The Strange Case of Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag is not a plagiarist, whatever impression you may have gotten from articles about her unorthodox approach to the writing of historical novels. In America is a lightly fictionalized account of the American career of the 19th-century Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska (Sontag renames her Maryna Zalezowska). Sontag, in what she calls a quest for historical accuracy, has sprinkled the book with slivers of the great diva’s life–a passage from her actual memoir, a toast that novelist Willa Cather once imagined the star giving at a New Year’s party, a ditty composed for her by an admiring newsman, details of a memorable dress. Some of these items can also be found in a little-read biography of Modrzejewska that was published by a vanity press in 1969, but the biographer herself borrowed them from newspaper articles written during Modrzejewska’s life.

In short, the memoir and ditty and sartorial catalogue are in the public domain, legally at the disposal of anyone who can perceive enough value in them to use them. Sontag has done nothing worse than take public records of events from one place and put them in another, or, in the case of the Cather citation, make a joking literary allusion. In this sense, Sontag’s explanation is an adequate description of what she did, what it means to write historical fiction, and literature itself: “All of us who deal with real characters in history transcribe and adopt original sources in the original domain. I’ve used these sources and I’ve completely transformed them,” she told the New York Times. “There’s a larger argument to be made that all of literature is a series of references and allusions.”

So has Sontag been unfairly maligned for her postmodernist understanding of literature as pastiche? Not quite. That something fishy is afoot can be sensed from Sontag’s recourse to generalities. What Sontag says about “all of literature” goes for all of language, indeed all of communication, whether textual, aural, or visual. Everything comes from something else, drenched in prior meaning. Writers who traffic in “references and allusions,” on the other hand, usually allude or refer to things that are well-known enough to bring up an association in the reader’s mind. With the exception of the Cather citation, Sontag’s “references and allusions” were all to sources that were obscure.

Sontag points out that she wasn’t hiding anything, so what’s the big deal? This is true. She did publish an author’s note in which she mentions Modrzejewska. It is brief and remarkably begrudging. Sontag lists the names of the characters who have, she said, “inspired” her story–Modrzejewska and her retinue–and itemizes the events she covers in the book: “their brief sojourn in Anaheim, California; and Modrzejewska’s subsequent triumphant career on the American stage under the name of Helena Modjeska.” Then Sontag adds: “Inspired by … no less and no more. Most of the characters in the novel are invented, and those who are not depart in radical ways from their real-life models.” Sontag wants you to know that she is not a biographer. She made this stuff up. So concerned is she that readers not reduce her book to a gloss on Modrzejewska’s life that she has placed her author’s note in a most unusual place. Culturebox only found it because she was alerted to its existence by a review. Sontag’s note is in tiny, italicized type, the same size as and located just underneath the book’s copyright, Library of Congress cataloguing data, and cover credits.

Sontag also says that since she wasn’t writing history, she didn’t feel the need to use quotation marks. This brings us to what she did do to mark out the borrowed passages from the rest of her novel. The answer is nothing. Early in the novel, Sontag incorporates an amusing passage from Helena Modrzejewska’s memoirs into a letter from the book’s heroine, Maryna Zalezowska, to a young novelist who worships her, about her somewhat boring vacation in the mountains:

“Guess what we did today. We were reduced to entertaining ourselves by killing flies. Truly! This morning among Piotr’s toys I found two tiny bows, Julian made arrows of matches with a needle at the end, and we took turns aiming at the drowsy flies ornamenting the wooden walls of the room where we sit, applauding as one by one our victims fell at our feet. What do you say to such an occupation for Juliet and Mary Stuart?”

This is the wittiest thing Zalezowska has said or done up till that point, and it is essential to her credibility as a character. Zalezowska is a woman whom several men will follow to the other side of the earth for no reason other than that they adore her. We have to believe that she’s powerfully charming, or else what follows makes no sense. This letter in particular is intended to bring the novelist rushing to her side, and it succeeds. For those whose estimation of Sontag’s imagination rose upon reading this, it’s disappointing to learn that she didn’t make it up. (The passage in Modrzejewska’s memoir is so similar it doesn’t bear repeating. Only the names have been changed.)

On the other hand, you can see why Sontag would be tempted to lift the passage. Incidents like these are rare in memoirs; they can be the key to all the lost liveliness of some long-forgotten character. Perhaps we can view this and all the other interpolations from the historical record in In America as a secret message from the author to future graduate students, who will presumably be furnished with all the necessary sources. See, Sontag’s back-and-forth might be meant to say, historical documents are dead weights like other inert things, requiring an act of the imagination to bring them to life. But Culturebox doubts it. (She isn’t sure that Sontag’s novel will be considered worthy of study 25 years from now, either, but that’s another subject entirely.) Sontag’s buried author’s note, the randomness of her borrowings, the murkiness of the originals, and her defensive grandiosity when caught lend themselves to a less generous interpretation of her motives. She just wanted to look like a better writer than she is.