Thursday, November 18, 2010


The best moments in David Rieff's Swimming in a Sea of Death, his memoir of the final illness of his mother Susan Sontag, are those all-too-few passages where Rieff quotes from Sontag's journals. During her first cancer treatment in the 1970s, for example, Sontag writes, "People speak of illness as deepening. I don't feel deepened. I feel flattened. I've become opaque to myself." I detect a perhaps deliberate Beckettian austerity in both the style and substance of these sentences. The tone drones of drained, defeated self-alienation. It is a writing of and from illness rather than about illness. If more of this exists in Sontag's unpublished journals, I can't wait to read them.

There are also a few moments in the book when Rieff, a capable writer but no master, approaches eloquence. Here's one such moment: "And in the end, those of us who loved her failed her as the living always fail the dying, for we could not actually do the only thing she really wanted, which was to stave off extinction for just some time longer..."

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