I first saw her at Antioch College in 1964 or 1965, where she had come to deliver a lecture on “The New Sensibility.” I was a raw recent undergraduate who wanted to be a fiction writer, and I had gone to the Sontag talk convinced that writing a great American novel was the most noble and sacred ambition a very young man from Cincinnati might entertain.
I suppose I had gotten this foolhardy notion at Duke working with Reynolds Price, who was by far the best teacher I had ever had up to that moment, though he warned me against novel writing. I was pre-med and Reynolds said he thought the world probably needed doctors a lot more than it needed more fiction writers. But there he was, a living example of such high intelligence and talent, a teacher who could talk about anything and often did. I began to think I was less like the people in white coats at Duke Hospital and more like Reynolds, or that I might be—if I could only get a decent education and learn to talk and write and figure out where all the commas should go—and that is what I set out to do. Little did I know that attending Susan Sontag’s talk would be another important step in that long process.
Listening to Susan Sontag that night led me to understand that the project of writing an American novel was never going to be as simple as I had originally conceived of it. Susan was dressed all in black, and she was so stylish and hip and beautiful that she completely revamped my idea of what an intellectual might be. She blew great clouds of cigarette smoke into the air above her head, and she had nothing but scorn for American fiction at that moment, which was an unsettling message, coming from such a formidable intelligence, for my virgin ears and brain.
Yet I went away from that meeting feeling somehow enormously happy and elated for reasons I could not have named. I thought Susan Sontag was the smartest person I had ever met, and I adored her for it. To be that smart, that articulate, to talk about those sorts of things, seemed the best thing in the world to me. She enlarged my idea of what might be possible, even for me, even if I would probably never be as bright as she was. It was an indelible impression.
By 1972, I was a young assistant professor of English at Mansfield State College in Pennsylvania; and I had inherited the job of running the Assembly Committee. I could bring anyone I wanted to the Mansfield hills, and I decided to invite Susan Sontag and she accepted. I was excited, but frankly, as I stood out on the tarmac at the Chemung County Airport in Corning, New York, waiting for her plane to taxi in, I was a little apprehensive. Sontag did not suffer fools lightly—I knew that much—and I had no idea how she would react to flying out into the hinterlands to be interrogated by a person like me. I knew she had strong opinions about American fiction, and I intended to find out everything I could about that before she left.
This was a small regional airport, and the passengers deplaned down a ramp and then walked across a span of concrete toward a small crowd of people waiting for them behind a low wire fence. Each group could see the other long before they were close enough to say anything. So I could see Susan coming down the ramp, and she seemed to be accompanied by a blond woman. She walked towards us with all the confidence in the world, as if she owned the place, and the blond woman tagged along by her side. As they approached, I walked out and extended my hand and introduced myself. She introduced her friend, who was French and then, sliding a pair of blue-lens sunglasses off her nose so that she could look directly into my eyes, she said, “I was hoping it would be you.” I didn’t know what to say to that, but I was flattered by it, of course. I guess she had sized up the crowd and decided I was the most likely and loose-jointed of the choices available. But it was prescient, in a sense, because we really clicked in a way I never would have imagined.
I mean, she was a courteous visitor and I was a courteous host, but over the next two days we bonded like old pals. She wasn’t faking it—she liked me, and, of course, I liked her and admired her so very much. At lunch, she laughed easily. She seemed playful, almost girlish. Her friend listened and smiled a lot, but I don’t think she understood much English. In any case, she rarely spoke (except to Susan in French). But talking to Susan was like meeting a new girlfriend when you are eighteen and you start to find out you have a lot in common and suddenly it’s six hours later and you are still talking and you never want it to stop—except that this was entirely Platonic. But, let me tell you, to be treated like an intellectual equal by Susan Sontag, to find her listening patiently and intently to every random thought in your head, was more than wonderful. It was intoxicating.
