of world literature — buying when I could, stealing when I dared. Each of my occasionalthefts cost me weeks of self-revilement and dread of future humiliation, but what could I do, given my puny allowance? Odd that I never thought of going to a library. I had to acquire them, see them in rows along a wall of my tiny bedroom. My household deities. My spaceships.
Afternoons I went hunting for treasure: I'd always disliked going home directly from school. But in Tucson, visits to the stationery store excepted, the most cheering postponement I'd come up with was a walk out along the Old Spanish Trail toward the Tanque Verde foothills, where I could examine close up the fiercest saguaros and prickly pears, scrutinize the ground for arrowheads and snakes, pocket pretty rocks, imagine being lost or a sole survivor, wish I were an Indian. Or the Lone Ranger. Here in California there was a different space to roam and I had become a different Lone Ranger. Most days after school I boarded the trolley on Chandler Avenue to hasten into, not away from, town. Within a few blocks of the enchanted crossroads of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue lay my little agora of one- and two-story buildings: the Pickwick; a record store whose proprietors let me spend hours each week in the listening booths, gorging myself on their wares; an international newsstand where militant browsing yielded me Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, Politics, Accent, Tiger's Eye, Horizons; and a storefront through whose open door one afternoon I unself-consciously trailed two people who were beautiful in a way I'd never seen, thinking I was entering a gym, which turned out to be the rehearsal quarters of the dance company of Lester Horton and Bella Lewitzky. O golden age! It not only was, I knew it was. Soon I was sipping at a hundred straws. In my room I wrote imitation stories and kept real journals; made lists of words to fatten my vocabulary, made lists of all kinds; played conductor to my records; read myself sore-eyed each night.
And soon I had friends, too, and not very much older than myself — to my surprise. Friends with whom I could speak of some of what absorbed and enraptured me. I didn't expect them to have read as much as I had; it was enough that they were willing to read the books I lent them. And in music, even better, I was the novice — what bliss! It was my desire to be taught, even more thwarted than my desire to share, that made me my first friends: two seniors at whom I flung myself soon after entering this new school as a sophomore, whose taste in music was far superior to mine. Not only were they each proficient on an instrument — Elaine played the flute, Mel the piano — but they had done all their growing up here, in Southern California, with its infusion of refugee virtuosi, employed in the full symphony orchestras maintained by the major film studios, who could be heard at night playing the canonical and the contemporary chamber repertory to small gatherings scattered across a hundred miles. Elaine and Mel were part of that audience, with tastes elevated and made eccentrically rigorous by the distinct bias of high musical culture in Los Angeles in the 1940s — there was chamber music, and then there was everything else. (Opera was so low on the scale of musical goodness it was not worth mentioning.)
Each friend was a best friend — I knew no other way. Besides my music mentors, who started at U.C.L.A. the following autumn, there was a fellow sophomore, my romantic comrade for the remaining two years of high school, who was to accompany me to the college I had already elected at thirteen as my destiny — the College of the University of Chicago. Peter, fatherless and a refugee (he was part Hungarian, part French), had had a life even more marked by displacements than my own. His father had been arrested by the Gestapo, and Peter and his mother escaped Paris to the South of France and from there, via Lisbon, to New York in 1941; after a spell in a Connecticut boarding school, he was now reunited here with the very single, tanned, red-haired Henya (whom I acknowledged to be as young-looking, if not as beautiful, as my own mother). Our friendship started in the school cafeteria with an exchange of boastful anecdotes about our glamorously dead fathers. Peter was the one with whom I argued about socialism and Henry Wallace, and with whom I held hands and wept through Open City, Symphonie Pastorale, The Children of Paradise, Mädchen in Uniform, The Baker's Wife, Brief Encounter, and Beauty and the Beast at the Laurel, the theatre we'd discovered that showed foreign movies. We went bicycling in the canyons and in Griffith Park and rolled about, embracing, in the weeds — Peter's great loves, as I remember, were his mother, me, and his racing bicycle. He was dark-haired, skinny, nervous, tall. I, though always the youngest, was invariably the tallest girl in the class and taller than most of the boys and, for all my outlandish independence of judgment on matters Olympian, on the matter of height had the most abjectly conventional view. A boyfriend had to be not just a best friend but taller, and only Peter qualified.
