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Vol. LXIII, No. 24
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
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Lopate Recalls Sontag’s “Closet Humanism,” Seriousness, Enthusiasm in Library Talk

Ellen Gilbert

“Those seeking a hatchet job will be disappointed,” observed writer Phillip Lopate, speaking last week to a Princeton Public Library audience about his most recent book, Notes on Sontag. Acknowledging the “curiously polarized critical responses” that Susan Sontag elicited during her life, Mr. Lopate said that he himself loved her even when she was “wrong-headed.”

Introducing Mr. Lopate, Princeton University Press editor Hanne Winarsky described the Brooklyn-born author as “a man of many talents,” and “one of our most important essayists.” Speaking about the Press’s series of brief biographies of writers, she observed that Mr. Lopate’s take on Sontag went beyond “the mysterious, intriguing, private relationship” that usually emerges when writers write about other writers. “This one is more than that; it’s charmingly personal — an entirely different vision, even for those who thought they knew her.”

Taking his cue from Sontag’s Notes on ‘Camp’, Mr. Lopate said that he wrote the book in sections, rather than as “a seamless, flow-through essay.” Reading from several of the sections last week, the 66-year old author described how he knew Sontag, for many years, “though not intimately.” As a Columbia undergraduate from 1960 to 1964, he was well-aware of the beautiful young instructor in the Religion Department, but “an aversion to taking courses with charismatic teachers” kept him from enrolling in one of Sontag’s courses (“for which I now kick myself”).

Achieving some level of familiarity with her as a result of frequenting the same literary and cinephile circles, Mr. Lopate “got up the nerve” to ask Sontag to read his first long story, “The Coffee Drinker.” She “generously” agreed, and Mr. Lopate’s account of their subsequent meeting to discuss her reaction to the story is painful, sad, funny, and rich in details.

“She was too big, too tall for her chair, her arms and legs dangling superfluously. I could tell right away that she hadn’t liked the story,” he wrote. He was steeped in Dostoevsky (“at the time I was reading Dostoyevsky, Dostoyevsky, and more Dostoyevsky”); she was a proponent of “experimental prose, some variation of Nabokov/ Beckett/Burroughs/Robbe-Grillet,” and the students who followed those writers were her favorites. In the end, though, Mr. Lopate wondered whether Sontag had done “such a favor for those undergraduate writers, friends of mine, by promoting them so spectacularly into her own adult literary circle, since they all came down with writer’s block.”

How ironic, Mr. Lopate noted, that Sontag began her career by championing the avant-garde, and ended it being accused of not being avant-garde enough. He also noted the contradiction in her wish to be remembered mostly for her fiction when her real strength was her essays. A similar disconnect is evidenced, he said, by authors like James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, and Gore Vidal — writers whose non-fiction, in his opinion, eclipses their fiction, though they themselves want their stories and novels to have pre-eminence. Mr. Lopate’s self-professed passion for essay-writing and “thinking against yourself” may have something to do with this judgment.

For the most part, it is Sontag’s “closet humanism” (he caught her weeping at the end of a movie screening), seriousness of purpose, and boundless enthusiasm for the project at hand that Mr. Lopate seems to have found most compelling, though “in the end,” writers “are at the mercy of the scatterbrained world’s opinion.”

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