I told her I was working on an interview book about innovation in American fiction and, if she didn’t mind, I would like to sit her down with a tape recorder and talk about that for a while. She said fine—no problem. We had several public appearances to work into our schedule, small groups and large, so I alerted her to our obligations. Then we dropped Susan’s friend at the motel, and I took Susan back to my house and sat her down, as promised, and we talked for a couple of hours about American fiction and her own work as critic and fiction writer. (This interview may be found in The New Fiction, University of Illinois Press, 1974).
Most of the rest of that visit is a blur in my memory except that we, of course, fulfilled her speaking commitments to Mansfield students; and in every context Susan was brilliant. She never had a down moment. I walked her around campus as if she was a visiting movie star and she acted as if she was just an ordinary person, albeit a very confident and intelligent one, happy to be alive, to answer questions, and to be my friend.
It was spring in Pennsylvania and it had been raining a lot, but, much to everyone’s surprise, on the day for Susan’s departure to return to New York, the flooding began. Water was rising rapidly between Mansfield and the Chemung County Airport, so we felt it necessary to leave for her flight hours earlier than we might have otherwise. We ended up wandering around back county roads for hours, as the rain kept falling, the rivers kept rising, and Susan and I kept talking. Of course, I had brought my tape recorder along for the ride, so I got it all on tape and I was able to use some of it in my completed interview. Our only interruptions were caused by running into road blocks, squinting at maps in the dim light of my old car as darkness fell, and trying to discover new and innovative ways to negotiate the latticework of blacktop and death-by-drowning until we could find the airport. We did eventually make it and Susan and her friend caught their plane. (I would love to listen to this car-trip tape again, but it is now somewhere in the bowels of the Beinecke Library at Yale for the benefit of future literary archeologists.)
After that, Susan and I corresponded about the interview, and after she had finished editing it to her satisfaction, I submitted it to The Partisan Review and had it immediately accepted. The Partisan Review was one of the most prestigious journals of its day, several of Susan’s seminal essays had appeared there, and it was no small matter to a young assistant professor trying to climb the academic ladder to make a connection there. But I soon had a letter from Susan, in reply to a letter from me, saying that under no circumstances did she want the interview to appear in the pages of The Partisan Review. It would be okay to include it in my book The New Fiction or some other journal but not The Partisan Review. Greatly disappointed, I wrote to the magazine and withdrew the piece.
Later I learned that Susan had been feuding with William Phillips, the editor and founder of The Partisan Review, and this was the probable reason for her feelings about not wanting to appear under his auspices. I did not know William Phillips, but I had seen him at meetings of the MLA. He was a red-faced, irascible-looking man who I thought resembled the actor from The Godfather who woke up one morning and found a horse’s head in his bed. It was easy for me to imagine how anyone might wish to avoid his ire, or once having provoked it, might wish to avoid him. That was that. My interview book appeared in 1974 and was well-received. Gore Vidal even liked it in the pages of The New York Review of Books.
Over the next several decades, I had occasion to invite Susan Sontag for several possible appearances at places where I was teaching or running a Writers Conference, and I would have loved to see her again. But she was always making a new film or she was in Paris or she was finishing a new book, and so she was never able to accept my invitations. I learned also that she had been ill, and I saw a photo of her in one of the news magazines that made her look wasted and very much older. I was shocked at her appearance because I remembered her so clearly as the young, beautiful, vibrant woman I had known.
Then, in 2002, thirty years after our interview and rain-drenched journey along the back roads in Pennsylvania, I heard that she was going to be appearing at a meeting of the National Book Critics Circle in New York. One of the nominees for the NBCC award in fiction that year, the German author W. G. Sebald, had died; and Susan, who was a great admirer of his work, had been enlisted to read from his book Austerlitz on his behalf. As it turned out, I was a member of the board of the NBCC and would be charged later with helping to decide the winners of the awards that year. I was looking forward to hearing the readings by all the nominees, but in particular, I was interested in seeing Susan again, whether or not I would actually get the chance to speak to her. I knew she had been battling cancer for a long, long time, and I had no idea how she would look, though I was prepared to be stricken if she was too much changed from my memory of her.
