Monday, December 10, 2012

Dreaming in French, Part III: Susan Sontag's Way

The main Susan Sontag (1933-2004) part of Alice Kaplan's Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis (The University of Chicago Press, 2012) provides a substantial backdrop to her life, covers her intense 1957-1958 Parisian residency, then looks at her life and career afterwards, though not detailing much about her many years (1989-2004) with Annie Leibovitz, her last partner.

Because Kaplan was able to go through voluminous notebooks and other manuscripts, this thick middle section is sometimes dizzying to keep up with on a first read-though. One thing is certain: born in New York, having lost her father as a small child, and relocated to Arizona presumably due to her asthma, Sontag had a strong desire to escape her circumstances. Which she did -- inspired by French literature, among other things.

I was happily surprised to learn from Dreaming in French that another Francophile, my old buddy Wallace Fowlie (1908-1988), helped her clear a significant academic hurdle at the University of Chicago in praising and passing her junior paper on Djuna Barnes' 1936 novel Nightwood.  Fowlie was her fourth reader, brought in by her principal advisor, Kenneth Burke, to save the day.

It was also gratifying to read Kaplan's comparison of Susan Sontag's married, with child life to that of the Jeanne Moreau character in Louise Malle's Les Amants / The Lovers (1958). Beyond that even, everything being connected -- especially everything French -- it turns out that the screenplay for Les Amants was "written by the same Louise de Vilmorin whose blue salon at Verrières-le-Buisson had welcomed Jacqueline Bouvier in 1949" (pages 111-112).

After her 1957-1958 Paris residency, Sontag emerged as a leading proponent of French culture back in the USA, abetted by a durable friendship with poet-translator Richard Howard. "The two were leaders in the conversation that was bringing that thing called French Theory to the United States, made of equal parts Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida" (page 127).

Which reminds me that I was lucky enough to hear Richard Howard give a reading in Chapel Hill, North Carolina at UNC, and bought a couple of his books then and there. Now, thanks to Alice Kaplan's alluring account, I wish I'd have met Susan Sontag, too.

Today's Rune: Signals.         

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