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The Real Susan

Ed Vulliamy writes: Susan Sontag had her preferred table at a restaurant called the Russian Samovar on West 52nd Street, off Broadway, and the management usually swung it for her. It was in the corner of the dining area adjacent to the bar and a space wherein a dancer would swing her long skirt and stamp her boots in time to a pony-tailed pianist playing Mary Hopkin’s “Those were the days”.

Susan loved to watch her – we called her “Grushenka”, unfairly, but for obvious reasons – and chat to her, and the pianist, during breaks, about who they were and how they got here. Also to the existentially troubled manager, Roman, and barman Nikolai, straight out of Bulgakov, who served twenty-nine different flavours of vodka with a Satanic sense of humour. And of course, her guests: once, that was the celebrated poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose collection Stolen Apples I’d bought as a teenager, along with Susan’s Against Interpretation. I felt a little star-struck, but the stars couldn’t have been more convivial. 

On another occasion, Susan had organised a reception upstairs to celebrate the acquisition of US citizenship for her driver during years of siege in Sarajevo, Hasan Gluić, and his family, to whom she devoted exhaustive effort and time. All these people loved Susan, and she loved it that they did. But, and here’s the point, she adored them too, whether they were tinkling ivories, pouring vodka or worrying, as Roman did, about “new owners” from Russia. She had time for them all, genuinely interested, listening not talking; it mattered not whether a person “mattered”; Susan engaged people without calculation, with a sparkle of generous curiosity.

The Samovar was one of the places at which, over aubergine paté, bliny and vodka (she liked the cranberry flavour), Susan and I would talk and talk. About art, about war and especially war in Bosnia, about music and especially Italian and Russian music, and Wagner; about politics, about painting, about people we knew and didn’t. 

It was among the places it became my pleasure and honour to know a brilliant woman who, in my recollections bears no relation at all to that portrayed in the recent biography by Ben Moser, about which quite a lot of noise abounds. Moser quotes Joan Acocella saying that spending time with Susan after she returned from Bosnia “was like being in a cage with a dragon”. Reviewing his book, the New Yorker finds that “Moser’s anecdotes of the unpleasantness that she allowed herself as she grew older ring true”.

I write this as an attempt at corrective, because none of this rubbish accords with the time I spent with Susan over the last years of her life. I endeavour here not to review a book that has already been written up on these pages, but to offer counterpoint to much of the rumble around it, with a few memories of Susan that defy – and, I posit, make malicious hokum of ‑ the portrayal of the lady and artist in the volume.

Declarations of interest first: Susan’s son, David Rieff, is among my very closest friends, “best friend”, to whom I harbour ferocious loyalty. Also, I was asked to contribute an interview for Moser’s biography and declined. There was a bad smell around the enterprise; David feared it might be “prosecutorial” – a word used in at least two reviews since; Farrar Straus & Giroux, Susan’s publisher, considered but rejected the book.

I make no attempt here to discuss Susan’s dazzling intellect and canon of work – they speak for themselves. I write strictly in the first person on a few moments with the Susan I knew. If this looks like showing off or name-dropping because Susan is famous, I apologise – it’s not that at all, quite the reverse: I just want to defend my friends – Susan and her son – from toxins in circulation around this “biography”.

I first encountered Susan in Sarajevo - what a place to begin a friendship – in 1993, while she rehearsed her staging of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It accounts for a chapter in Moser’s book, and a more important one in Susan’s life. We didn’t talk much there; she was incredibly busy, and I was briefly in the city, from my beat covering “ethnic cleansing” in rural Bosnia. But we shared a few words, and the war itself, with all it meant to us.

Moser does not understand Bosnia’s war, nor can he be expected to. It’s indicative that he cites the (fairly light) shelling of famous Dubrovnik in Croatia as the “taste of things to come”, rather than the levelling of (less renowned) Vukovar into the dust of its own stone. He says that “getting news out of the besieged city [of Sarajevo] presented an almost insurmountable challenge” –apparently oblivious of regular and passionate reports from Reuters’s Kurt Schork, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, BBC’s Martin Bell, Le Monde’s Rémy Ourdan and many others. The world had no excuse for its blindness towards Bosnia that enraged Susan Sontag.


