Meanjin

Educating the heart: Caroline Brothers interviews Susan Sontag on war, memory, art and humanity.(Interview)(Interview)

SUSAN Sontag is back in Paris. She is staying in the seventeenth-century apartment of 'a rich and famous friend', right on the Seine with a floor-to-ceiling view of the Ile de la Cite. She is here to promote the French translation of her new book, Regarding the Pain of Others. In it she revisits the vexed issue of photographic meaning in her first major engagement with the subject since her groundbreaking On Photography (1977).

She has been in France for four days when I meet her and has already fitted in a string of media engagements and a trip to Toulouse. Her enthusiasm is infectious: within moments of our meeting she is recommending a just-published book by French journalist Jean Hatzfeld, Une Saison de machettes, containing accounts of the genocide in Rwanda.

We go to see a movie, Patrice Chereau's Son Frere, about a young man and his brother who is dying of cancer. Sontag, who has been ill with cancer twice herself, dismisses any suggestion that this film might have reminded her of what she has been through. 'It never leaves you,' she says, as we flag down what must be the only available taxi in Paris amid the Saturday night traffic of Montparnasse.

We head to a bistro she recommends at the unglamorous end of the Boulevard Saint Germain called Chez Rene, all white cotton curtains, red bench seats and a menu that reads like postcards from a carnivore's paradise. She tucks ambitiously into cochonnailles, which turns out to be a platter laden with mighty joints of pork followed by sausages that look like elongated cannonballs and are just about as hard. We talk about her visits to Bosnia, which earned her praise and flak in just about equal measure, about why her new book picks fights with the old, about photography, empathy and fiction. She ties and unties her mane of thick black hair. The ideas flow in long arabesques that don't bear interruption. The conversation overflows into a Saint Michel cafe until the barman hoists up the chairs. It is 1 a.m. on Sunday but the dialogue still feels unfinished, like a work in progress, or an opinion still crystallising into form ...

Caroline Brothers: Have you written everything you want to write about conflict zones, about wars? I imagine you probably want to look at Yugoslavia in a fictional way, and how on earth do you do that with a conflict that's so recent and when the real stories are so powerful?

Susan Sontag: You are right, I think that I would rather write a novel than any kind of essay. But I think the difficulty of doing it is not because it's recent. I feel I have to write from a deep place in myself, and it takes me a lot of time. I'm not even aware of what's happening, but it gets to that deep place where something original and important can exist. It's not about information; the information is already there. That is the journalist's job and the historian's job. I'm not a journalist; I'm not a historian ... I think it's a question of the story you want to tell. It's not about the time that elapses after an event--it's the way you distribute your attention.

Caroline Brothers: What is it about a fictional form, what is it you can say in a fictional form that you can't say in an essay?

Susan Sontag: Excellent question. In fiction you can do justice to lots of points of view, you can have different characters who feel differently, who exemplify different kinds of emotions or values, and if you are really a good writer you will honour the truth of each of those points of view. An essay has a single voice, no matter how rich you try to make an essay--and I do work very hard at these essays--still, one has only a single voice, a constructed voice, which is 'my voice'. It's not me, it's my essay voice, the voice I've taught myself to write essays in. But if I were now to express something from one point of view and then express it from a different point of view, then it wouldn't be an essay any more, it would be some kind of dialogue. I would already be entering into the domain of fiction ... I feel I do more justice to the complexity of reality in fiction. Not that fiction is for me primarily a didactic medium, it's not. If I want to express an opinion I write an essay, rather than fiction, precisely because then the single voice seems appropriate. It's not that I want to express an opinion. I want to make a world.

Caroline Brothers: Having been in Sarajevo you must have met so many people with so many incredible stories, real stories of their own: do you not feel an impulse somehow to tell those stories, rather than creating fictional characters?

Susan Sontag: I wouldn't make up anything that didn't seem like what happened. If you have a huge experience like being in a war or being seriously ill or going through a terrible divorce or losing both your parents in an automobile accident, you are somehow going to be true to the experience even if you turn it into fiction. I see your point and understand your question: why not just tell other people's stories? But I think that is something different. Now would Hatzfeld one day write a novel about the genocidaires? I don't think he would, because as you will see when you read the book, in a sense it is already all these voices: Adalbert, Fulgence ... He is giving these people their chance to speak, and they're amazing, they want to speak, they want to explain.

Caroline Brothers: If I were in that situation I think I would feel that those voices would jostle to be heard before any fictional voices.

Susan Sontag: In that particular case I agree with you entirely. You wouldn't want him to write fiction. What's so important is that he testifies that he didn't change anything, that this is really what they said. …

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