Susan Sontag’s Journal Entries

Susan Sontag2.pngsusan-sontagIn a way I’m sort of happy that my hair’s starting to go a little grey. At the moment it’s only happening at the front, so if all goes well maybe I’ll get to have a suave streak just like Susan Sontag had. And on that note, things are about to get fan-girly here.

Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004) was a renowned intellectual whose work as a writer, essayist and director offer seminal commentaries on society, culture, metaphors and the human experience.

But what I want to talk about here is her journal entries, which were published posthumously and give such a touching impression of her vulnerabilities and of a life truly lived.

In the preface of the first collection of entries; Sontag’s only child, David Rieff writes about the surreal experience of reading these deeply personal journals his mother had kept from her adolescence up until her death, and wishing he could warn her about all the pain and heartbreak which awaited her,

‘but of course I’m too late: the play has already been performed and its protagonist is gone’

Rieff continuously wondered whether his mother would have approved of his decision to make her journal entries public. For me personally though, I’m so grateful he did, these snippets are why I love books – a person who I will never know has been able to give me solace at so many different points in life, years after her death.

It’s touching to get a deeper glimpse of the fragile human behind her work, as well as an impression of her personality during different points in her life.

Plus, her lifelong thirst for further knowledge would inspire anyone to strive towards greater understanding and intelligence. Here are a few entries that particularly struck a chord with me:

‘…I just felt enormous anger at her, exactly as you would feel toward someone who has just announced that she is about to cause you terrible pain’

‘ “X” is when you feel yourself an object not a subject. When you want to please and impress people, either by saying what they want to hear, or by shocking them, or by boasting and name dropping, or by being very cool.’

‘Two fundamental needs are at war within me: need for the approval of others, fear of others’

M Train, Just Kids & Other Reasons I Adore Patti Smith

I have a good feeling about 2017. It has a lot of promise. Last week I got to see Shania Choir
– a choir that sings and dresses as Shania Twain (fuck my life’s brilliant sometimes! I lost my shit when they started singing ‘If you’re Not in it For Love’*), and this April I get to see Patti Smith – one of the coolest people, as well as the artist and poet that I admire most.

So let’s talk about Patti Smith – a woman whose round about my grandma’s age, but who I’d still gladly try to flirt with if we ever actually met.

There’s this Pattibeautiful clip from an old BBC documentary, Chelsea Hotel, where the young ‘odd little waif like figure’** reads her little prayer for New York.

Now, whenever Patti talks/writes about something she cares about, it’s done with a fragile, poetic eloquence. But the reason I love this poem and this piece of footage in particular is for three reasons

1. It sums up that feeling of moving to a new city and suddenly growing as an individual,

‘I had lived such a sheltered childhood, so family orientated, and all of a sudden I was on my own. And that’s when I learned anything is possible’

2. That Jersey accent, and
3. Because she was so young and shy at this point.

She was only in the midst of developing into the artist she’d later become, and I love thinking about that nervous 24 year old who would later create works which exude such strength.

And I know it’s stating the obvious, but I love her poetry and autobiographies (Just Kids and M Train) for a similar reason – because of the way she describes life, her struggles and the people she loves, with a vulnerability and rawness we can all somewhat relate to.

Her poems for example, after her husband and brother had died within two months of each other, ‘myself destined to live, listening closely to a silence that would take a lifetime to express’.

She’s led a full, fascinating life entwined with her creativity: my personal favourite story is how her lifelong friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg began with him trying to chat her up because he thought she was a boy.

Reading all her unique little moments is a reminder to try and live through as many adventures as possible – as the wise one once said ‘Jesus died for somebody sins but not mine’.

[Side-note: I think I was the only person at the Robert Mapplethorpe documentary who really wasn’t expecting to see THAT many penises.]

*I was a complete disappoint though cause I promised everyone I’d take my top off if they sang that song, and I didn’t in the end.
**That’s a quote from British journalist Charles Shaar Murray

Books that teach you how to do a smooth stalking

Back in olden times – before the internet was a deeply entrenched part of our culture, and we weren’t all technologically savvy – if you wanted to do a stalking you had to rely on your own wits.

