Death and the dark lady

<strong>Swimming in a Sea of Death: a Son's Memoir</strong>

David Rieff

<em>Granta Books, 192pp,

We know how in 2004 Susan Sontag died (acute myeloid leukaemia), but how did she live? This is a real mystery. Her family was not wealthy. She held no university chair, nor was she a regular journalist. She produced serious-minded, overwrought essays for small-circulation literary magazines; now and again there would be a cerebral novel. None of this would have paid the bills - yet we are to understand from David Rieff's memoir of his glamorous mother that there were apartments in Manhattan, Paris and Berlin. There were loyal housekeepers, secretaries and research assistants.

Every night Sontag went to theatres, concerts and Chinese restaurants in the company of her court. She liked young disciples who would "barely keep up with her, something that gave her enormous pleasure". Sontag saw herself as "an eternal student . . . zapping the world with my mind". She referred to her appetite for culture as "sucking on a thousand straws". But who picked up the tab? Perhaps she was kept by rich lesbians? Anyone who has seen them will never forget Annie Leibovitz's photographs of Sontag's corpse, hideously raddled, laid out in the morgue. I can't decide if they are offensively intrusive or blindly loving.

Rieff briefly alludes to Sontag's relationship with Leibovitz; other female partners are mentioned. But the strong impression one receives is that, demanding and selfish and with no sense of humour, Sontag must have been hard to like as a person. Her affairs would be passionate and then coldly over. She had, it appears, "difficulties connecting with people", yet this was the result of a conscious policy. Her work having to be "served at any price", Sontag deliberately wanted to be "unshackled" from family and personal ties. She was not domestic - though she needed a large domestic staff to cater to her idea of independence; and of course one can't begin to picture her as being maternal, and neither can her son.

The dynamics between the pair of them were very odd and psychologically strained. Roles were reversed. Rieff, by his own account, comes across as an anxious suitor or ordered-about husband. It is his job to keep his mother going, protecting her and doing a lot of cosseting. Despite this, the air between them is chilly. "Neither of us had ever been physically demonstrative with each other," he says. Nevertheless, despite a manifest lack of motherly affection, he has been left feeling nothing but what he chooses to call survivor's guilt now she has gone. It is distinctly queasy when he starts beating himself up by saying, "I wish I could have suppressed my own interests in the furtherance of hers" - for isn't that how a parent should feel towards a child, not the other way round? Sigmund Freud would be interested in the way Rieff hadn't seen Sontag as being of a different generation. Only when she fell ill did he begin "thinking of my mother as old - something I had never done".

Sontag was 71 when she was given the terminal diagnosis - "a particularly lethal form of blood cancer". Her bone marrow was up the spout and, except for experimental pills that perhaps could give a brief remission, there were no effective treatments. Sontag, however, categorically refused to believe there was no reprieve, particularly as in 1975 she had had a radical mastectomy and survived stage four metastatic breast cancer. Rieff had left university "to help look after her". Her furious indignation that she was now finally dying is the main theme of this book, and it does not make her nicer or mellower. Indeed, Sontag's "complete inability to reconcile herself to the fact of mortality" was the most naked revelation of her vanity and lack of humility; and that she died "unreconciled to her own extinction" shows the immensity of her arrogance.

Death was a cosmic insult because Sontag thought she was so special, she was above it. Her fear about "coping with extinction" is that of a hardened atheist with no faith to sustain her - yet, in imagining that she would pull through, Sontag was the one having delusions. A rota was organised to surround her with people who would let her hear only "good news and nothing else". Otherwise she would flee to the bedroom in tears and not come out for hours - just like a terrified little girl.

At her own insistence, she underwent worthless and agonising treatments at the University of Washington Medical Centre. A bone marrow transplant had no chance of success and Sontag became bloated and wasted, her mouth and throat cankered and ulcerated. Though incontinent and delirious, she still showed, right up to the end, a "willingness to undergo any amount of suffering" to try to survive. Ironically, her final disease was brought about by the chemotherapy she had received for her earlier cancer. There is cruel black comedy afoot in the way a person who tried to live exclusively in her mind was ultimately outwitted by her own sullied flesh. Sontag died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York and is buried in Montparnasse, near (we are told more than once) Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class