Sketches of Susan
by Suzanne Jill Levine
When I first saw Susan Sontag in the flesh, in the 1970s, she was lounging against a window with her long legs crossed and resting casually on the windowsill. She was wearing her classic black turtleneck and jeans, and of course her thick black hair with the famous white raccoon streak. I felt intimidated. I was afraid to approach because I knew she had recently survived a bout with breast cancer, and I was concerned, possibly, about how to approach her without coming off as frivolous. Not only was she very serious in general, but she was battling with a serious disease, after all. I have always smiled a lot–unlike your usual stone-faced academic or writer whose demeanor is meant to signify gravity. Such apparent levity (or levinity) has often been misread in sober circles. But, finally, I went over to her when she was standing near the table covered with a splendid spread of bagels, lox, cheeses and salads.
This was a brunch party in Fiction editor Mark Mirsky’s East Village pad where he and his Norwegian artist wife Inger were then celebrating their engagement. It was one of those walk-up apartments, at least three steep flights, where the bathtub was in the kitchen. The mood was festive and most of us were sipping champagne. I introduced myself, postponing my desire to prepare a bagel with lox, cream cheese and flourishes. She seemed to know who I was or at least that I had translated Manuel Puig, because the first thing she said to me was a question: “Is Puig queer?”
She was not one for polite chitchat but this abrupt probe caught me off-guard. I think I only managed to reply blandly “of course” with my usual non-referential friendly smile, trying to show I was unflappable, but she had the air of expecting a more elaborate comeback from a supposedly clever translator of edgy avant-garde writers. Her question stopped me in my tracks because I wanted but didn’t dare to follow her question with several of my own.
The first would have been, well, after all, wasn’t she “queer”?
And then, how could she possibly not know that he was homosexual?
And why did she use, instead of gay, the term “queer” which at that time was still pejorative?
Or, and this made the most sense, but again I wouldn’t ask: was she inquiring, in code, if I were queer? Or maybe, also in code, was she trying to find out if I had slept with Manuel Puig? If this was her way of making me ‘fess up, I didn’t take the bait.
Starting in the 1980s the term “queer” became a radical category, signifying not only an esthetic but a broader range of human sexuality and a mainstay of cultural politics, but at the time I met Susan, queer still fell upon the ear as an insult, though more polite than “fag.” I would like to think, now, that I had witnessed first-hand the trendsetter Susan Sontag in action, re-inventing “queer” as cool, defiantly positive, radical, outside of facile definitions of sexual orientation and social identity—and the world would soon follow her lead.
In December 2004, the cancer Susan had been heroically battling for decades, finally, sadly, won the war, and she died having just turned 71. Almost three years later, in 2007, her life’s work was ungenerously disparaged in a feature article published in the New York Review of Books, the same journal she had been featured in for decades. I didn’t doubt that the male author of the piece, a former friend of mine, was acting out, envious of her position as a “celebrity literary critic.” It was important, I felt, for the reader to share my inside knowledge about him, and so I wrote (and published in the NYRB “Letters” section) an irate repartee to vindicate her. I took him to task because his goal evidently was to belittle a remarkable woman, and because I, like other women in the arts and in academe, was hyper-sensitive regarding attacks with such a patriarchal tone.
Of course, Susan had imperfections, including her lack of sense of humor, especially as a novelist and filmmaker, and she seemed even naïve at times in her unchecked enthusiasm for artists and causes. Still, there was no doubt that her boundless energy to engage every corner of culture was admirable: she was gutsy, brilliant, ethical and often hit the bullseye regarding her views on esthetics. She was a woman who defied the oppression of women by not making feminism her agenda. Or, simply, Susan didn’t want her writing to be pigeon-holed by her gender. Women should be able to write about anything and in any form they saw fit.
After that East Village brunch I think, because I left New York in the 1980s, I didn’t have any further encounters with Susan again until 1991, after she had written to me a letter about how much she liked my book on translation, The Subversive Scribe, which she described as “A continually lively and very generous book, full of lore and such a vivid and just account of how complex a process good writing is.” This time, in Santa Barbara, we spent an evening together. I was already out west, teaching here at UCSB. It was April 18th, I know this from my journal, where I wrote “A magical evening.” At that moment her arrival in Santa Barbara was a life saver sent from New York, a spirit picker-upper (which often was not the case with her) as I felt profoundly isolated, surrounded by a foreign state of mind called California.
She had come to the university invited by the Humanities Center, to give a talk on one of her (and my) favorite writers, the Brazilian Machado de Assis. As she cost big bucks, the host was a bit peeved, not because it wasn’t an interesting presentation of, arguably, the most important Latin American novelist of the 19th century, but because it had just been published in The New Yorker. It was unseemly, at least those days, to give an invited lecture that was already published material. After her talk, I offered to take her out to dinner and for a tour of lovely Santa Barbara. The professors who were her hosts seemed relieved (and somewhat intimidated), so I assumed that I was doing them a favor.