There is no overstating the significance of Susan’s production of Beckett in Sarajevo – or, indeed, briefer visits by two other international superstars to the besieged Bosnian capital, Joan Baez and Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden (history often thinks Bono came under siege, but ‑ though he did a great deal to raise awareness of it ‑ U2 arrived later, in peacetime). What Susan did, in the words of Haris Pašović, director of the National Theatre, was “important to Bosnia, and important to the world”. She told The New York Times, rightly, that “Sarajevo is the Spanish Civil War of our time, but the difference in response is amazing”. No Hemingway or Orwell out there; rather, a mix of lethal apathy among the political and artistic intelligentsia, or deranged denial or endorsement of the slaughter (from the likes of Nobel laureate Peter Handke).

I was granted a perch during rehearsals by Pašović, a friend who, when asked by some smart-arsed reporter why he was staging a theatre festival during a siege, replied: “Why are they staging a siege during my theatre festival?” My request for an interview with Susan came to nothing, but we did talk briefly during a break about the appositeness of Beckett in this space between purgatory and inferno, and concentration camps I had found a year earlier. She was all ears, asking about the ravages out there beyond the ring of guns around the capital, while I tried to ask her about Beckett in Sarajevo. I realised early that unlike many writers of her standing, Susan was more interested in others than in herself, and preferred to talk about them than about herself.

It was enlightening to watch her interact with the cast and stage direction. Sometimes in English, sometimes in translation: sure of her vision but democratic, open to suggestions – ever respectful, as a visitor, towards those whose city and whose war this was. It’s true that she removed food from the breakfast spread at the Holiday Inn to share with her actors. Like me, and few others, she refused to wear a flak jacket when around those without one, levelling the risk.

Susan understood the siege, and thus the need for art within it, as defiant sign of life. She got to know a law professor, Zdravko Grebo, who established a rock and roll and discussion station that broadcast through the shellfire – Radio Zid, Radio Wall ‑ on the premise that defence of the city needed culture as well as bullets. Godot was part of that ‑ what Susan did in giving that play in that place at that time, with all its crying resonance, she meant from deep in both heart and intellect, and she was deservedly and gratefully adored in Sarajevo for doing so, as is her memory. The piazza whereon the theatre stands was renamed Požorinski Trg Susan Sontag, Susan Sontag Theatre Square.

Moser quotes Admir Glamoć, who played Pozzo, saying: “Beckett’s world was perfectly placed in the here and now” by Susan’s production. But Moser cannot resist giving airtime to the notion, grotesque in itself, of there being “something grotesque about [Susan] using other people’s suffering to ‘achieve this invigorating sense of mortal danger’”. Invigorating!!?? Oh, please – Sarajevo was terrifying. Susan would admit in conversation that these jibes hurt her more than she let on. Moser jeers similarly at Joan Baez’s concerts and street performances during the siege, citing a complaint of “circus element”, but omits to chastise Dickinson, picking only on the women. It’s misogynistic at best, revolting at worst ‑ or both. 

This toxic atmosphere, and the wider one of international complicity in Bosnia’s slaughter, bonded Susan and I in New York. I was assigned by The Observer to interview her in 2000 regarding her fascinating novel about identity and exile, In America. We met for Chinese lunch (the first of many I endured for her sake: I dislike Chinese food, she loves it) off Canal Street, and I tried to discuss the book for my article. But all she really wanted to talk about into early evening was Bosnia, the meanings and non-meanings of Bosnia, and a famous image of a prisoner behind barbed wire in Trnopolje camp taken while I was there with ITN, which she saw as cogent to her writing on photography, and forthcoming book Regarding the Pain of Others.

Moser preys on Susan’s “admonishing finger” towards people who were not in Bosnia, could not understand what it was like to be there and, as importantly, return from there. Yes we could get a bit scratchy when people just did not get it, or want to. But the book entirely overlooks the variations of post-traumatic stress such an experience entails, and which all of us, including Susan, had and have to some degree, whether she acknowledged it or not. Moser has either never heard of PTSD, or else turns it into a sin and social faux-pas. But Bosnia – rather than any intellectual compatibility ‑ is why Susan and I initially locked. I think she seized on chances to be around people who knew what it was like back there ‑ and among them (luckily for me) were me and her son David, to whom Susan introduced me at her apartment one afternoon, welding a friendship that would outlive her.

