Both sides then

I just stumbled onto the 1957–58 diary of Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, the lover identified as "H" in Reborn, Susan Sontag's diary of the same period. If you, like me, have read Sontag's diary and were swept up in its heady melodrama, you will probably not be able to resist peeking at Zwerling's version. Among other revelations: Sontag herself was unable to resist peeking at it ("Susan read yesterday’s diary entry and now it’s embarrassing to be in bed with her as I write . . ."). Perhaps most surprising is how much the two agree about the nature of their miserable affair. Here, for example, is Zwerling's diagnosis:

I’ve never before lived with someone I neither desired sexually nor felt strongly about. It’s so decadent! I feel terrible about it all, brooding depression— (5 February 1958)

And here's Sontag's echo-response:

H thinks she is decadent because she has entered into a relation which neither physically nor emotionally interests her. How decadent then am I, who know how she really feels, and still want her? (8 February 1958)

I imagine that if one were to read the two diaries against one another, many small details would fall into place. I happened to noticed one. In one of her unhappy rhapsodies, Sontag writes:

H, whom I love—is beautiful, beautiful. Can she? Will she want to be a little happy with me here? . . . the Negro has a date with [blank] for Tuesday (23 February 1958)

Zwerling's diary fills in the blank. It was Zwerling herself who had the date:

Today I had a date at the Flore with a Negro man who stood me up. Susan insisted on coming with me in the Metro; she’s going to the Deux Magots. I guess it serves me right that he didn’t show, but I had really been looking forward to getting fucked! (25 February 1958)

Upon which Sontag seems to comment in her entry of the following day:

Your insatiability, dear H, that's just the consoling way in which your talent for satiety appears to you. Never to get what one wants is never to want (for long) what one gets—unless, sometimes, when it is taken away. (26 February 1958)

7 thoughts on “Both sides then”

  1. The reason Sontag's entries seem like responses to H's is that she was sneaking looks at her girlfriend's diary. Sontag mentions this at some point.

    I'm looking forward to reading H's side of things.

  2. No wait, you did note that. Sorry — reading online isn't easy with a cold.

    Anyway, as I recall Sontag wonders if H were also reading her diary, which it sounds like maybe she was.

  3. Very interesting comment Caleb. I met you in Alex Chee's writing workshop at New School. Oh, truth is, I didn't ever look at Susan's diaries. Didn't even know she was writing one.

  4. "H": Thanks for writing in! I apologize for not having put together the connection before. Alex C. had asked me in to talk about book reviewing. I think you were working on a memoir of the Village, and I think you told me you were friends with the author of a biography I had recently reviewed, is that right? In any case, SS seems to have been very aware of your diary. Thanks for the additional detail!

  5. Very funny piece by Caleb Crain.

    I am a writer who has interviewed Harriet Sohmers Zwerling several times. It is apparent from Sontag's diaries that the best stories from their relationship were either not recorded by Sontag or were ignored by her son and diary editor David Rieff. The first story that comes to mind is when Harriet and Susan were living in Paris, they had a fistfight. The next day, Harriet and Susan threw a party for some famous Beats like Allen Ginsberg who were living in Paris at the time. Ginsberg noticed the bruise on Susan's jaw, and said something to Harriet like, "Why'd you hit her? Is it because she is younger and better looking than you?" When they came back to New York in 1959, Susan and Harriet were living in Manhattan together. Susan very coldly threw Harriet out of the apartment and moved the playwright Irene Fornes in. Fornes was an ex-lover of Harriet's, and possibly the only woman she ever really loved. Harriet was heartbroken. This image of Susan Sontag as a fistfighting, girlfriend-stealing bruiser does not jibe with the image of the sensual-though-sexless intellectual Sontag we all knew from her work.

    Harriet's book is called NOTES OF A NUDE MODEL and chronicles her wild life. I have an interview with Harriet on my blog, which is Harriet pulls no punches and is a fearless and tough woman. She has edited her own Paris diaries. I hope someone will publish them soon.

  6. Thanks, Dylan! The interview on your blog is a lot of fun, and it sounds like there are many more stories to tell. I see that Harriet's memoir is for sale on Amazon, and that it's introduced by Edward Field, who wrote about both her and SS in his memoir, which I've sampled but not yet read.

  7. Caleb–Great blog. I wish I could be as into "Reborn" as you are. I'm a huge Sontag fan, and I found it thin and a little boring. I enjoyed the Times Mag excerpts, though probably because they included older entries. I'm holding out for the later volumes. Anyway, that's my two cents.

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