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Reborn: Early Diaries 1947-1963
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 29 April 2011
Although the teenage Susan Sontag states at the outset that her journal will be a place to record her development as a writer and intellectual, life evidently got in the way. The diaries largely consist of sporadic, more or less random, cryptic fragments - lists of books & films, brief quotations from assorted texts she happens to be reading, disparaging comments on her university professors, interspersed with accounts of her sex life & lovers, along with bouts of agonized self-analysis (which increase markedly as the diaries progress). All of which should make the diaries unreadably obscure and of little interest. Personally, however, I found this first volume strangely absorbing & addictive.

A plot worthy of a novel gradually develops as Sontag, in her mid-teens and wondering about being bisexual, starts going to San Francisco lesbian bars (the diary as a whole contains many fascinating snippets for anyone interested in a "secret history" of the 1950s). A little later, suddenly, there is an entry announcing her forthcoming marriage to a fellow academic, after which there is a long gap (as if her true self was being repressed). When the journal resumes Susan is into her twenties, has a child, but is escaping marriage and motherhood by running off to Paris to embark on a tortuous lesbian affair.

Sontag retains a degree of intellectual detachment which enables her to analyse her self-obsessive craziness - though this detachment itself, in turn, becomes a problem. The later parts of the diary are dominated by this psycho-sexual "alienation" and a general vexation over the physicality of the body and its needs, alongside increasing concern over the meaning of a Jewish identity. There are many brief but interesting comments on other writers - she is obsessed by Thomas Mann (& goes to visit him!) & Djuna Barnes "Nightwood" - in fact she seems to be living out Barnes' novel - but there is surprisingly little discussion of her own writing practice (her early articles & first novel were well under way). She seems pretty close to complete breakdown at the end of the book - just at the point it might have been assumed she had it all, on the cusp of a brilliant career.

The random fragmentary quality of the text creates a peculiar kind of narrative, often resembling a long lost avant-garde novel. The juxtapositions between entries are frequently surreal. For example, an entry giving a graphic account of different types of orgasm is closely followed by an entry consisting of a brief list of different types of Roman legion. God knows why she jotted down the latter list, but these obscure juxtapositions seem somehow appropriate.

Obviously the book will appeal mainly to those familiar with Sontag's other writing and her eclectic intellectual frame of reference. Many of the friends and acquaintances mentioned in the journal are well-known people in their own right, which might add some "interesting gossip" spice.
This diary ends in the early 1960s with Sontag in her mid 20s. I doubt whether future volumes will be as unguarded and idiosyncratic as this first. A rare insight into another person's "inner life".
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