Moser and many reviewers pry into the relationship between Susan and David with creepy relish but no insight – more tabloid psychiatric couch and gossip column ‑ as though it were any of their business. What can I say? I recall serial evenings either laughing or engaged in intense conversation with them both; they were family, albeit exceptional, affectionate with overlapping interests. On one occasion, David was engaged on a panel to discuss “humanitarian intervention” at NYU. Susan made sure she was among the audience but dismissed any attempt to make the event about her not him. We adjourned to a smart bar afterwards and spent much of the evening giggling aghast at a contribution towards the tab left by the organiser as he departed: a $5 bill. Mother picked up the hefty balance, for a son’s night on stage, as any would. At another level, with the money she made, Susan helped put a roof over David’s head, as any would.

Susan’s relationship with, and supposed cruelty towards, Annie Leibovitz obsesses Moser and many reviewers. I can only recall the occasion when Annie hosted a party at her studio, on an evening when Susan, David and I had tickets for Handel’s Messiah at Riverside Church. Susan really wanted to come, but did her duty; David and I went without her – and it was painful to see her relinquish the opportunity out of loyalty to her lover. I went to see Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden with Susan, Annie and another friend, and there was much grumbling (afterwards at the Samovar) at how he performed nowadays, but Susan and I shrugged, unable to see the point: we’d just heard Dylan, dammit!

Most of my favourite evenings with Susan were at the opera and theatre. It was a marvellous arrangement: we “exchanged” outings – one would go at the urging of the other to see things they would not otherwise. I do not understand modern dance, but was put to rights by a production with choreography by Susan’s friend Mark Morris at BAM. Susan was sceptical about Al Pacino as Arturo Ui at a small theatre near Brooklyn Bridge, but I had seen it, loved it and I think partly convinced her after insisting she come. Susan loved Rossini, and talked with unusually effervescent optimism about the infectious “Rossini lift” in his operas. She gave me a copy of Viaggio à Reims, a dotty piece she adored, and took me to see his adaptation of Cinderella, La Cenerentola, which I’d never have volunteered money to attend – she was right, I was wrong, it’s a masterpiece.

Major outings by mutual agreement were for Italian and Russian music. Markedly: a brutal Incoronazione di Poppea at BAM by the Dutch National Opera; an unforgettable cycle of Shostakovich string quartets given by the Emerson Quartet, and a shattering account by the visiting Mraviinsky Opera of Prokofiev’s War and Peace under the baton of an electrifying Valery Gergiev. One of Susan’s greatest regrets and frustrations in life, she said on a number of occasions, was never having learned and mastered Russian. She understood and loved Russian culture ‑ Moser quotes her saying “I live under the aegis of 19th Century Russian literature” ‑ but she did so from the distance of translation, which I think annoyed a wary perfectionist in her. The music, however, needed no translation.

One important theme missing from Moser’s biography is Susan’s endeavour and joy in rediscovering artists and writers all but buried by historical obscurity. One, famously, was the painter Artemisia Gentileschi (an introduction to Anna Banti’s novel). Another, less so, was Leonid Tsypkin, whose work was lost to the West until Susan found a dusty English translation, while browsing bookshops in London, of his magnificent Summer in Baden-Baden, a fictional account of Dostoyevsky on holiday in 1867. Susan contacted Tsypkin’s family in America and resurrected the book, with an introduction, for the NYRB New Directions imprint. No one was more thrilled than Tsypkin’s son, who came to celebrate publication with Susan at … the Samovar, of course. I still cannot figure out what I did to deserve being the third person at that table; that was the night we dared try Roman’s vodka soaked in bones – bones of what (or who) I don’t know, but we all three of us stabbed a few guesses, some in hilarious bad taste.

Both Moser’s book and too many of its reviewers are obsessed with what they insist is Susan’s obsession with sex. For sure, she writes about sex occasionally; magnetism between people ‑ which she felt too, like everyone else ‑ interested her as it does any writer, woman or man. But all this is overplayed. In the scores of conversations I had with Susan, she talked about sex far less than most, and her own whispers were invariably playful. One night, I took her to hear John Cale play a late appearance at a bar in Tribeca; he sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, with verses Cohen omitted from the original but passed to John – which electrified Susan, as did the fact that “now there’s an attractive man – ha ha!”