Our poor ancestors couldn’t just do a sneaky stalk of someones Facebook wall, they needed to put in the man-hours to gain valuable intel.

This is quite noticeable in older literature. Here are some examples from classics that are about as subtle as a brick to the face.

The Great Gatsby (Scott Fitzgerald, 1925)

I like to think that there was one Gatsby party that was so excruciatingly shit and awkward that it didn’t make it into the novel. One that wasn’t exactly off the chain, and everyone was in bed by 8.30pm. I’ll level with you, I only made it up to page 52 of The Great Gatsby, then I lost interest. For all I know the rest of the book could’ve just been 100 pages detailing this one crap party Jay held.

Anyway, if this novel has taught us nothing else, its that if you’re trying to win back your former lover, she’ll be nothing but massively impressed if you buy the house directly across from her and throw loud parties every single night.

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Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1985)

In this book Florentino shows his lady-love that smooth is his middle name by cracking onto her at her husbands funeral. Dude! I know you’ve been waiting a really long time for her to be back on the market but maybe pick a better time.

Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham, 1915)

Look there’s no denying that in this book Mildred is a piece of human shit, BUT in fairness she did repeatedly say to the main character Phillip that she wasn’t interested. She even made a point of telling him more than once that she didn’t like having to kiss him. This doesn’t deter Phillip though, he knows that he can’t change her mind but he still can’t let go of hope.

This is actually a pretty good book, but you do feel quite drained reading about these futile feelings Phillip holds. I just wish I could give him a hug and say please just let her go.

Perfume Story of a Murderer (Patrick Süskind, 1985)

This is a pretty odd book. I think the moral of the story was virgins smell fantastic.

Anyway, I’m over-simplifying the plot here, but majority of Perfume is Jean Baptiste Grenouille lurking around French markets then secretly following around women who happen to have a nice natural scent. He’s a bit of a wrongin – there were also some blatant un-dealt with mummy issues here.

Rebecca (Daphne de Maurier, 1938)

Rebecca is about an unnamed protagonist who marries a older man, Maxim. When Maxim takes her back to his giant house (called Manderley), she is haunted by constant reminders of his deceased first wife Rebecca. Specifically, the housekeeper – Mrs Danvers, is not particularly impressed that Maxim has remarried, and throughout the book gets increasingly more passive-aggressive towards the main character.

Its very much a book of its time, in that the main character could’ve just told Mrs Danvers to fuck off if she wasn’t bound by very British conventions of social etiquette.

Anyway, while Mrs Danvers doesn’t teach you how to do a stalking, but she’s filled with diamond tips on how to do an obsession.

She loathes Maxim’s new wife only because she adored Rebecca so much; and the house is kept precisely as Rebecca had left it not because Maxim likes it that way, but because Mrs Danvers wants it preserved.

My Massive Crush on Lisbeth from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Avid readers usually have that one book which got them hooked on reading in the first place. For a lot of people around about my age it tends to be Harry Potter, but for me it was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.

I was 17 at the time, and up until that point I wasn’t a big reader. The only books I read in High School were the assigned ones for English class.

I can’t remember what it was exactly that drew me to these books, and sometimes I wonder if I would still love them  just as much if I re-read them now. But at the time I adored them, and I would talk about how brilliant the main character Lisbeth was to anyone who would listen to me.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the first time I stayed up all night reading, the first time I’d carry a book around wherever I went, and I will always love it for sparking my relationship with reading for fun.

In hindsight though I think most of its charm was due to the crush I had on Lisbeth, given I’d lose interest really fast in every part she wasn’t in. Its funny thinking about it now – I would fantasise about her, yet it still hadn’t hit me that I might be a lesbian. I just loved reading about this strong female character, who had lived through some harsh shit but refused to be a victim and if necessary could kick some ass.

Thank you Stieg Larrson, you’re pretty much responsible for my ever-expanding bookshelf.