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Chronicle of a death, poorly told

Emotion, lack of distance mar Sontag memoir

Email|Print| Text size + By Sven Birkerts
February 10, 2008

Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir
By David Rieff
Simon & Schuster, 180 pp., $21

When teaching the rudiments of the personal essay to undergraduates, I always caution them to avoid writing about their parents, at least at first. The material is abundant, of course, but the inner boundaries are so difficult to draw, the emotions so vexing to untangle. I would say something of the kind to David Rieff, apropos his dramatically titled memoir "Swimming in a Sea of Death," which centers on the final illness and difficult death of his mother, celebrated essayist and critic Susan Sontag.

Rieff published portions of this slim volume before, as essays, one of which was selected by Lauren Slater for inclusion in the "Best American Essays 2006." And indeed, perhaps the essay was the right form for his reflections, a way of providing much-needed contour. But he should have left the business there. For his memoir, short as it is, is grueling and relentless, which is fitting only in the sense that Sontag's death from the inexorable myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, with which she was diagnosed in 2004, was both. Like Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych, Sontag moved through the stages of the painful inevitable. But where Tolstoy fashioned the highest art from what was - big difference - an imagined experience, Rieff flails. He is honest but directionless; he repeats himself, venting private emotion, and guilt, that the reader has no real way to understand or share, and rages against a universe that would let Susan Sontag die.

There are several problems with the presentation. To begin with, Rieff gives us little or no "arc of development," nothing beyond the incrementally advancing account of symptoms, attempted remedies, and the patient's physical and psychological responses: "Minutes after returning from Dr. A's office, she was on the phone to her friend, Paolo Dilonardo. Minutes after that she was on the Internet, feverishly looking for information on MDS and AML." The drama is in there for the family, but not for the reader.

Second, Rieff comes across as a panicked - lost - narrator. He offers almost no authorial distance. He is stunned, completely unmoored, by the fact that the mother he idolizes is dying, and much of the memoir is the account of his passage through psychological stages quite similar to those identified for the patient by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance - except that he does not ever get to the last.

Finally, though, and most irritating, is the narcissistic assumption at the heart of the book: that these details, these confidences and laments, all matter because they refer to Sontag. Her fame, her assumed importance, are the reference point, the anchor. In a sense, the whole work seems to harken back to the tradition of the death mask, the casting of which was meant to preserve not just the features, but the demeanor in death, of the deceased notable. As if notables faced the end notably, differently from any of the rest of us.

It would seem they don't. Certainly not Sontag. The intellectual icon, author of so many books, including "Illness and Its Metaphors," written after her struggle with breast cancer - which she waged in the public eye with what looked like exemplary courage - entered her last illness in a state that seemed to alternate between terror and denial. Overwhelmed by the prospect of decline and extinction, she threw herself at every possibility of cure, even those deemed chancy or experimental in the extreme. But when the positive results were not forthcoming she entered a cycle of denial, not hearing the salient facts, exaggerating the least innuendo of possibility, and making it almost impossible for those closest to her to offer any truthful assessment.

Rieff found himself enmeshed in a terrible cycle, spinning webs of fancy and untruth for the person who had always represented intellectual honesty and the unflinching gaze at things as they are. The irony is crushing. And as the memoir moves to a close Rieff is ever more deeply caught in the bind, full of self-castigation, ultimately wondering whether he did the right thing at all.

"Swimming in a Sea of Death" is a hard book to read. Not just because it is in so many places an undigested document that should have stayed in the drawer, but also for the picture it gives of one of our intellectual culture heroes. Sontag, so important to so many for her exemplary devotion to seriousness, to the bracing, at times unpopular, speaking of the truth, the self-styled writer of witness, is seen in her last days as an isolated, deluded figure, terrified of death and filled more with regret than any satisfaction at her achievements.

The writer is now buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, near many other literary greats - Baudelaire, E. M. Cioran, Sartre. Writes Rieff: "But I do not believe she is there, or anywhere else of course, and so I rarely stay long. I arrive, walking quickly past Beauvoir, past Beckett. And once I've arrived I stare for a few moments. Then I kneel, kiss the granite slab, and get back up on my feet . . . It's not just that I have nothing intelligent to say: I am incapable of thought." Writing a memoir, it would seem, is all about waiting for the time to be right.

Sven Birkerts is the author, most recently, of "The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again."

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