The other best friend I made, also a sophomore, though at another high school, and also to enter the University of Chicago with me, was Merrill. Cool and chunky and blond, he had all the trappings of "cute," a "dish," a "dreamboat," but I, with my unerring eye for loners (under all disguises), had promptly seen that he was smart, too. Really smart. Therefore capable of separateness. He had a low sweet voice and a shy smile and eyes that smiled sometimes without his mouth — Merrill was the only one of my friends I doted on. I loved to look at him. I wanted to merge with him or for him to merge with me, but I had to respect the insuperable barrier: he was several inches shorter than I was. The other barriers were harder to think about. He could be secretive, calculating (even literally so: numbers figured often in his conversation), and sometimes, to me, insufficiently moved by what I found moving. I was impressed by how practical he was, and how calm he remained when I got flustered. I couldn't tell what he really felt about the quite plausible family — mother, real father, younger brother (who was something of a math prodigy), even grandparents — with which he came equipped. Merrill didn't like to talk about feelings, while I was seething with the desire to express mine, preferably by focusing feeling away from myself onto something I admired or felt indignant about.
We loved in tandem. Music first — he'd had years of piano. (His brother played the violin, which made me equally envious, though it was for piano lessons that I'd implored my mother — rather, stopped imploring my mother — years before.) He introduced me to getting into concerts free by ushering (at the Hollywood Bowl in the summer), and I made him a regular at the Monday chamber-music series "Evenings on the Roof," to which I'd been brought by Elaine and Mel. We were building our nearly identical, ideal record collections (on 78s, happily unaware that this was the last year before L.P.s), and joined forces often in the cool, dark listening booths of the Highland Record Store. Sometimes he came to my house, even if my parents were there. Or I went to his house; the name of his frumpy, hospitable mother — I remember finding this embarrassing — was Honey.
Our privacy was in cars. Merrill had a real driver's license, while mine was the "junior" license one could hold from fourteen to sixteen in California then, entitling me to drive my parents' cars only. Since parents' cars were the only ones available to us, the difference was moot. In his parents' blue Chevy or my mother's green Pontiac we perched at night on the rim of Mulholland Drive, the great plain of twinkling lights below like an endless airport, oblivious of the mating couples in cars parked around us, pursuing our own pleasures. We pitched themes at each other in our inexact treble voices — "Okay, listen. Now, what's this?" We quizzed each other's memory of Köchel listings, knowing by heart long stretches of the six hundred and twenty-six. We debated the merits of the Busch and the Budapest Quartets (I'd become an intolerant partisan of the Budapest); discussed whether it would be immoral, given what I'd heard from Elaine and Mel about Gieseking's Nazi past, to buy his Debussy recordings; tried to convince ourselves that we had liked the pieces played on the prepared piano by John Cage at last Monday's "Evenings on the Roof" concert; and talked about how many years to give Stravinsky.
This last was one of our recurrent problems. Toward John Cage's squawks and thumps we were deferential — we knew we were supposed to appreciate ugly music; and we listened devoutly to the Toch, the Krenek, the Hindemith, the Webern, the Schoenberg, whatever (we had enormous appetites and strong stomachs). But it was Stravinsky's music we sincerely loved. And since Stravinsky seemed grotesquely old (we had actually seen him on two Mondays in the small auditorium of the Wilshire Ebell, when Ingolf Dahl was conducting something of his), our fears for his life had given rise to a compelling fantasy à deux about dying for our idol. The question, a question we discussed often, was: What were the terms of the sacrifice we so relished contemplating? How many more years of life for Stravinsky would justify our dying now, on the spot?
Twenty years? Obviously. But that was easy and, we agreed, too good to hope for. Twenty years granted to the ancient homely person we saw Stravinsky to be — that was simply an unimaginably large number of years to the fourteen-year-old I was and the sixteen-year-old Merrill was in 1947. (How lovely that I.S. lived even longer than this.) To insist on getting Stravinsky twenty more years in exchange for our lives hardly seemed to show our fervor.
Fifteen more years? Of course.
Ten? You bet.
Five? We began to waver. But not to agree seemed like a failure of respect, of love. What was my life or Merrill's — not just our paltry California-high-school-students' lives but the useful, achievement-strewn lives we thought were awaiting us — compared to making it possible for the world to enjoy five years more of Stravinsky's creations? Five years, okay.
Four? I sighed. Merrill, let's get on.
Three? To die for only three additional years?
Usually we settled on four — a minimum of four. Yes, to give Stravinsky four more years either one of us was prepared right then and there to die.
Reading and listening to music: the triumphs of being not myself. That nearly everything I admired was produced by people who were dead (or very old) or from elsewhere, ideally Europe, seemed inevitable to me.
I accumulated gods. What Stravinsky was for music Thomas Mann became for literature. At my Aladdin's cave, at the Pickwick, on November 11, 1947 — taking the book down from the shelf just now, I find the date written on the flyleaf in the italic script I was then practicing — I bought The Magic Mountain.
Excerpted from "Debriefing"
Copyright © 2017 David Rieff.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
PROJECT FOR A TRIP TO CHINA 31
AMERICAN SPIRITS 61
THE LETTER SCENE 91
THE DUMMY 115
UNGUIDED TOUR 127
OLD COMPLAINTS REVISITED 143
DOCTOR JEKYLL 229
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW 297