Biography is a strange, rough beast. At best, the biographer illuminates a subject through (usually) extreme interest, occasional devotion, but never reverence – think David Cairns on Berlioz or Richard Holmes on Shelley. Biography at a shorter distance in time can be used to twist the knife, especially in a vacuous time as ours that loves to debunk in a media snake pit. But not often; it is odd for a young biographer to devote such time and effort to the life of someone about whom he is so bitter.

Most weirdly, Moser portrays an arrogant woman. He panders to the “Prima Donna” or “Queen Bee” trope to describe Susan’s presence and resonance in a derogatory way, a presence that would be tolerated – even admired – in a man as charisma. He uses the term “constitutional monarch”; and reviewer after reviewer has enjoyed repeating his contorted, vitriolic stories of Susan’s supposedly humourless condescension, humiliation of lesser people and thinking of herself as special.

Actually Susan was the reverse of all these things. Not only terribly funny, she was game for anything, with a curious humility remarkable for someone of that standing. As David wrote in his heart-breaking account of her death, “Swimming In A Sea of Death”: “My mother could not get enough of being alive … could never get her fill of the world.” I can only offer proof by anecdote. Once, I somehow persuaded Susan to come to an awful pub on 3rd Avenue called Nevada Smith’s, which showed English Premier League football. She was articulate on how “this is the worst bar I’ve ever been to”, but did she stay? Absolutely. She told the man who does my tattoos ‑ Caravaggio of the chisel Josh Lord from East Side Ink ‑ that she hated tattoos, but could she see his? Josh was duly persuaded to remove his T-shirt while Susan inspected the gallery thus revealed, with reluctant approval. Both laughed – as did the company ‑ as Josh explained to a cautiously credulous Susan the symbolism of each. Monarchical? Hardly.

When time came for me to leave New York, Roger Cohen of The New York Times graciously hosted a dinner to which I invited a range of friends, some grand public figures, others not ‑ all important to me. It was a marvellous evening, though, it being 2003, there was argument about Iraq. Susan and I took a car back to Manhattan with my friend Marco Roth, an existentialist, Zapatista hairdresser who lived with his guitar in a tiny room in the Village, and his girlfriend Paola Trinchero, who teaches autistic children in Milan. Unwilling to end the evening, the four of us installed ourselves at a place called Bar Six, where we were the last to leave. Susan relaxed more than she had in more formal company; the subjects of conversation were Mexico, hairstyles and autism – Susan learning, gracefully and gratefully. Constitutional monarch? I don’t think so.

The unbearable build-up to invasion of, and subsequent insurgency in, Iraq was backdrop to Susan’s last months and our last conversations. There had been the horror of 9/11, Susan out of the country and (one felt, talking to her later) rather hurried into writing an estimable but controversial piece about how the terrorists who attacked New York could not be cowards. It was when she returned, I think, that Susan tuned into the nightmare and its mood – all those desperate flyers pleading for information on the missing lining the streets between her apartment and mine – and balanced her reaction to that awful time. But she stood by her assertion on America’s pretence that “everything is OK, America is not afraid, our spirit is unbroken … But everything is not OK.”

Susan published Regarding the Pain of Others in early 2003 – a landmark book, her last, launched with a gratifyingly low-key dinner at a restaurant on the Lower East Side, Prune. David made a short speech on its theme, which concerned them both equally and deeply. March that year was the month of invasion in Iraq, and of further bad news regarding Susan’s health. By now, we spent much time, as did David, around table tops morning and night arguing for a logic in favour of intervention in Bosnia, but against it in Iraq. Susan’s last, brilliant, essay (for The New Yorker – “Regarding the Torture of Others”) concerned the photographs from inside Abu Ghraib – and that was the only time she scolded me, with reason. I had filed, from Baghdad, a story about US military trucks laden with unidentified Iraqi civilians heading for somewhere … and in the whirlwind back then and there, failed to follow it up. “Why did it take Sy Hersh in New York to find out about that prison, and not you, on the ground?” I can hear that sharp tongue now – the thing is, Susan was right, and it was her passion, not reproach, that ground its blade. 

