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Being earnest

<strong>Reborn: Early Diaries (1947-1964)</strong>

<em>Susan Sontag</em>

Hamish Hamilton, 336p

"Oh, you Americans! You're so serious . . . just like the Germans," commented the Oxford philosopher Stuart Hampshire to one of his students, Miss Susan Sontag. Hampshire was expressing exasperation, but the young lady took it as a compliment, and carried on being Germanically serious for the rest of her life. Her seriousness was always one of the qualities that annoyed trivial people - she did not suffer fools at all, let alone gladly, and she was never reluctant to say when she thought people were being stupid. Her remarks about the media response to the 11 September 2001 attacks - she thought it unworthy of a mature democracy - actually earned her death threats. So it's not surprising that some of the things that have been said about Sontag since her death in December 2004 have been, to put it mildly, hostile: prurient and tittering about her lesbian relationships, sneering about her pretension (sometimes a rube's synonym for "seriousness"), cynical about her ambition.

Ugly stuff, and well worth the effort of rejecting. One should admit from the outset, however, that Sontag-haters who turn to the pages of ­Reborn hoping to find ammunition will not be wholly disappointed, especially if they find lesbian sex disgraceful. Cherry-pick your way with malicious intent through these private diaries, which take her from the ages of 14 to 30, and you will indeed find moments of arrogance, cold-heartedness and, yes, a severe sense-of-humour failure. "I am alive . . . I am beautiful . . . what else is there?" (She was 16. And, as a matter of fact, she was uncommonly beautiful.) "I am infinite - I must never forget it." (Sixteen, again.) "I am sick of people, of stupidity and mediocrity . . ." (Still 16.) Well, so what? Lots of brainy adolescents write like that, and, as the teenage Sontag comments in a rare moment of softness on herself, "it's unreasonable to expect much more emotional maturity than I have at this point".

Emotional maturity was soon to force itself on her, first in some intense gay experiences, and then in a dangerously premature marriage to one of her instructors at Chicago University, Philip Rieff: he was in his early thirties, she barely 17. Contemplating her imminent wedding, she writes: "I marry Philip with full consciousness & fear of my will towards self-destructiveness." You don't need to work for Relate to guess that this was not going to be a cosy marriage. Sure enough, she was soon chafing against the marital bonds. She took off for Oxford, about which we learn little, and then to exciting, seductive Paris, where she had two shatteringly intense relationships, one with a woman identified as "H", and the other with the playwright Maria Irene Fornes. Contemplating her wrecked marriage from this distance, she sounds ever more harsh: "I have grown complacent in the years with Philip. I grew accustomed to his flabby adulation. I ceased to be tough with myself, and accepted my defects as lovable since they were loved." Then: "Philip is contemptible." Finally: "I have an enemy - Philip." Poor fellow.

The marriage did have one happy outcome: the birth of her son, David. In some ways, Sontag was a typical doting mother, with a very untypical type of pride. "David knows the difference between a sarcophagus and an oesophagus," she exults at one point. Her views on child-raising were also idiosyncratic: when little David told her that every time he shut his eyes he could see Jesus on the cross, she instantly came up with the appropriate remedy. "It's time for Homer, I think," she writes. "The best way to divert these morbid individualised religious fantasies is to overwhelm them by the impersonal Homeric All these experiences, the warm and the joyous as well as the wretched, changed the nature of her diary writing. Initially it served her much as a bedroom mirror serves less spiritually driven girls: an instrument for self-scrutiny, narcissism, and striking new poses to see what looks good. Later, the entries tend to become much more unpremeditated, at times pell-mell with raw emotion. She reports being "so blind & lovesick and gut-torn that I could barely stand". She punishes herself: "I am not a good person. Say this twenty times a day."

But there is a clear line of continuity between the overarticulate teenager and the self-chastening young woman: she is using these pages to plot whom she will be as a person, and how she will express herself as a mature writer. At the age of 24, she writes: "Much of morality is the task of compensating for one's age. One assumes unfashionable virtues, in an indecorous time." She meant that she needed to cultivate her spontaneity in a stuffy age; but as the times grew ever less decorous, she cultivated different, newly unfashionable virtues: she craved perfection. This made her brutally hard on herself at times, though her path had its moments of ecstasy, which is why the seriousness of the mind displayed in Reborn, if chilly, can also be inspirational. She shows us not just the importance, but the exhilaration of being earnest.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?