The meeting was held in the auditorium of the New York University School of Law, and the assembled company included a huge swath of the literary world: nominated writers, their friends and editors and publishers and agents, interested book critics and reviewers and members of the large NBCC board of directors--several hundred people milling around before the readings were to begin. I was saying hello to fellow members and meeting new people, and I was introduced to Ann Patchett and to Nicholson Baker, who were also nominees.
Then I glimpsed Susan Sontag working her way down the aisle, shaking hands and schmoozing. She was wearing a striking crimson velvet dress with a large cowl collar or hood, and she looked terrific. She was slightly heavier than before and had a streak of white in her dark hair, but overall she was just plain gorgeous. Considering all the attention she was getting, I doubted I would have a chance to speak to her. But moments later, I saw that she had ended up between the stage and the first row of seats, where a place had been saved for her in the exact middle of the row, and no one was talking to her! It was almost as if all those who did not know her well enough to have already said hello were afraid of her, afraid of someone who was such a legend.
I walked up to her and I said, “Hi, Susan. I don’t know if you remember me. It’s Joe Bellamy.” I offered my hand.
She said: “Oh, Joe! For heaven’s sake, of course I remember you! It’s so good to see you! How in the world have you been?” She grabbed my hand and said, “You must sit with me so that we can catch up.” We turned to examine the seating situation, and the entire front row had filled up except for Susan’s saved place and a few seats on the far end.
“I’d love to,” I said. “But I guess I won’t be able to.”
“Just a minute,” she said. Susan walked toward the person sitting where she wanted me to sit and said a few words to them and then beckoned to the other twenty-five or so guests occupying the adjacent seats, indicating that they should all stand up and move over one seat. They all did so immediately, like a troop of robots. No fussing, no arguments.
“There,” she said. “That wasn’t so hard.”
“Thank you,” I said, and I sat down in the vacated spot next to her.
We had a lot of ground to cover in a few minutes, and we did our best. She wanted to know everything there was to know. We were the same fast friends we had been before. She was exactly the same person I remembered, simply weathered a bit by time. She had the most beautiful eyes, and when she looked at you, she looked into your heart.
Just before the show was to commence, she glanced around at the crowd and said: “I was hoping to meet Nicholson Baker here tonight. I need to tell him something. Do you know who he is?”
“Actually, I just met him,” I said. I craned my neck around and scrutinized the audience but I didn’t see Baker. Then I scanned the other way and realized with some surprise that he was sitting right next to me on the opposite side from Susan.
“Oh, he’s right here,” I said to Susan. “Nicholson, here’s someone I’d like you to meet.” Susan reached across my chest to shake his hand and say hello.
She said: “I’m so glad to meet you. Your novel The Mezzanine is a masterpiece.” Baker was speechless. “It’s a fucking masterpiece!” she said. Then the readings began.
As we sat there quietly waiting for Susan’s appointed moment, I began to notice a strange sensation. It felt as if a wave of powerful energy was emanating from Susan’s body. It was like a force field or as if she had a gyroscope inside her. I am not prone to experiencing auras or mystical experiences of any kind, but, I’m telling you, there was some kind of weird power field surrounding her and touching me. My first thought was: could this be the result of radiation therapy? Had she had so many treatments that there were some residual traces I could be sensing? I didn’t know, and I never found out. But it made me feel even more sympathy for the terrible path she had had to take just to stay alive as long as she had.
Susan performed her reading in a masterful fashion, and when she was finished she returned for her purse and coat, nodded to Baker, and squeezed my hand to say goodbye. Then she walked out of the auditorium and out of my life. Probably as a result of her championing of Sebald’s work, the next day he was proclaimed the winner of the NBCC award for fiction. Susan died two years later at the age of 71. I still think she was the smartest person I’ve ever met and one of the most dignified, perceptive, and courageous. But I will always remember this about Susan Sontag: she made twenty-five people stand up and move over so that I could sit down beside her.