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Editor's Choice

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals, Notebooks 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 523 pages ($30). "In my more extravagant moments," writes David Rieff in his preface, "I sometimes think that my mother's journals, of which this is the second of three volumes, are not just the autobiography she never got around to writing (had she done so, I imagine something highly literary and episodic, a cousin to Updike's 'Self-Consciousness,' which was a book she admired greatly), but the great autobiographical novel she never cared to write."

And to many, if not most, that will be the appeal of the second volume of the three planned volumes of Susan Sontag's journals. The first was "Reborn," a much simpler title. This one, says her son and posthumous editor, is "a line plucked from one of the journal entries contained within it."

And that title -- from her son dealing with fragments, not from the writer herself -- is the other thing that hints at what's so appealing about this book, i.e. it's messy, clumsy, lived-in, like a family living room that hasn't been cleaned up yet for Sunday company. Sontag might have written it in notebooks, but it's hard to believe the austerely literary and controlled writer who produced some of the key works in the sensibility of her time, would have agreed to such a title.

No one knew his mother like her son, on the other hand. And that's what's marvelous about this wild, chaotic, allusive book teeming with political and philosophical speculation, unavoidable ambiguity, enigma and aphorism. This is so far from the orderly and supremely literary elegance we were presented with in her essays during her lifetime that it is almost secondary that we are also getting Sontag writing, as her son notes, about romantic loss and about the company of writers, artists and intellectuals "of every cast and persuasion -- from Lionel Trilling to Paul Bowles, Jasper Johns to Joseph Brodsky and Peter Brook to Gyorgi Konrad." "My work is too austere," she writes here. "My life is a brutal anecdote."

-- Jeff Simon