Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview

Jonathan Derbyshire in The Guardian:

SontagA few months after Susan Sontag died in December 2004, the American literary academic and writer Terry Castle published a wonderful and amusing reminiscence in the London Review of Books of the woman to whom she'd intermittently played the role of “female aide-de-camp”. Castle lives and works in California, and whenever Sontag was on the west coast to give a lecture she'd co-opt her friend as a kind of amanuensis-cum-tour guide and fixer. Castle was happy to play the role of “obsequious gofer” (she had “idolised Sontag literally for decades”), though at its best, she confesses, their relationship resembled the one between Dame Edna Everage and her permanently mournful sidekick Madge Allsopp. (You shudder to think what it was like at its worst.) Castle would drive Sontag (pictured) between San Francisco and the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto. Her other job was to be a sounding board for Sontag's compulsive kvetching – about the “dreariness” of Castle's Stanford colleagues in particular and the provincialism of California in general. The latter was something of a specialist subject for Sontag, as her 1978 Rolling Stone interview with Jonathan Cott, published unexpurgated and at book length for the first time, makes clear.

Sontag was born in Arizona in 1933, and in 1945 she moved with her mother and sister to Los Angeles, where she attended high school. After spending a semester as an undergraduate at Berkeley, she moved to the University of Chicago and, following graduate school at Harvard, eventually ended up in New York, where she fell in with the intellectuals gathered around the Partisan Review. She tells Cott that New York is the place she feels loyal to and that she has the right to “knock California because I know it so well!” In fact, she knocks not just California – “Too many things have just not migrated [there]: the connection with Europe, with the past, with the book world …” – but Californians, too. One of the reasons, she says, that she prefers to be in New York is that she wants to be around people who are “ambitious and restless. You meet a Californian and they say, Hi! … and then there's a big silence.”

This and other passages in Cott's book reminded me of Castle's description of Sontag as a “great comic character” with whom Dickens or Henry James would have had a field day – an odd combination of “carefully cultivated moral seriousness” and gossipy skittishness, plus a rare erotic charisma that ensnared men and women alike. (The jacket photo, in which she lounges smoulderingly in a window seat overlooking Central Park, one elbow on a pile of books and papers, is echt mid-period Sontag.) Cott's interview, which he conducted in Paris and New York during the summer and autumn of 1978, corroborates Castle's judgment and offers rich pickings for a latter-day Dickens or James. It does so partly because he seems to have decided that his job was to act as stenographer to Sontag's performance of her own seriousness. In a somewhat breathless preface, he reports that she spoke to him in “measured and expansive paragraphs”, “precisely calibrating her intended meanings” (by which he means that she used qualifiers like “sometimes” and “occasionally” a lot). He also quotes a journal entry from 1965 in which Sontag vows to “give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian Hellman in Paris Review”.

More here.