Susan did not hide her illness, or rather illnesses, as one diagnosis overtook another. She had undergone radiation and chemotherapy for uterine sacoma by the time I met her again in New York. In early 2002, I went to her apartment one day to find her organising the package and shipment of her papers to UCLA; there was something ominous about the vagueness of her explanation. David has written with searing honesty about what happened next – diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia – and there is nothing more to say. Save that from the start of 2003 onwards, Susan had a way of referring to the fact that “it’s not good”, or “I feel a little better”, in a deft and dignified way of ‑ faced with the horror of slow and painful death ‑ not keeping you in the dark by avoiding the subject but not dwelling on it either, ever. It was part of what Moser utterly fails to grasp: a complex blend of self-awareness and selflessness, a high wire between self and others. Susan knew she was in acute danger from her own body when she elected to learn the piano and bought an electronic keyboard – there was a poignantly wonderful evening drinking Chablis, setting it up, and listening to her first chords.

It was after I had left New York – over in Washington DC from London, and determined to see her for what might be the last time ‑ that I took an Amtrak Acela for what turned out to be one of Susan’s last meals out, if not the last. In the apartment, a mutual friend and I cautioned against contact with the outside world at that delicate point, urging to call supper in. Susan would have none of it – she wanted a Chinese meal in a Chinese restaurant.

Susan’s funeral, described by Moser as a “dismal farewell”, was anything but. It was the complicated gathering of a clan, in sorrow, tribute and celebration, torn between raucous and heavy-hearted. Pašović and Grebo, Judith Thurman of The New Yorker, Susan’s Italian translator Paolo di Leonardo. David and I navigated a prolonged wake over the preceding days, mostly on the terraces of Boulevard Montparnasse, the Bosnians showing the French how to drink their own Cognac in quantity. In Montparnasse Cemetery, there was reading and music; six of us carried and lowered her coffin, after which, in silence, we all lined up to throw a white rose onto it. “It’s a long way down,” whispered Judith, squeezing my arm. Afterwards, David was obliged to officiate over and listen to rather a lot of bombast from more celebrated guests at dinner, but a splinter group of us from New York, Sarajevo, the Wylie Agency and others sat on the floor for an annexe rite in an adjacent room, pouring booze and telling funny stories about Susan, with moist-eyed love and laughter. For a while since, I owned an apartment a block away from the cemetery, and would visit that black marble grave every day I was there ‑ invariably decorated by tributes of flowers, metro-tickets, messages and coins from all over the world. By contrast, there is this nasty deficit in Moser’s book – and in the minds of people who think like he writes - among other things: an inability to simply admire and be gratefully impressed.

Most corrosively, and deceptively, Moser depicts Susan as someone surrounded by admirers, lovers, acolytes, like-minded artists, celebrities, enemies and all kinds of folk, some of whom turned snitch for this “prosecution” – and not a person with real friends, arguably the most important thing in life. The book relies on a chorus of people with axes to grind, on the margins of Susan’s life, often basking in the reflected glow of self-importance on Moser's stage.

But Susan did have friends: devoted friends who admired her, and – much more importantly – loved her even more. In many cases, her most intimate friends would not speak with Moser; in others, he never sought them out.

And for what it’s worth, it is among the honours of my life to have been one of them.

Indeed, those were the days, my friend – and we lived them as though they’d never end, even though we knew they would. Susan Sontag was a great artist, a remarkable woman, a brilliant mind, a quotidian democrat – a friend as precious as her friends were to her, and I miss her and her slow but sure half-smile like hell.

10/11/2019

Image: Susan Sontag photographed in her home in 1979 ©Lynn Gilbert
Ed Vulliamy is a multiple-award-winning foreign correspondent who worked for
The Observer and The Guardian. In 2013 he won the Ryszard Kapuscinski Award for Literary Reportage. He is author of The War is Dead, Long Live the War. Bosnia: The Reckoning, published by Bodley Head, 2012 and Vintage paperback, 2014.
Benjamin Moser's biography of Susan Sontag was reviewed in the October issue of the
drb by Kevin Power: https://www.drb.ie/essays/triumph-of-the-will