Back then and even now, I enjoy Santa Barbara best when showing the place to visitors. As we were driving around town a bit before landing at a restaurant, she remarked on a detail that I had barely noticed—as a newcomer to “lotus land” (which the filmmaker Greg Nava called Santa Barbara)—and had passed over as insignificant. The detail was the ornamental style of the street signs, and she asked if the street names were written with Chinese handwriting, meaning that they had been made by Chinese laborers who had been hired on the cheap to lay down the railroad tracks in California back in the 19th or early 20th century. I thought this rather interesting but didn’t know the answer. When I did get to ask a Santa Barbara connoisseur if this were true, I was told that Susan’s conjecture was whimsical. Apparently my first impression of the curlicue lettering–that it was simply a Santa Barbara touch—was closer to the truth, but I liked Susan’s theory, all the same.
At dinner that night I spoke to her about wanting to do “real” as opposed to academic writing, as I had begun to attempt with The Subversive Scribe. “You must write. Shoot for the stars,” she said. Without transition she added: “You look great. You must be doing something right.” She told me of her affairs, we shared stories of “our Cuban lovers” as her first longtime woman lover had been Irene Maria Fornés, the playwright whom I had once met when attending a play by her—at that experimental theater way west on 42nd Street—with the Cuban artist and architect Lydia Rubio, my first girlfriend, and my dearest friend.
At one point, Susan mentioned Joseph Brodsky as a significant passion in her life, almost as a trophy affair, and she exclaimed how lucky I had been to have been so close to Manuel Puig. “Write about your affairs with them,” she said. “Men are awful, they’re cold,” she said emphatically, “but women are devastating.” At the time of her visit, Annie Liebowitz was her new partner, and she remarked with certain emphasis, “When it’s over with your first lover, the second affair is sad, because you didn’t have it when you needed it, so the second time is always too late.” What she said, toward the end of our evening touched me the most: she wrote essays, she said, when she was afraid to fail with her writing.
In the Fall of 2003 when I was on sabbatical in New York, and, because of a tempting job offer, almost decided to move back there, I remember lunch at her preferred Japanese place, downstairs from the St. Marks’ bookstore. She of course was eating some live sea urchin still throbbing on the plate, and I had ordered my usual cucumber roll, miso soup and a seaweed salad. She promptly remarked, “you’re not having sushi?” as if to interrogate: “Are you a philistine?” to which I felt obliged to reply that I wasn’t a big fan of raw fish, but what was worse was the shame I felt for being a wimp. I tried to squirm out of the impasse by mentioning the advice of a doctor, my brother-in-law, who never ate raw fish because of the bacteria and mercury. Susan poo-pooed this caution.
Nonetheless I guess it was hard to say no if Susan invited me to hang out, like the time she asked me to join her at BAM: who could decline such an invitation? And so, I picked her up at her Chelsea penthouse, we went down to Chinatown (I am sure she ordered something too spicy for me) for dinner, and then we traveled to Brooklyn, to my relief, in a taxi. This lavish gesture delighted me, especially as I had been dreading the tedious subway ride. As a native New Yorker, I had been riding subways since age five, so they were no novelty to me. The subway ride was the main reason though not the only reason I never went out to Brooklyn. I also had the foolish prejudice that only Manhattan was the real New York.
To me, the dreary German, Russian or maybe Serbian opus magnus, whose title I don’t remember, was hard (aside from the seat) to sit through, but, as to be expected, Susan was intensely focused on the play from beginning to end. I tried to hide my disappointment (so uncouth after all) knowing that she was enthralled and, besides, she knew all about the creator of the work and was friends with one of the actors. Friends in the audience approached her during the intermission to talk all about it or simply to greet her; what a relief that they gathered around her. On that occasion as on others, I felt caught in deep waters.
Perhaps my favorite moment with her was when she insisted upon introducing me, as I was staying in the West Village, to her affable hairdresser Rick who had worked in the world of high fashion, and so we met at his retro comfy salon “Sip and Snip” on Waverly near 10th. We sat in those swivel chairs facing the mirror like two women friends sharing a chummy moment, chatting about this and that, sipping tea with Rick as he snipped, darkened and washed Susan’s graying hair. I liked that Susan didn’t mind being seen in disarray as it were, with wet hair and covered by an unattractive smock; I liked that we were sharing a casual moment.
For the next few years, after Susan was gone, I would go to Rick’s to have my hair done every time I was in New York. As he skillfully worked his magic, Rick enjoyed remembering her clever remarks or the stories she’d tell him.
The most strongly felt advice from her to me were her parting words (on the corner of 7th Avenue and 11th after that first visit to Rick’s) as we hugged good-bye, “Come back to New York, Jill, don’t stay in California. Let the city roll over you.” And I watched her, the quintessential woman warrior a little worse for wear, head west on 11th Street to her next appointment, before the light turned green and I crossed the avenue.
Suzanne Jill Levine
About Suzanne Jill Levine
Writer, scholar, poet, editor, and translator of Latin American literature since 1970, Suzanne Jill Levine has published over 40 volumes of creative translations of the most significant writers in the Spanish language including Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, Silvina Ocampo and Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Her critical works include The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction (Graywolf Press), Manuel Puig & the Spiderwoman: His Life and Fictions (FSG) and her five-volume edition of the poetry and essays of J.L.Borges (Penguin Classics). The New York Times recently cited Mario Vargas Llosa’s review of her literary biography of Puig in “The 25 Best Reviews in 125 Years.” She is currently writing “a translator’s memoir.”